The best laid plans of mice and men can go up in smoke and sparks at the turn of a wheel at Daytona. Just 20 laps into the Coke Zero 400, the day for Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team got ruined when they were caught up in the first big wreck of the day. They persevered, nursing a damaged car to one lap down in 20th place while several others got sent to the garage. That kept the team in solid Chase position, the highest-placed car in the point standings yet to win a race this season.
Now, the team sets their sights on New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where they scored their seventh and final win of 2013. The big, flat, one-mile oval presents a challenge to the teams to make each car get through the center of the corners as quickly as possible, launching onto the straights faster than the other competitors.
In this week’s Tech Talk, crew chief of the No. 20, Jason Ratcliff talks about Daytona tires, truck arms, turning through that trick New Hampshire center, sharing prize money and much more.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: It was a long day for you at Daytona. You started sixth and led a lap early but dropped back into the clutches of the big melee at the beginning of the race. Was it by choice that you were heading back or did you just get shuffled out?
Jason Ratcliff: When we got caught up in that first wreck, we were just kind of stuck in the middle. Actually, we were only running fifth or sixth when it happened. We never plan to go to the back and ride. Our strategy for speedway racing is always, especially with Matt, he feels like you get yourself in more trouble by trying to stay out of trouble than if you just go up there and try and be aggressive and lead laps. That’s what we’ve always done, that’s what we always will do. Unless we are just OK with finishing 30th, we’re going to go up there and try and win it. We definitely weren’t heading to the back. We were stuck in the middle at that moment when we were coming to the competition caution and everybody was going to get the chance to regroup. Some guys got excited and I don’t know what happened. That ruined our day for sure.
Neff: They said, “Competition caution at lap 20.” The ticker on television said it was the end of lap 21. Was the ticker wrong or were they late throwing the caution out?
Ratcliff: I don’t think they were late doing it. Best I can recall we were coming to lap 20, which was the lap they were going to throw it. I’m not sure, maybe they were off a lap. I don’t remember it being a problem though. Once you have the wreck, then you run off a couple of more laps. That was going to be the competition caution but I don’t think they were late throwing it. There were a lot of guys trying to get them to push it back to 25 or 30 due to the rain. I don’t recall, but it didn’t strike me at the moment that they were late throwing the flag.
Neff: When they made the call to move from Saturday night to Sunday, do they let you make any kind of adjustments to the car in anticipation of the different conditions?
Ratcliff: Nope, they figure it is the same for everybody.
Neff: You salvaged a decent finish, even though you were technically caught up in both wrecks. Denny finished sixth after being involved in the second wreck. Did you get with the No. 11 team to see if you could work together once they were done cleaning up after the second wreck?
Ratcliff: No, at that point everyone was kind of fighting their own deal. We were still a lap down. It was us and the No. 2 car and maybe one or two other cars there that were just fighting to get on the lead lap, which is hard at a speedway race. We went a lap down repairing the damage from the first wreck and just not being able to get caught up like we needed to. There was no strategy at that point other than trying to get on the lead lap and salvage the best finish we could.
Neff: Landon Cassill ran to the halfway point on the same tires that he qualified on. Is the tire simply too hard or is there just not that much abrasiveness to the track yet?
Ratcliff: It is a little bit of both. The tire is pretty hard. It showed some wear, but it isn’t much. You lose a little bit of grip in the tire as you go, especially on a hot day like Sunday. New tires do provide some grip and it is probably more because the cold tire has the air pressures down and provides more grip. The tire wear is not a problem and, if you wanted to, you could probably run a whole race on one set.
Neff: Headed to New Hampshire. You have to feel somewhat good about that since the last time you were there, you won the race. How much different do you feel the setup will be with the new ride height rule compared to last time?
Ratcliff: I think it will be different for sure, just because it can be. There are some areas where we feel like we can improve, whether it is platform or whatever, we’ll do that with the new ride height rule. Similar to what we’ve done all season, we’ll take the best of what we had in 2013 and then apply what we can to try and improve it. It will be different but, all in all, the setup we take to Loudon, we’ll have looked at what we ran last year and used that as a target for different parameters, whatever they may be. All-in-all you can just build a faster race car this year, with the new rules package, so that’s what you have to do. You can’t leave anything on the table.
Neff: Rolling the center of the corners is what they always talk about to make you get around New Hampshire quickly. Does the fact that the car is down on the earth the whole time and not fighting to pop back up make it easier or harder to get around the corners?
Ratcliff: It doesn’t make it any easier. There are some advantages to getting the car down aerodynamically and mechanically, it can be better over the long run, as far as weight distribution and the load on the tires. It doesn’t make it easier for the car to turn. It does provide some options that you might not have had in the past. You might be able to find a little in the rear grip package or whatever because you can hold the car down better. That might let you go somewhere else to work on making the car turn. Just lowering the car, taking the 2013 package and just running the car lower, I haven’t seen where it makes the car turn any better for sure.
Neff: You mentioned rear traction, that is where my next question was headed. Drive off the corners is another key, getting the launch off the corners to get down those straights faster. Does the fact that the car doesn’t have the front end lifted up in the air give you more forward bite and better inertia coming out of the corners?
Ratcliff: I think having the overall weight and center of gravity lower in the car helps with sticking the rear tires in the racetrack. Also, as you mentioned, keeping the front end lower provides a better aero platform, allows the air to flow over the top of the car and gets it on the rear spoiler. Yeah, keeping the car down, against the racetrack, is better aerodynamically and mechanically, from a weight distribution standpoint.
Neff: You also used to play with the truck arms, whether you split them or mounted them at different angles, to help with the drive off. Now that the car is down, does playing with the truck arms have as big of an impact as it used to?
Ratcliff: Yes, it does. Especially at places like Richmond and Loudon, where you have transitions into the corner and have a lot of torque and you run more gear, typical short track stuff. Anything that will help stick those rear tires. Truck arms certainly play a part in providing rear grip at a place like Loudon.
Neff: In the transmission, do they regulate the ratio or closeness of the ratios between second and third or third and fourth?
Ratcliff: Yeah, they have a minimum third gear that you can run, to keep you from running that third gear under race conditions, other than restarts. You can’t get too low. You can’t get any closer than 1:1. I think the rule is 1.28:1 or somewhere close to that. They do have some parameters you have to stay in for that. As far as second gear goes, I believe that is open. I don’t recall them having any regulations on second. Obviously, each team is going to do what they need to do for restarts and pit road and things like that. Now, when we go to Pocono and road courses they have some rules in place that keep you in a window for all gear selections. At most of the open tracks, it is just final drive gear in the rear end housing, then 1:1 for fourth gear and a minimum for third.
Neff: That question was based on restarts. Some drivers like to start in first and others in second. If the ratio was closer from second to third, it might get the car up to speed faster but the jump to fourth would be more dramatic. Is that something that teams play with?
Ratcliff: Oh, for sure. They definitely move that around for different racetracks. You want to minimize your RPM drop so that you can keep the RPMs up for your particular engine curve. At the same time, you want to minimize that as the car gets faster and you have to overcome an aero drag condition there, so you don’t want that RPM drop to be too much either. You can kind of stagger it through there. You also have to consider your pit road speed and driveability under caution and on pit road. There are a lot of things you have to look at when selecting gears and transmission ratios. I’m sure every team works that pretty hard.
Neff: After the “Big Ones” at Daytona, with the new Chase rules are guys, especially with wins, looking at repairing cars and getting back out differently, or are they still trying to get maximum points for seeding purposes?
Ratcliff: I think you still try and get max points. If nothing else, you want to keep that mindset. You don’t ever want to get into a situation where you don’t try and get all you can get and set that precedent going into the later part of the season. And, as you mention, points are still critical when you get down and you have three or four guys with a couple of wins or three wins, you want to be seeded higher than the others. It all plays a factor. Points are still a big deal; even though one win gets you in, you can’t rule points out, they are very valuable.
Neff: With Loudon being so flat, even though it is a mile long, do you use the same car that you use at Pocono or do you use a purpose-built car for New Hampshire?
Ratcliff: It isn’t really a purpose-built car. We tend to lean toward the shorter track cars, although not for any particular reason, other than maybe it has more brake ducts in it or something like that. It isn’t a track-specific car by any means.
Neff: Don’t want to have you divulge anything that is top secret but, in a typical crew chief contract, do crew chiefs get a cut of the prize money the car earns or is you compensation pretty much set?
Ratcliff: No, not around here at least you don’t, maybe they do somewhere else. General rule of thumb is you may get some bonus depending on whether it is a win or Top 5 or whatever. Every team has a bonus structure, not just for crew chiefs and engineers and drivers but everyone throughout the shop. For us, every employee in the shop gets a bonus for wins across the board. Whatever the company brings in from race winnings, everyone gets a share. As far as crew chiefs go, there isn’t any cut but we do get some bonus.
The No. 20 team is still winless for 2014 but they have been knocking on the door. Daytona was a long, tough day but they maximized their result after being caught up in the first big wreck. They won the Chase race at Loudon last Fall and feel like they have a good starting point for this weekend’s race. As the Joe Gibbs Racing organization continues to master the new rules package, expect to see them work into Chase contention as the series heads towards the pivotal final ten races of the year.