With Joe Gibbs Racing coming off of a victory at Martinsville for Denny Hamlin and a top-five finish for Matt Kenseth, the organization was ready to get back to its winning ways at a mile-and-a-half track. But when the checkered flag flew over Texas, only one of its four teams finished in the top 10, and that was Carl Edwards in 10th, scoring his first top 10 of the year. Jason Ratcliff and his No. 20 team struggled for most of the weekend after some speed early in the weekend. As he prepares his team for Bristol this weekend, Ratcliff has to navigate a test at Kentucky before taking on the concrete half-mile in the Tennessee mountains.
This week’s guest on Tech Talk, Ratcliff talks about the struggles in Texas and the difficulty in making advancements this season with limited testing. He also spoke with Frontstretch about tires for this weekend, aerodynamic dependency on such a high-speed short track and rear camber at Bristol. He touches on knocking off his to do list at this week’s Kentucky test as well.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – Needless to say it did not look like Texas turned out the way you anticipated when you unloaded off of the trailer. How do you feel like your weekend went at Texas Motor Speedway?
Jason Ratcliff – Y’know, you are exactly right. We had high hopes going in there. Felt like, early on in the season, our Intermediate program was looking up and definitely heading in the right direction. For whatever reason it seemed like we had decent speed in practice but we couldn’t get it done in qualifying and then, even after that we thought we had a good direction for the race but it just didn’t pan out. Even when we had decent track position we just couldn’t find the speed in the car we needed. We feel like we have some good ideas on what we need to do to improve that. Going forward possibly where we missed as a group. We definitely have some work to do, we definitely didn’t live up to the expectations we had going into this weekend.
Neff – Without having testing this year, outside of the NASCAR tests and the Goodyear tests, when you have these ideas are you relying heavily on simulation or are you able to go into a race weekend practice and have each of the different teams A and B stuff to figure out what is working and what isn’t?
Ratcliff – We definitely have to rely on the benefits of having a multi-car team and make good use of that. Whether it is a given practice plan or everyone showing up with a different package and keeping an eye on each other and whether we are learning something that is positive or negative and being ready to make those changes in practice. Other than that it is pretty much sim. Based off of experience and what you learn from the week before and can carry over into next week. Hopefully your sim tools are good enough that, if you want to try something out of the box, it can get you close enough to have a good starting point when you get to the race track.
Neff – In the last couple of weeks we’ve heard a lot of discussion about how Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick like a similar setup and have been able to go to the track with roughly the same setup and succeed. At JGR, how many of the four drivers like a similar setup or are all four of them very different?
Ratcliff – I think all of them are somewhat close. There are those little things that one driver may like that is different from the others. It may be a faster steering box or a slower steering box. You always have a wedge offset or whatever that might be, where one guy wants the car maybe a half of a percent freer than the other guy. All-in-all, usually if we find things that are setup factors that one driver likes or finds speed in, it kind of goes across the board. They all lean in the same direction. If there is something that is good it is always good. You then just have to put their little custom twist on it, whatever it might be for that guy. I don’t know that there are any two of them that are exactly alike but there aren’t any of them that are that far apart either.
Neff – Speaking of next week, we are heading off to Bristol, the concrete coliseum. We had some tire issues last year, not a lot but a few, are we taking the same tire that we had last year?
Ratcliff – Yes, I believe we are. I am thinking we changed tires last fall, or went back to something that we had back in 2013. Actually I’m going to have to look it up, we are heading to Kentucky for a test and I’m in that mode. Pretty sure the tire is the same one we ran last fall.
Neff – Bristol is obviously a short track but it is equally obviously very fast. With the new rules package that has taken some of the aero downforce away do you feel like the downforce you realize is going to make the handling different this year than last year?
Ratcliff – For sure, I think at Bristol you are going plenty fast enough to feel any aero changes that there might be to the car. Is it going to be as sensitive as Michigan? Maybe not but it is still a track where you will hear a lot of drivers comment about getting aero tight. That is kind of crazy when you think about it. Speeds are plenty fast enough there that, if you’re making platform changes that would affect a car on a bigger race track will show up. They may not show up to the extent or to the level of the bigger tracks but it is enough that the driver can feel it.
Neff – The new rules package has tended to be looser than the cars were in previous years. The fast way around Bristol over the last few years, once some rubber gets down on the track, has been the high side. With the car being looser running so close to the wall is it going to result in even more damaged right-rear quarterpanels than we’ve seen in recent years?
Ratcliff – Probably not, it is one of those deals that, if you get that top lane working, you’re usually so far up there that the closer you get to the wall the less damage you seem to receive (laughs). You have less distance to travel if you do make a mistake. Once you get it working up there it is just so tire dependent. As we talked about earlier, depending on which tire they bring to the track will affect that top groove and how close it gets to the fence. Sometimes, if the track doesn’t take rubber, you can get that cushion to the point that you can jump it. That is when they find themselves in trouble, when you jump that cushion and you don’t have the grip up there. You flat-side the car and it seems like, once you do that one time, the second and third times aren’t too far away for whatever reason. Hopefully it doesn’t create anymore problems. Bristol is a big enough problem without having additional ones added.
Neff – At the Intermediate and bigger tracks teams take advantage of the rear camber that the rules allow. Is there much need for that at Bristol with the high banking and the tight radius of the corners?
Ratcliff – Yeah, with the characteristics of the tire, you can obviously over do it, but typically if you can get some more camber angle to the race track you are going to produce more lateral thrust and grip which translates into cornering capability. It may be as big or bigger there than it is at other tracks because the turning radius is so sharp and you need to get that lateral grip that much sooner. Also, because it is slower, the mechanical grip is a bigger portion of your overall ability to get through the corners. Those cambers and getting those tires pointed in the right direction is even more critical there than it may be at some of the bigger tracks.
Neff – There has been quite a bit of talk about tire pressures lately. At Bristol, due to the fact that you spend so much time loaded up in the corners, do the tire pressures build up faster since you don’t get much of a cooling period running down longer straightaways?
Ratcliff – Once the tires get to that max temperature, or close to it, the pressure between corners not much. With the straightaways being shorter it does give the tires less time to cool off. You would think, if pressure is a function of heat, then yes it probably does give it less time to drop a tenth or two compared to a Michigan or Pocono or some place like that. That is one of the tracks where it is common to hear the drivers say they feel like they have too much air in the tires and they feel like basketballs. It is a big deal at that track. Even though it is concrete and smooth, it does have some ripples in it kind of like the cracks in a sidewalk. When those tires build up pressure all of those little imperfections seem to amplify themselves. Tire pressures are big deal there and now that the rules are a little bit different than they were in the past it is definitely an area you want to work on.
Neff – A couple of weeks ago we talked to Matt Puccia during Tech Talk and he told us that they were bringing a whole new version of their cars to the track after the Easter break. Has JGR rebuilt their cars after learning some things during the first quarter of the season or are you still using the cars that you used at Vegas and Atlanta?
Ratcliff – We’re still using our Vegas and Atlanta stuff at this point. We’re always trying to make upgrades as the season goes along. That is a continuous progress thing that we do. Even the cars we raced at Atlanta and Vegas are different at this point in time. They’re the same chassis but you are always trying to improve on things. As far as a major upgrade or a major change, we haven’t done anything like that since the beginning of the season.
Neff – You said you are heading off to Kentucky for a test, how big is your to do list of things to get through at Kentucky? Do you have 10 things to do or 50 things to do?
Ratcliff – (Laughs) We have way more things than we have tires and time I can tell you that. Those tests are only valuable if you can prioritize your test plan, execute it and come home with some good data. Hopefully the weather will work out. It is getting better day-by-day, it wasn’t looking too good last week. Hopefully it will hold off and we’ll get one solid day in. Usually, if you can come back from a day’s worth of testing like that, and you’ve made 20 runs and found three good improvements then overall you have to consider that a pretty good test. We’ve got a long list of stuff and we won’t be able to get to all of it but if we can get a half a dozen good changes in or so then it will be worth it.