Coming off a disappointing result at Richmond International Raceway, finishing 23rd after winning the pole and leading the most laps, Jason Ratcliff and his No. 20 team driven by Matt Kenseth head to Talladega Superspeedway with a renewed confidence that they’ll have a shot at a victory.
Ratcliff believes his team was competitive at Daytona International Speedway in February but were, unfortunately, caught up in someone else’s mess. Restrictor plate racing is always a crapshoot, but it helps to come with a good pair of dice.
Heading to Talladega, Ratcliff talks to Frontstretch this week about aero and downforce with the new Camry body, the aero group at Joe Gibbs Racing and its focus on superspeedways, as well as crash repair time limits and how his team has learned from the previous eight races of the year.
Mike Neff – Was Richmond one of those days where you are running so well that you don’t want to adjust yourself out of a good handling car but you have to try and keep up with the racetrack?
Jason Ratcliff – The track is changing throughout the race. Because we started up front we had the biggest advantage as far as clean air and track position. There were just some good cars that started behind us that showed up after 100 laps. I think we were capable of running with anyone other than the [No.] 2 car. I think he was exceptional. We needed a little bit more to compete with him.
We had our ups and downs, we made the car better and made the car worse. I thought, toward the end, we were getting back to where we needed to be on the balance. Then we had our pit stop woes and it kind of ended from there.
Neff – Richmond is the short track that thinks it is an intermediate. Does aero have a big impact there? Because it seems like clean air made a big difference.
Ratcliff – I don’t know that there is anywhere that doesn’t, especially when you get a bunch of cars out there nose-to-tail, I think it has some effect. At some tracks it is larger than others. Even at Richmond you’re going through the corners pretty quickly. It has a tremendous effect on the cars just about everywhere. Maybe not Martinsville [Speedway], but at times it is even big at Martinsville.
Neff – You’ve had this package for four years now at Talladega. Have you found anything in the last year to make these cars any faster on plate tracks?
Ratcliff – It is hard to say. I feel like we’re always gaining on it a little bit. But so is the competition. I think you better be gaining on it a little, every time you go back, or you’re going to be left behind. I thought at Daytona we got caught up in somebody else’s mess. Other than that, I felt like our car was pretty good, especially considering we had the new Camry body on it. I thought its first outing, at Daytona, I thought it was pretty competitive.
Hopefully we’re going to take that to Talladega, with a few months work since Daytona, and be even better. It has been a pretty good place for us, and hopefully it will be this week.
Neff – Does Joe Gibbs Racing have a group that focuses on the restrictor plate stuff all year long?
Ratcliff – No. We have an aero department that focuses on everything. They just time it out throughout the season where they put an emphasis on speedway cars at different points of the year so that the fab shop and the guys on the shop floor get that information as soon as possible. We don’t really have one person or one group that focuses on speedway cars full-time.
Neff – How much did it change your downforce numbers from last year to this year on the speedway cars?
Ratcliff – They are very similar. When the manufacturer goes through the submission process for an update on the body, there are some very strict guidelines and a lot of testing goes into it in order to fit into the window that NASCAR has for any given aero package. Really it was onesie, twosie things here and there. It wasn’t anything way out there in terms of drag or downforce. It was very similar to the cars in years past. If anything, it might have been a couple of counts better on drag, without any downforce change, which is always good.
Neff – Did you learn anything at Daytona, or have you fine tuned anything since Daytona to get ready for Talladega?
Ratcliff – I think we’ll know more about that Sunday. Daytona was very unique to me in the way it played out, and maybe the stage racing played into that. I think the crash repair stuff played into it as well. You just didn’t have a lot of cars on the race track when it was all said and done.
We learned as much from Daytona about the new crash repair policy as we did anything. The stage racing is pretty straight forward. We actually tried a few things at Daytona that didn’t completely pay off for us. We learned a lot, though.
Talladega is unique. Even though it is a restrictor plate like Daytona, the cars run a little bit wider for a longer period of time. Some things are just different. Not a lot different, but a little different. It will be new, but I will say having the experience of Daytona will be helpful going to Talladega.
Neff – Have you, since Daytona, done some compartmentalization on how to handle crash damage if it happens at Talladega?
Ratcliff – Not necessarily at Daytona but throughout the season our guys have been through some situations, just learning how NASCAR is going to officiate it and what we could do better to be prepared on pit road. And instructing the guys on how, during a given period of time, can we do a better job in executing for these different scenarios. We’ve learned a lot along the way.
I felt like we went into the season as best we could understand the new crash policy and understand how it would affect us in real time. I felt like we were well-prepared, but you always have those instances that you get yourself into during a race that you aren’t prepared for. Those are the ones where you gain a lot of experience and learn from them.
I’m sure we’ll see things at Talladega that we are not prepared for. It is just that type of thing at restrictor plate racing. Anything can happen and it usually does.
Neff – The last few races have been predominantly short tracks, but do you feel like you have gained a little more of a handle on what this aero package is looking for?
Ratcliff – Yeah, I think so. I think we are just trying to find a balance. From what we were used to the balance was off a little bit, front to rear, and we’re working on getting that back, whether it is aero, mechanical grip or setup or whatever it might be. I think we are definitely making headway.