The checkered flag has flown on NASCAR’s 2015 campaign and teams are halfway into the offseason, laying out their plans and adjusting to upcoming changes for 2016. Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 team are among them, riding the momentum of a seventh at Homestead that left driver Matt Kenseth 15th in the final point standings. It was a crucial pick-me-up that gave them confidence after Kenseth suffered through a two-race suspension for dumping Joey Logano at Martinsville.
Now, it’s all about dumping one rules package and creating winning setups around a completely different level of downforce. Ratcliff sat down with Frontstretch to discuss the 2016 changes ahead and what’s at the forefront of his preparation. He also spoke to the new cars being put together for February’s Daytona 500, including the new digital dashboard for the Cup Series and a desire to maximize horsepower within the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. As you’ll soon see for Ratcliff, there isn’t much of an offseason….
Mike Neff – Looking back one last time at 2015 you finished the season with a seventh-place run at Homestead. How do you feel like the year ended up?
Jason Ratcliff – It played out well. We made progress in the early part of the race. I thought we were going to continue to move forward once we got to the top 5 but kind of got stuck near that fifth to seventh spot. We lost some track position once so we had to make that back up. We started having some handling issues about halfway through. We were able to improve them but we lost too much throughout the green-flag runs to get where we needed to get to. All-in-all, considering the way the last three weeks went, with the bit of extra drama we’ve had, I was pleased to finish out the season with a top 10 and a decent run. I think that is a good way to put an exclamation point on a good season.
Neff – We heard it quite a bit during the post race at Homestead; Adam Stevens stated that the feedback they received from Matt Crafton, David Ragan and Erik Jones really helped them out when Kyle came back. For your two weeks with Jones in the car, did that give you an opportunity to reevaluate the team and figure out where you had some strengths and weaknesses that you could address now with Matt back for 2016?
Ratcliff – Maybe. I thought as a group we did pretty well for those two weeks. We qualified well, which I think says a lot about our race cars and our team. I was very pleased at Texas. With little practice, since they couldn’t get the track dry, we threw a setup on the car that we had not had on the racetrack. Well, we ran right there from seventh to twelfth most of the day.
I think Erik is an exception. He’s a talent that will be around this sport for a long time. Did we do well? Yes. Did I feel like we would do that well with him coming in? Sure. I believe in our race team. I think we have good equipment and I think he’s extremely talented. All-in-all, until we got to Phoenix, we didn’t get to have a lot of practice time. We kind of just did what Matt typically likes in the race car. We bolted that in and thankfully Erik’s driving style took to that and he did well with it. It worked well at Texas and then, into Phoenix we had a good qualifying effort. Then, we had the whole rain delay there. We just started the race way off. Would it have been any different with Matt in the car? Maybe. Maybe we would have had a better direction in practice. I think those two guys like similar setups in the car but maybe they communicate it differently. Matt always has a good feel for what he needs from practice to the race.
One of the things that makes it a little more difficult for Erik is running the three different series in one weekend. Not only is he getting in a Truck and XFINITY car and Cup car, he’s having to readapt every time he gets into one. He did a really nice job for us considering the circumstances. We couldn’t have asked for a better driver to come in and fill that role and do well for the team and represent Matt well for those two weeks.
Neff – When you headed to Homestead, JGR works well as an organization across all four teams normally, but was there any additional effort focused by the organization as a whole on the No. 18 since he was the only car with a shot at the title?
Ratcliff – I would say the majority of the focus shifted to the No. 18 and rightfully so. We’ve got a lot of goals going into the season. Winning races is one of them and representing our sponsors well is at the top of the list, but winning championships is the ultimate goal as a group. Going into Homestead the goal was to bring a title home for Joe Gibbs Racing. The majority of the focus shifted toward the No. 18 but, at that point in the season, you should have all of your ducks in a row so I don’t think anyone was without resources by any means. However, any extra effort went towards that program and making sure those guys had the tools and resources they needed to go out there and be successful.
Neff – As we look ahead to 2016, between the Shootout, Showdown, Ultimate, Unlimited, whatever it is called, the Can-Am Duels and the 500 you will be using basically the same package you’ve had since 2013. Do you already have your speedway cars buttoned up for Daytona?
Ratcliff – Not quite yet. They are definitely in the works. You’re always learning at that program, even though it has been the same package for years. Every time we come home we find things that we can do better. We do have some cars from 2015 that will receive a facelift. Obviously, like most teams, we’ll build some new stuff as well. They are in process but they aren’t quite done yet.
Neff – We are going to the low downforce package for next season. The rules have been finalized, so you know what box you are playing in. How many cars will you have ready by the time the season starts, knowing that you’ll probably learn quite a bit over the first two or three events and be changing up cars? Will you go in with four or five cars or will you have ten cars built up for the No. 20?
Ratcliff – We typically keep a solid inventory of six or seven cars for the Intermediate/Short Track program. That is what we’ll have, especially with the way the schedule falls over the first five or six weeks. You better have at least six or seven or you aren’t going to make it happen. We’ll be fully staffed on cars and every team will have their six or seven in rotation. We try not to have an abundance of them because, as you mentioned, we’ll learn a lot. You don’t want to go into the season with too few, but you don’t want to have too many either because you know that some changes are going to happen and they’re going to happen more often in the first third of the season versus the rest.
Neff – With the low downforce package, does that change the way you configure your front end geometry because of the fact that it isn’t pushing down as hard into the track?
Ratcliff – No, that will be more of a tire change. It will be dictated by the tires that Goodyear selects to bring to the track. As far as the package, it will definitely take some adjustments for the springs and shocks. As far as the geometry and the kinematics of the front of the car, a lot of that will be based on the tire selection by Goodyear.
Neff – Along those same lines, will there be any adjustments to the throttle mapping of the EFI system just because the tires won’t have the force pushing down on them to keep them from breaking loose?
Ratcliff – No man. We go for max horsepower every step of the way at every throttle position. Give us all you’ve got and we’ll let the driver figure out how to deal with it.
Neff – Have you heard when NASCAR is going to give you the final parameters around the digital dashboard? Once they do, how many dashboards are you planning on having for the No. 20?
Ratcliff – Right now it will be just one for the No. 20. For us we have two different dash panels this year. It is just a driver preference thing. They all have the same instrumentation it is just the location and the clearance. Some of the drivers are a little taller and sit further away or lean back more. It will be the same deal. We’ll probably get a couple of different options on configuration. For the No. 20, once we settle in on something that makes Matt comfortable and he can see all of his gauges and likes how everything is laid out then we’ll stick with that. It is happening pretty quick. They are hard and heavy on it and they are getting pretty close to putting the final stamp on it.
Neff – The theory is that, once you are done with a race you can unplug it from the car and plug it right into the next car to be raced. Do you anticipate having two or three or will you have as many as you have cars?
Ratcliff – We won’t have one for every car. We’ll have a good enough selection that you won’t be waiting on one each week. I’m sure they aren’t cheap. You’ll want to keep a spare. You’ll need a primary and a backup. You may have four or five per team. Hopefully they are robust enough to handle the wear and tear throughout the season and we’ll see how it goes.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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