NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Jason Ratcliff on Testing, Points Racing and Downforce

Being one of the eight teams still alive for the championship can add a lot of pressure to a crew chief’s day. Throw in a new set of rules for next season, and the time management and priorities have to be juggled routinely. A team has to anticipate making it to the next round and that means testing at Homestead. While preparing for that test, the crew chief also has to have the car prepared to compete for the win at Texas.

Jason Ratcliff looks back on the decision to pit or not pit at the end of Martinsville, added downforce with flared side skirts and heading to Homestead for a test before Texas. The decisions from the top of the pit box are even more amplified as the season winds down. Ratcliff has a champion in the seat and a championship organization behind him, now it is up to him and his team to get the job done.

Mike Neff: The first question has to be the incident where Matt got involved with Harvick. Did he have too much rear brake dialed in or did he just drive it in too deep?

Jason Ratcliff: You never know. A lot of times it is the approach you take to the corner. And then obviously you’re getting in there pretty deep anytime you get a wheel hop issue. It is braking and deceleration combining (laughs) to combat the traction with the speed you’re trying to carry into the corner. I wish it was as simple as saying ‘well yeah it was this and it should have been that.’ Wheel hop isn’t something you ever want, and you try to do everything you can to prevent it but it isn’t as easy as saying ‘yeah, I just had too much rear brake.’ I think it was circumstantial. There was a line of cars to his outside and sometimes when you enter the corner shallow you don’t load all four tires the same as you do when you take your normal line and you can find yourself in a difficult position and I think that is what happened there.

Neff: At Martinsville we actually had tires that fell off and it seemed to mean something to have new tires. How many laps did you run into a stint until you knew, if the caution came out, you would come and get new tires?

Ratcliff: I would say 20. I was watching it there and, a lot of times it is more cycle dependent. How many times you cycle the tire. Put them through a heat cycle and they cool off seems to hurt them as much as anything. If we ran 10 or 12 laps and there was one heat cycle you may not do anything. If you ran 15 laps with two heat cycles with two quick cautions, even though it isn’t a lot of laps, it can jump up and bite you in a hurry. You definitely don’t want to get behind on tires. If there was one guy up front that would be willing to pit after 12 laps, I think you’d have a lot of people following him just to make sure they didn’t get behind.

Neff: At the end of the race at Martinsville the guys in the front decided to come in. Three people stayed out, did it cross your mind to stay out or were you looking at it from the perspective that a couple of guys in the Chase had trouble so you were coming for tires no matter what?

Photo: CIA Stock Photography
Tires were important at Martinsville and teams had some important decisions to make. Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Ratcliff: I was definitely thinking about it. What you don’t want to do, we were in a position where it was going to be a really tough call. It is a tough call for everyone but, if we would have been a little bit closer to the front I think the decision would have been to possibly stay out, knowing we would have had some guys stay behind us. If we would have been further back I think our decision would have been to stay out as well. You get yourself caught in between about seventh and 15th, you don’t want to be the guy blocking for everyone else who didn’t take tires and we could have very easily been that guy. While you don’t want to spend too much time on pit road, you want to give your driver a little bit of help on grip, something he can at least go out there and race with. You want him to have some speed left and the other thing is, if you get a quick run and then the caution comes out again and you have multiple Green-White-Checkered finishes. Then if you don’t have any tires you find yourself in big trouble. In answer to the question though, if we would have been in the top 4, I would have strongly considered staying out. I think what the No. 14 did was really the smartest move. If he’d have had one or two more guys stay with him, which shocks me every time we get into a situation like that. We had twenty-some cars on the lead lap. It amazes me if you’re running 20th. If I’m the guy behind the guy who was running 20th, and he’s been slow all day then I’m really agitated. If I’m the guy who was running 20th and we come down to a Green-White-Checkered finish and I know I can get 18 free spots and you’re going to have to beat me by that many to put me back there, shoot yeah I’ll take that all day long. You never know what the rest of the guys on pit road are thinking. You try to put yourself in their shoes and play that game. Sometimes you just don’t know (laughs).

Neff: Headed to Texas which has historically been a fast track. Do you think the top speed in qualifying there will be more than it was at Charlotte so we’ll set another new 1.5 mile track record?

Ratcliff: Yes I do. I think so. Texas has always been really quick, especially your corner entry speed. It is just different enough. The tracks all look the same but they aren’t when you get down to it. One thing that separates the tracks as well is the tire that Goodyear brings. If it is compatible with the track and the surface it makes a big difference. While they all look the same they definitely aren’t and Texas, I don’t remember what time we qualify, but if we get a late afternoon/early evening session and the track cools down, that bad boy will be fast for sure.

Neff: We had a couple of cars lose their grill inserts at Martinsville. Are those pieces screwed in or just glued to the car?

Ratcliff: Some of those are a separate piece from the rest of the nose. With the Camry it is all one piece. With the Fords I think it is a different piece that has to be attached. You definitely didn’t see any noses that didn’t have damage by the end of the day that is for sure. I’m not sure how the Ford teams attach theirs to the car.

Neff: On these mile-and-a-half tracks like Texas, we’ve been seeing the side skirts flared by the rear tires, the Penske cars were the first to do it I believe. What is the theory behind flaring out that side skirt in front of the back tire?

Ratcliff: It is a ton of downforce. It is a HUGE change in downforce. I’m still shocked, absolutely shocked that it is allowed. But, whatever, if one races with it and you can’t beat ‘em you’ve got to join ‘em unfortunately. But it is huge, it isn’t a guy leaving a cover off of a package tray and getting a six week suspension for a few ticks of downforce. It is double digits up there in downforce. It is WAY up there.

Neff: Is there no rule about the shape of side skirts?

Ratcliff: Yes, they are supposed to continue the shape of the side of the car and be 90 degrees to the ground at that spot. 90 degrees to the ground and perpendicular to the rocker panel.

Neff: With two races left in this segment and Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski having trouble and basically sitting in a win-to-advance position, you have six guys running for points. Thanks to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win two drivers will make it in on points. Obviously winning is still a priority but do you take the time to focus more on the six people you are competing with or are you just going for the best finish you can and letting the chips fall where they may?

Ratcliff: I think we have to try and make the most points we can. But, if we’re at Texas and we get the opportunity, even if it is a high risk situation to go out and capture a win I think you have to do that. If you win today you don’t have to worry about tomorrow, all you have to worry about is Homestead. That is a huge feather in your cap and a big step toward the championship that the next guy doesn’t have. I think it is worth the risk if it comes down to that type of scenario. I talked to someone about it last week. I think the odds of four guys going to Homestead who didn’t win a race are greater than the odds of three guys going in who did win races. When you look at the guys who aren’t still in the Chase, who were already eliminated and what they are capable of at Martinsville and Texas and Phoenix, it is going to be difficult for a team to win one of those races. When you are talking about Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the guys who have run really well this season, there is a good chance that we’ll go to Homestead and none of the four guys will have won a race in this segment.

Neff: The 2015 rules were released a few weeks ago. Have you had a chance to look at them very much or are you totally focused on the task at hand and you’ll deal with them after the season?

Ratcliff: Yeah, we’ve looked at them a little bit. I think NASCAR did a really good job of saying ‘we’re going to change this, this and this on the aero side.’, it isn’t a lot of work involved for the teams, it is a pretty simple change. However, it is a very significant reduction in downforce which, directionally based on the Michigan aero test that we did a few months ago, it seemed like that was favorable, especially with the horsepower reduction. I think they are going to go hand-in-hand. I feel like the horsepower reduction is much larger than it maybe should have been for the aero reduction that is being implemented, but until we get on the race track and Goodyear gets a tire that they want to run with this new package it is going to be hard to say. We’re just going to have to get out there and try it. It sounds like NASCAR is being very open about it and will see where it goes. If they need to take more downforce off of the car to improve competition they are not against it. It is pretty simple actually, as far as the new rules are concerned. It is a pretty quick change as far as converting a ’14 car to a ’15 car. It is pretty seamless and I think it will improve competition, especially with the horsepower reduction. You had to reduce the downforce or it would have potentially been a bad combination.

Neff: Homestead is a mile and a half track but it doesn’t have a dogleg on the frontstretch. Does that make the setup of the car dramatically different since you don’t have that loaded big turn on the front straight?

Ratcliff: Not so much, if that was a part of the track where it changed the handling of the car I would say yes. It usually isn’t because it isn’t a place where they have to lift to get through there so it isn’t a huge deal. Homestead is very unique. The thing that makes it the most different is the progressive banking. They’ve done that at Kansas but at Homestead the corners are really wide. With the progressive banking and the way the drivers have to approach the corner is just so much different at Homestead. Thinking about that not having a dogleg does change the approach to turn one quite a bit so therefore it can cause havoc getting the car settled getting into turn one, not having it too free. It is different than any other track we go to. I wish it wasn’t in Florida (laughs). That is what makes it so unique. The sun beats on it all year round and the grip level loss because of that. It is just different. I don’t have anything against Florida, it is just hot. It is just a cool place.

Neff: You tested at Homestead this week. When all three teams are going to be there, do you go out with three different packages to attack the test and run them all and try and merge what works or do you go with one package and move it in different directions? How do you approach a test when it is the whole organization at the test?

Ratcliff: We’ll all start with whatever we think we need to be fast there. Like most weekends we unload similar but different. We all have our own ideas of what makes these things go fast. That is good, we aren’t all doing exactly the same thing or we wouldn’t learn anything. At the same time we feed off of each other. We know what works so usually the only thing we feel certain about are the same between all three cars. The things we theorize through simulation or whatever it might be that we think will be better is a little different. In the end we typically migrate and end up somewhere very similar. As far as the test goes, we’ll get out of the box a little bit on the first day and try and be creative. We’ll all go our own direction and try and find new things, that’s why you’re at a test. You want to do the things you can’t do when you come back on a race weekend. In the end we’ll put it all together and come back here in a couple of weeks and all of the cars will be really competitive.

Neff: You mentioned the progressive banking, is it possible to configure your car to try and take advantage of the shallower banking at the bottom or the steeper banking at the top or is it like any other weekend and whatever the car tells you what it likes is what you work with?

Ratcliff: We try to work the bottom of the track. This is true for most race tracks although not always the case at Homestead. We take the same approach to get to the track you want to get the car working at the bottom of the race track and get the car handling well and know that we can always move up and take advantage of that. That is usually worth a little bit moving up close to the wall. If you immediately go up there you won’t have anything left to use. Once you get 10 or 12 laps on your tires everyone will be up there. If you’re going to do any passing you need to work around the bottom. That will be our approach, we’ll work on the bottom and then when the tires start wearing off we’ll move up and try and maintain our lap times.

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