The No. 20 team of Matt Kenseth continues to be besieged by poor luck from the racing gods in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. After leading the race last week and having a fast car all night, Kenseth was caught up in the big wreck at the end of the race at Daytona International Speedway.
Heading to this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, crew chief Jason Ratcliff has a handful of tests facing the group as they try and march forward. Ratcliff knows that the surface is going to have rubber on it, thanks to the facility dragging the tire machine around the track.
He also believes the tires are supposed to have more grip and that his suspension is going to be quite pinned down thanks to the recent repaving. Therefore, the setup his team will use is dramatically different from the one it ran at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Mike Neff – You have had the same aero package at the restrictor plate tracks since 2013. Do you feel like it is time to change that up a little bit just to give people an opportunity to do something different, or are you happy with it since everyone has a good grasp on it?
Jason Ratcliff – If you look at the racing, especially the last couple of years and particularly last week, I wouldn’t fix something that isn’t broken. I think you are asking for bigger problems, especially knowing what kind of position that puts Goodyear in, any time you ever change an aero package. I would leave it alone. I think the racing is good and the teams have a handle on it.
Any time we go to places that are specialized like speedways or road courses, if you can minimize the rule changes it really helps the race teams in the long run. I think they should just leave it.
Neff – This is your second year at Kentucky after the repave. Pictures surfaced of the track working the tire machine around the bottom of the track. Does that seem like the right place to be working it, or should the officials have worked it from the top down?
Ratcliff – Those guys really confuse me. I don’t know what their thought process is. I don’t know if they’re trying to minimize tire wear issues to start. Maybe they’re trying to get the track in a condition where guys don’t wear out their first set of tires too badly, or if they are trying to widen out the racing groove to make the racing better. If that is what they’re trying to do, it makes no sense; why you would help the bottom lane improve? (laughs)
I don’t know. I think it is good on a track like Kentucky that is only a year old. It will help with some of the tire issues like we saw last year. Why they wouldn’t go two lanes wide with it makes no sense to me.
Neff – Are you going back with the same tire you had last year?
Ratcliff – The right side is different.
Neff – Is it harder or softer?
Ratcliff – They say it is a little bit softer. I think the biggest thing was there were some durability issues last year and they wanted to address those. At the tire test it seemed like there was a little bit more grip than the last time.
Neff – You’re going back to a track that was recently repaved, so it is nice and smooth. Does that provide you the liberty to just pin the car down to the track all the way around?
Ratcliff – It depends on the grip loss with laps, whether that is the tire or being in traffic. You have to balance the mechanical and aero grip the best you can depending on the tire selection that Goodyear brings and how it is affected by wear. Also, does the car migrate. Does it have a large aero balance migration in traffic, and what do you need to do to compensate for that?
There are several variables and things we’ll learn in practice that will help us determine if we can be really aggressive from an aero standpoint to try and have some speed on the front side. It usually has some long green flag runs, so you don’t really want to give up the back end either. We’ll see when we get there.
Neff – While we frequently hear that the mile-and-a-half tracks are cookie cutters, we also hear from the drivers that they all have their own variances that make each of them unique. Does Kentucky lend itself to mechanical more than aero, unlike Las Vegas Speedway, which has so much dependency on aero?
Ratcliff – It is an aero track for sure. Any of these mile-and-a-half tracks we go to are predominantly aero tracks. Mechanical is a huge part of it too, but aero rules (laughs). That is why they change the aero package every year, because they know that is a big contributor to the racing as a whole. Most tracks, even the one-mile tracks we go to, are dominated by aero.
Neff – You’re basically at the midpoint of the season. How do you feel your grasp is on this new aero package versus when you went to Atlanta at the beginning of the year?
Ratcliff – It is night and day for us. We were a 10th- to-12th-place car at the beginning of the year. We learned a lot along the way, which everybody has, but I feel like we’ve made some really good progress along the way. We figured out what we needed to keep the car balanced throughout the race. We haven’t had a problem going fast. It has just been trying to understand how the balance changes in traffic and as the race progresses. I think that is where we’ve made most of our gains.
Neff – You’ve had plenty of speed, but as an organization you’ve been running into issues with sealing the deal and getting wins. Is the pressure to get wins before Richmond International Raceway becoming even more intense now that you’re within 10 races of the cutoff for the playoffs?
Ratcliff – It is, but I don’t think it is any more pressure today than it was 10 weeks ago. We go out and expect to win starting at the [Daytona] 500 and every week after. We need to, with the way the points scenario and the playoffs and all of that are set up, especially the new point structure and the stages, I think it makes wins even more important. They have always been important, but as far as getting into the playoffs starting at Chicago[land Speedway], especially with three or four guys behind us having won races and coming up, it has become even more important for us to win a race and clinch a spot.
We always put pressure on ourselves to win races, that is what we do. As far as the Chase goes, I think that is something we’re going to have to do in the next 10 if we expect to have a spot.
Neff – You have been playing the stage game for the first half of the year. There is a handful of drivers who have a large amount of playoff points. You and your organization are down that list pretty far. Do you feel like, over the next eight or nine races, you’ll have to take some greater chances to try and rack up some more playoff points so that you’re more secure when you grab your win?
Ratcliff – That is something we’ve been trying to do, but the biggest way to accumulate playoff points is to win races. Most of the guys who have a large amount of playoff points have accumulated them through wins. Some of them have won a stage or two along the way. We’ve only won a couple; at this stage of the season I would have thought we’d have won at least a half dozen or better.
If we can win a race or two, those points will stack up pretty quickly. We have to run up front. If you consistently have fast cars and run up front, you are capable of stage wins and race wins.
Neff – From Atlanta until now, have you changed quite a bit on the suspension side of things with spring rates and rebound in shocks, or has it been more about packers and shims and keeping the car stuck to the ground?
Ratcliff – It has been setup across the board. Shocks, springs, everything involved, we have changed quite a bit. It has evolved to a completely different outlook/philosophy of what it takes to make the car fast by itself and in traffic. It is a little bit of everything. I don’t know that I’d point to one thing that has significantly improved it.
I think if you look at what we’re racing now vs. what we were racing then, there are a lot of changes. When you look at the pit box notes, there are way more things that are different than are the same. That’s good, though. At least we have things available to us to make progress; our hands aren’t tied.
Neff – Has Matt had to change anything about his driving style to accommodate the way you’re building the cars and the new rule package?
Ratcliff – Yes and no. Naturally, when you have less downforce you’re going to use a little more brake and change somethings about entry angles. Other than that, everything that comes with less downforce and grip, I don’t think he has. Early on, when the car wasn’t balanced well, he had to make some adjustments. The closer we get the car, the more he can drive his style and do things he’s always done. It is going to be different, just based on downforce lost. Other than that, no major changes.
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