The No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team led the Sprint Cup Series in victories in 2013. Over the first four races of the season, they have shown some flashes of their brilliance from last year, including leading the most laps this past weekend at Bristol. While they haven’t broken into Victory Lane yet, they are still in the top 10 in points and a threat for the championship simply based off of their 2013 success.
For this week’s Tech Talk Jason Ratcliff, the crew chief for the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, sits down with Frontstretch.com to talk about whether the damage at Bristol helped or hurt, how important new tires will be at Auto Club Speedway, and what he thinks about Toyota’s struggles so far this season. Ratcliff has led his Cup teams to seven victories over the last two years after putting 36 Nationwide wins in the record books. He is hoping to add a Cup championship to his mantle to pair with his Nationwide title from 2009.
Mike Neff: There has been speculation by multiple talking heads, former crew chiefs that the damage inflicted by Timmy Hill impacting your rear end actually helped make the car better.
Ratcliff: (laughs) Well, we’ll never know. I would say, by looking at it, there were some areas that you could say, from an aero standpoint it could have been a positive. However, there were other areas you looked at where that couldn’t have been good at all. I thought we had a pretty decent car going into the race. We were leading before the rain stopped the race. We were running second when we got run into and I think we were a pit stop away from improving the car and leading some more laps. All-in-all, it definitely didn’t hurt it, I don’t know if it helped it. Maybe…
Neff: It would just seem that being run into, having the sheet metal sticking out from the side of the car on the right side would not help at all. Having the rear spoiler pushed up from the damage might have been helpful though.
Ratcliff: Actually, when we got back and checked it out, the spoiler was an inch lower than where it started.
Neff: Matt came in near the end of the race and you made some changes before you realized the tire was flat. The car never seemed to be the same after that pit stop but he seemed convinced that something actually broke to affect the handling more than just the adjustments. When you got back and did your post race analysis did you find anything that had, in fact, broken?
Ratcliff: There was some chassis damage. It is hard to say when it happened. There was definitely some damage when we got home though. That last time he got loose and hit the wall in one and two it was definitely hard enough to move some stuff around. When we got back on pit road the guys had to pull on some sheet metal to get the tire out of the wheel well. We know it hit hard enough that it potentially could have been the point to have some rear clip damage which usually doesn’t have a good impact on the car. Was something broken? No, not really broke but it definitely wasn’t where it started the race.
Neff: Looking at the race as a whole, you went to Bristol and led the most laps in the race, carved through the field rather easily when you had to come from the back, but you didn’t get the finish you wanted. Outside of that fact, was the weekend in general, pretty successful for you guys?
Ratcliff: Yeah, I thought so. Other than Daytona, we haven’t run up to our expectations or potential at Phoenix or Vegas. I think we’re still getting our hands around this new rules package. I think we’re learning a lot each week and improving on it. It was good to go and perform closer to our standards, lead some laps and possibly be in contention to win the race. That is good. Even though we didn’t get to the end in the position we want, it is a momentum builder and hopefully we can carry some of that into Fontana and continue to learn and make our program better.
Neff: Heading to Auto Club Speedway where we had a fantastic race last year, one of the best aspects of the track where the racing has been criticized for years, is the asphalt is wearing out and that is causing the tires to fall off quickly. Knowing that happens and the tires are going to give up quickly does that force your hand on your setup to anticipate slowing down, or do you set up the track based on the configuration to maximize what the car can do?
Ratcliff: I think you hit the nail on the head, the track has worn pretty good and thankfully we’ve been running the same tire there for a few years now so everyone has a feel for it and how the pace is going to slow down. We know how the balance is going to change throughout the run and how temperamental the place can be when just a little sunshine hits it, and the track can change quite a bit. I think it will be the same ol’ Fontana even though the rules are quite a bit different from what we had last year. We’re still going to be chasing the same things throughout the weekend and the guy who can manage his tires and have a car that can live through the long run and not fade as bad will be the guy at the end of the day that will be close to the front.
Neff: Speaking of tires, you said we have the same tire we had for a while. In the past there were times when scuffing tires and running them through a heat cycle would harden them and make them better for racing because they’d last longer. With an asphalt as aged as Fontana is, does scuffing pay off or do you pretty much have what you have with the tires and when they’re new they are as good as they’re going to get?
Ratcliff: I’ll tell you what, if you could roll the car to pit road and put the tires on out there instead of in the garage, you would. It is like the old Darlington or Rockingham type deal where every single corner really slows the car down. New tires are worth a ton and I think it is because the track is so aged. You want the freshest thing you can get all of the time. There won’t be any scuffing this weekend.
Neff: The mandatory weekly qualifying question since that is the latest major change to the deal. With the tires falling off so much at Fontana, will the new qualifying format be rather boring since your best lap is going to be your first lap that you run at speed on the tires?
Ratcliff:Yeah, it is definitely going to be different from what we’ve seen the last three weeks. I can’t imagine anyone, unless something really crazy happens on the first lap, being able to go faster on the second or third or fourth time out like we have been able to at these other tracks. It is still going to be the new format and as exciting as what we had last year if not more, but you won’t see the mixup like we saw at Phoenix and Vegas and Bristol.
Neff: The new ride height rule has opened up the box the most for you guys to play with as far as changes you can make on the car. Are we still in the infancy of figuring out all of the idiosyncrasies of what teams will be able to do with this new found toy?
Ratcliff: I think so. I think it is still new enough that I feel like, at least for us and probably for every other team, you learn a lot when you go to the race track and you play around with a lot of things that you haven’t been able to in the past. No different from anything else they give us, I feel confident that every team is going to continue to progress. Towards the end of the season it obviously won’t be as big of a progression as it is during these first 10 races but the box is so big and there is so much that you can do now it will be challenging and it will keep people being creative for a long time. The more questions we answer the more questions we’re going to have. As we learn new little tricks about what things the car likes and how we can manipulate that with the new rules to make it better, the more things we’re going to get ourselves into.
Neff: Since you don’t have to get the front of the car back up to ride height, is there much of anything to do or change with the springs in the front of the car? Do you basically set the car so it goes to the ground and stays there?
Ratcliff: There again, it is unlimited what you want to do. You can go as soft as you want or as stiff as you want. The reason we went soft before was to get the front of the car down to the ground. Now that we can start down, you don’t have to go soft. That doesn’t mean you want to go stiff though either. There again, I think we’re still learning what the car wants and it isn’t really that straight forward. We never thought about it before, the way we are now, because it wasn’t an option before. I don’t think there is an answer to that question at this point in time. It depends on the race track you’re at, the loads, the speeds, the banking, all of the things will determine what you want in the front of the car. Then again you can change and manipulate the ride heights to dial it in.
Neff: We have two wins by Chevrolets, two wins by Fords and nothing by the Toyotas yet. Is the struggle with getting your hands around these new rules or is there something else in play that is causing the Toyotas grief?
Ratcliff: No, I think we’re just outnumbered on the race track right now. We have a lot of great Toyotas but when you count the number of Chevrolets and Fords that are out there that are competitive compared to the Toyotas, we’re just outnumbered. Between us and Michael Waltrip Racing, we’ve led some laps and shown signs of speed in each race. I think it is just a coincidence. I don’t think it really has anything to do with make, model or manufacturer.
Neff: Matt seems to be running more Nationwide races since he’s been at JGRcompared to when he was at Roush Fenway Racing. Does the amount of time he gets in a Nationwide car help you guys out just from the aspect that seat time is knowledge?
Ratcliff: I think there are times when Matt feels like it helps and I think there are other times when it may not. It definitely doesn’t hurt. I think our Nationwide program is a really good program and I think Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the few teams that utilizes it the way it should be. It helps to get new talent, whether it is drivers, mechanics or engineers, a place to work, grow and learn. Our Cup drivers climb in there and spend some time to give those guys feedback and continue to grow the program. It also brings in sponsors which helps keep the doors open and the lights on. It is a good program all around. It serves much more than a place for the drivers to get seat time on Saturdays, but whether you are a rookie or a seasoned veteran who has been in the sport for 15 years, any time you can get into a car and ride around it is good for you.
Jason Ratcliff spent 11 years in that Nationwide Series, fine-tuning his craft before he was moved up to sit on the pit box for Joey Logano in 2012. 351 races is longer than some people spend in the sport for their career; in this case, that is the time Ratcliff put in before he was given a shot at the Cup level. He missed the brass ring by one spot in 2013 so now, he’s trying to avoid the runner-up jinx and give Matt Kenseth his second Cup series title.
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