Matt Kenseth is the top driver going into the Chase without a win this season. Ironically he was the winningest driver in 2013 in the Cup series. While the new Chase format is designed to put an emphasis on winning, it is possible to advance without winning races. The Chase was born the year after Kenseth won the 2003 title while only winning one race during the season. The possibility now exists that he could do that again or even win it without winning a single race.
Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff has the No. 20 team focused on the task at hand and he feels they are among the Top four on pit road week-in and week-out when it comes to getting their driver on and off pit lane. He also knows who he needs to keep his eye on as the Chase evolves and he’s already analyzed the strategies that he’ll need to invoked to try and ensure his driver moves to the next round of the Chase. Check out all of the thoughts he shared with Frontstretch this week in Tech Talk.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: You guys had a bit of bad luck on Saturday night but you soldiered on. Knowing you were already in the Chase does it come down to pride or momentum or what is it that inspires you to stay on the track for the rest of the race?
Jason Ratcliff: You can easily create a bad habit in a very short period of time. Especially going into the Chase there is no time like the present to bump up that sense of urgency and fight until the bitter end. You have to stay after it like every point counts. While it didn’t make a difference for what we would experience going into Chicago, it does make a difference that we make it our standard to never give up until the end. The guys got it back together. There weren’t many cautions or cars that fell out of the race but we did pick up one spot. It might not make a difference today but it will tomorrow. That is our mindset, keeping that type of philosophy going forward. We go into the season with that mindset, we don’t wait until the Chase to buckle down and say that’s what we’re going to do. We start that at Daytona and when we get to the Chase it isn’t anything new.
Neff: Goodyear brought a new tire this weekend and it seemed like it threw everyone for a loop. What was it about the tire? Was it the balance left to right, was it how the car reacted to the tire in general? What made it so tough to wrap your arms around it?
Ratcliff: Y’know I’m not really sure. For lack of a better term it just didn’t have much grip. Anywhere you were asking the car to do something it suffered. It suffered as a whole, if you asked it to turn in the corner if suffered from lack of rear grip, if you asked it to roll the center with any speed it suffered from a lack of front grip. I don’t know that anyone really got a handle on it. It just seemed like everyone fought a lack of grip at a different speed. For us, throughout the weekend we we threw a lot of stuff at it as a group and just couldn’t put a finger on what was going to make the thing go faster. I don’t think you were ever going to get it to the point where the driver was going to think you found the grip that was lacking. I don’t think you were going to have grip no matter what you did with it you were just going to try and go faster than the next guy with it.
Neff: You mentioned that JGR as a whole struggled. When you get into your Monday morning debriefing after a weekend like that, how much time do you spend focusing on it or do you just chalk it up to a bad weekend, plan on a test next year and then move on?
Ratcliff: In this particular situation, Richmond isn’t a track we need to be overly concerned about until we get to the beginning of next year. I think we’ll go to work on it but the first thing we need to understand, before we spend a lot of time on it, is are we going to race this tire again when we go back or are they going to change it again. For us, I felt like if we had gone back with the tire that we raced the first race, we could have come back and been pretty strong as a group. For whatever reason we couldn’t hit it with that tire and we have a lot of work to do if they are going to bring that tire back. It isn’t paramount right now going into Chicago. Getting these last 10 races going is what is going to get us through 2014 so that is what we’re focused on.
Neff: After Atlanta, there was a ton of discussion about the JGR pit guns and the amount of time spent working on the internal components to make them so much better. As that process went along, was the No. 11 crew the guinea pigs or does everyone at Gibbs get the same guns across the board?
Ratcliff: The pit guns we used, there was nothing new at Atlanta and they are the same guns we’ve been using for a while. It is very common. Nobody has gone down to Sears and bought a pit gun and brought it to the race track in 15 years. For the general public, working on pit guns is nothing new. I think our group is just really good. When you look at it, the No. 11 team has been superior since the season started. They’ve been superior for the last three years. If you look at history, there isn’t a team on pit road that can pit a car faster than the No. 11 car in the last two or three years. I think they got a favorable pit stall at Atlanta and it just worked out for them and they were able to shine. At the same time I think the No. 4 car had a terrible pit stall. In pit stall No. 1 you can’t get it hooked up and their pit crew struggled. That made the No. 11 look even that much better. It took the No. 20 team, who in my opinion is in the Top 4 on pit road and have been for a long period of time, and allowed them to have a spectacular night. I think we had a good pit stall choice. These groups, whether it is the No. 11, or the No. 20 or the No. 18, have been in the Top 5 pit crews thanks to our pit coaches and our pit department, for the last three seasons. So yeah, we have pretty good pit guns, we’ve got really good jacks. Honestly I think it was a crew chief trying to calm his driver down and not make his pit crew look back. All kidding aside, there were no new parts or pieces that our crew used at Atlanta, nothing was new.
Neff: The No. 4 team was ripping off pit stops just over 12 seconds, the No. 11 was just a little bit faster every stop.
Ratcliff: There are some tracks where the No. 1 pit stall is not bad, I’ll take it every day of the week, but it’s not the best pit stall on pit road. Atlanta might be one of those places. It is a different surface in that box than the rest of pit road and it is hard to hook up the tires to get out of the box. The pit out line is far enough away from the box that any car with momentum is going to beat him out. You can come down pit road first all day long but if you have a pit crew that is .7 seconds faster than you on average, you aren’t going to come out first.
Neff: You frequently pick the first pit stall on pit road. Is that a preference of Matt or is that something you like better because you can get into it more quickly and get out.
Ratcliff: Truly it is because when we do qualify decently we end up around fifth to seventh. When you pick pits fifth to seventh that is usually the best one available. (laughs) There are certain tracks where I think it is a pretty good pit stall. If there is an option for a pit stall with an opening in front of it I would choose it over that one but it is ok. Matt doesn’t mind it. A lot of drivers struggle with getting right off of the race track and getting right in the pit box but Matt doesn’t mind it so it is a good option for us.
Neff: Heading to Chicago with the new format of win and advance, you always try and win every weekend. However, if you are getting to halfway in the race and you realize you don’t have a car capable of winning the race how much do you start chasing points, knowing that you are only accumulating points for three races to try and advance to the next round.
Ratcliff: There are two ways of looking at it for me. Obviously as you mentioned, win and it doesn’t matter. The second one will be that you need to run better than the lowest guy in points who hasn’t won or at some point you’re going to get kicked out. I think a lot of teams can go into this first round and think that it is going to be a breeze and they aren’t going to be in the bottom four. I think they need to buckle their chinstrap a little tighter and hang on because I will not be surprised to see a championship competitive, legitimate contender for the title drop out early in this deal. There is no room, no wiggle room. There are too many teams who run well and too many teams who can win in this first round. If you fall a little short and score two seconds and a DNF you could be done. You have to bring your game. There is no easy segment in here. There are some that will have the odds stacked against you but you have to bring everything you’ve got right off of the bat or you could find yourself in serious trouble.
Neff: We are racing in the daytime in Chicago but the air temperature looks like it is going to be in the 60s. Does the ambient temperature affect your car handling more or less than days where it is hotter considering the track temperature is impacted more by the sun shining on it than the air temperature?
Ratcliff: I think it depends on the race track. Some tracks are more sensitive than others. It also depends on the tire combination. Some tire combinations are more forgiving with track temperature than others. Chicago doesn’t have a lot of grip but it isn’t bad. The new variable going into Chicago this weekend is that it is a different tire package than we’ve run there in the past. Typically, the thing that happens is it is the same for everyone. The cool temperatures make the grip level go up and the hot temperatures make the grip level go down. It is the same for everyone so the speeds rise and fall proportionately usually. However, for drivers some drive that slick race track a little better than others. I would say, when it gets hot it separates the men from the boys a little more as the grip level goes down. Other than that I’d say the same thing happens for everyone.
Neff: Speaking of lower ambient temperatures they almost always lead to discussions about engine cooling. With all of the science around running these cars these days, do you have a calculation based on air temperature to determine how big of a grill opening you can run or is that something just learned over time?
Ratcliff: It is empirical. You know that, at this race track last year with this temperature, you can look at your notes and with a temp of 75 degrees you know what you had on for tape at race time and how many square inches of opening you had. Then you can do a calculation. It isn’t necessarily one for one but for every rise of 10 degrees in ambient temperature you don’t always have a 10 degree increase in water temp but it isn’t far off. It gets you close enough that you can come off of the truck and start practicing and if you need to make some small adjustments you can.
Neff: Chicago is the start of the Chase. As you mentioned earlier, four guys will be out after the first three races. Do you watch the people you are contending against this weekend or do you wait until the third race of the segment before you worry about where you are in the running order against the other 15 cars?
Ratcliff: I think you better keep your eye on the ball from the get go. Not necessarily from the standpoint of where I need to step it up, but you know who you need to race and how it is going to affect you. If you have a guy two spots in front of you on the race track and he is one of those 15, you may adjust your pit strategy to try and leapfrog him. Where, if he’s not and he’s two spots behind you, you may do something different. You have to watch it as a whole but in the end you still want to win and it doesn’t matter. However, as it plays out during the race and you come down to the last two stints of the run and if you’re running fifth or eighth or third, you need to maximize it. Sometimes you have to play defense and make sure that the other three guys trying to beat you out of that spot aren’t being creative and putting you in a bad position.
Neff: The week leading up to the Chase involves a lot of media obligations for Matt. How much does all of that hoopla and demand on his time impact your team’s preparation for the race on Sunday?
Ratcliff: They don’t really. Matt is pretty smart about what he needs to do to take care of himself throughout this time when he is traveling and doing all of the things he has to do. He makes sure that he’s taking care of himself and not overloading himself for whatever angle that might be. He gets plenty of rest and is prepared when the weekend comes around so that he’s not burned out. Everyone is traveling and has a lot on their plate. For him, he’s pretty smart. When we get ready to get the weekend rolling on Friday I’m sure he’ll be as energetic and ready to go as anyone. It won’t affect us in the least.
Neff: When Goodyear does a tire test, how do they select the teams that will be involved? Do you let Goodyear know that you want to participate or do they reach out to the individual teams to ask them to be involved?
Ratcliff: Goodyear gets with each manufacturer and rotate it through the teams. If they are doing tests and there are six Toyota teams they’ll try and bring at least one Toyota team. As for which one it is, they’ll rotate it. Once all six have had a test they’ll call the first one again and tell them their time is now and ask if they want to do it or pass. There are times when they’ll bring two or more depending on how much rubber they want to put on the race track. It is the same for everybody and they give everyone an equal amount of opportunities to go.
Neff: When you go to a test, let’s say the No. 20 goes to Richmond to test the tires they’re thinking about, do they regulate the number of people and the number of drivers? Could you bring Denny and Kyle and give them some seat time too?
Ratcliff: No, uh-uh. You can bring as many crew members as you’d like but as far as drivers they have to get that approved through NASCAR and unless it is extenuating circumstances they frown on that pretty hard.