NASCAR crew chief Jason Ratcliff guided his driver, Matt Kenseth, to the runner-up spot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend and hopes to utilize the knowledge he’s accumulated over the last few weeks to make a serious run at the win in Pocono Raceway this weekend.
He utilized things that he learned at Pocono during the first visit this year to run fast at Indianapolis this weekend. He now hopes to use things he learned at Indy to fine tune the Pocono package thanks to a similar right-side tire.
In Tech Talk this week he also touches on keeping his driver’s feet comfortable during the heat of the summer, shifting at the unique track in Pennsylvania, the brake package needed to slow down for turn one and strategy decisions that make races interesting.
Mike Neff – You left Indianapolis as the first loser. Would you have liked to see another restart at the end, or did you not have anything left to throw at Kyle Busch?
Jason Ratcliff – You always want an opportunity to win; you never want to pass that up. There were other variables at play there as well. Fuel was getting close. I was just happy we were in the bottom lane on that final restart. The top lane was a little more difficult to manage. I’d like to have had a run at him. I was hoping he and the No. 22 would have been a little tighter by the time we got to turn 2. But by the time we got clear, (laughs) he was LONG gone. We made up a lot of ground. We came from 18th and passed a lot of cars.
We had a good day, really. We’ll take a second. We obviously would have loved to win it, but all in all it was a success from our standpoint.
Neff – What do you think it was that separated you from the other cars when it came down to getting by people?
Ratcliff – There were several ways to pass cars, and I think we did a little bit of everything early on. When the track is hot and cars haven’t been on it, you run through that first stint and a lot of guys are just getting a feel for their cars. For us, the car started off good. You don’t always get that, but we seemed to have that the other day to start the race. We were pretty good. We were able to take advantage of some other guys until they were able to get to pit road and get some adjustments.
When it cycled through green flag stops, we were gambling a little bit and short pitting. We were able to make up a few spots through the cycle. Then on restarts we got a couple of good restarts, especially from the inside lane. We passed cars a number of different ways. On pit road, strategy, just having a good racecar. Some guys seemed like they were really struggling. Even us, we caught a guy from half of a straightaway, and when we got within eight to 10 car lengths it was a little more difficult. You almost had to wait until that guy caught traffic, then you could kind of break through that barrier and get to him to make the move. It wasn’t easy — I don’t think it was easy for anyone — but it seemed to be manageable for us and something that we could definitely accomplish throughout the race.
Neff – What did you learn at Indianapolis that is going to make you faster at Pocono?
Ratcliff – The biggest thing is the right-side tire is the same as we raced at Pocono. We were able to get another race on that and get some adjustments during the race, whether it was air pressure or whatever it might be, and see how sensitive it is to those different changes. I think that is always helpful, especially when you are on the same D code from Goodyear from one track to another.
Neff – What was probably the biggest gain that you made throughout that first weekend that is going to be on the car when you unload this weekend?
Ratcliff – The first Pocono, we weren’t really pleased with the car in practice. Practices were kind of jumbled up because we got a little bit of rain that weekend. We threw some things at it and made some adjustments just based on gut and it worked out for us. I thought we had a good car in the first race. We lost some track position, but I thought the car had some good speed in it. We’ll build on that, take what we learned there and go back and hopefully get some good practice time and an opportunity to build on it. We took some chances before the last race, and I thought it paid off. We’ll take what we learned there and go back for the second one.
Neff – Temperature-wise it is hotter this time around than it was last time. Do you have the NACA duct open on the right side for driver comfort?
Ratcliff – We always have it, it is just a matter of where it goes. In Indy we put more emphasis on his feet because it was so hot. That seems like that is where the heat accumulates, and it is difficult to get the heat out of there and get some good cool air. It depends; it is usually the foot box that gets the hottest. The helmet blowers kind of help with the head and the upper body. You can give the driver ice packs during the race and bottles of water. Down near his legs in the pedals, the heat just kind of gets stagnant as it comes up through the floorboards, so we always have those NACAs on the right side, and we can use them almost however we please. You can send it to the driver’s chest area or the foot box, and we try and put a lot of emphasis on the foot box.
Neff – Do you see shifting in play at Pocono again this weekend?
Ratcliff – Years ago they made third gear high enough that you couldn’t use it like you had in the past. They brought that back, so we’ve been shifting there for a number of years. It is just the way the track is set up. I think you have got to do that to keep it competitive just because it is a unique configuration. So definitely shifting, it is just a matter of if you shift three times a lap, two times a lap or once a lap. Shifting absolutely, how many times per lap is yet to be determined.
Neff – You don’t use brakes for much of the lap, but when you try to slow down for turn 1 you use a ton of them. Is your brake package more like Indianapolis or more like at New Hampshire Motor Speedway?
Ratcliff – It is kind of in between. You don’t use a lot of brake at Indy. One of the things about Pocono is shifting like we just talked about, kind of helps. If the driver has a style of shifting that works you can use that RPM deceleration to get the car slowed down. They can take some abuse getting into turn 1 at the end of the front straight. You have a lot of momentum and getting that slowed down, especially since we have less drag on the car than we did last year and the year before, that just puts more emphasis on it. They also have taken away RPM and reduced the rear gear ratio. Those things play a factor when you talk about deceleration. It puts more emphasis on the brakes. It isn’t as big of a braking track as Loudon, but definitely closer to Loudon than Indy.
Neff – It was in the news this week that [Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief] Rodney Childers is the latest member of the crew chief community to be suspended for the lug nut issue this week. How much focus do you have on your pit crew guys, especially late in the race, to have them make sure that they have all five tight?
Ratcliff – That is something we talked about weeks ago when they first came out with it. We haven’t really had to bring it up again. They know what the rule is. Things happen, [and] there are going to be times when it just isn’t going to happen. The jackman is going to drop the car too soon or they are going to hit one and miss. It is just going to be an honest mistake. It isn’t going to be intentional. When it happens you’re going to get busted for it.
I think the rule is a little bit ridiculous, just because of that. There is no room for error. I think they should give you one. You pick what corner. Because if you have one it, more than likely was an honest mistake. It wasn’t something to speed you up. They need to rethink it; it is a lot ridiculous.
It is ironic, though, that the team that was complaining about it the most is the team that is getting suspended. That is kind of unusual. We tell our guys, if you miss one you have to let us know. At least that way we can make a decision on if we want to come back down pit road, what is our situation. I think NASCAR needs to take a hard look at it and reevaluate it. It is happening too often. There aren’t guys who are intentionally taking weeks off. They need to look at it because as long as we’ve been doing this there have been races ended where people didn’t have all of the lug nuts tight; it has always been that way. Before they had this five-tight rule it was as long as you had one installed. More times than not it wasn’t that the guy intentionally didn’t hit five, he just missed one. As long as it was hanging up there, once he left the pit box he was good. They need to consider that. I think it is a little bit overboard and they need to reevaluate.
Now there are guys that know they are only going to get checked on the last stop, and they are going to put four on every stop in between the first one and the last one. To me, that is dumb ,really. You’re only going to check them at the beginning and the end? It is kind of ridiculous.
Neff – We saw Team Penske go for the long fuel run at the beginning at Indy. You do fuel calculations during practice, but the race is obviously different. Does your fuel calculation for a race get refined rather quickly over the first couple of stops of a race to know what you’re window will look like at the end?
Ratcliff – Yeah, you are learning all day. I don’t think we could have made that strategy work based on the information we had to start the race. You know, you can play it a lot of different ways. Sometimes you play races based on fuel mileage, sometimes you play races based on when you think the caution is coming out or keeping the best tires on it as often as possible. For the Penske guys they were one of a few who were going to attempt that strategy. I think they needed some caution laps as well to make it work so they were (laughs) gambling on cautions as well.
In the end, no harm, no foul; we all ended up back in the same spot (laughs). It was interesting and it kind of kept things exciting and everyone wasn’t doing the same thing. I kind of like that. I like to see some guys do something different. We know that Paul is notorious for doing that and I like that. I like to try and figure out what he is thinking and what can I learn from it. It kind of bit him a little bit based on how the caution fell. It very well could have been a huge benefit as well if the caution would have went their way. It could have cycled out and got the caution at the opportune time and they would have been the leader.
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.