The 2017 season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been about learning how to maximize the cars with the new aerodynamic package. The reduced downforce has thrown teams a challenge for braking, tire management and handling in traffic. The wide, smooth, fast surface of Michigan International Speedway will test all of that this coming weekend.
This week’s Tech Talk catches up with Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth, to see what he’s thinking about as the series heads to lower Michigan. Ratcliff looks back at Watkins Glen International and talks about the process that led to a second-place run. He also reacts to complaints from other teams about the apparent advantage of the Toyota teams. He then looks ahead to Michigan and the difficulties in trying to find speed on a track where the groove has not widened out since the track was repaved. He also touches base on reducing drag versus maximizing downforce.
Mike Neff – While you didn’t win it feels like congratulations are in order for getting Kenseth a second place on a road course. Was that a surprise to you, or were you expecting that kind of result?
Jason Ratcliff – We’ve had really good runs at Watkins Glen the last two or three years. Our cars have been getting better, and we have been getting a feel for what Matt wants there and is looking for from the car. A high-speed track like that fits his driving style. I feel like we just keep building on it and building on it. I felt like we had a top-five car on Sunday, and then we were able to work some strategy, and he did a really good job of saving fuel. I thought we were going to have a shot but the [No.] 78 [Martin Truex Jr.] was quick enough. He got a decent enough lead that he was able to save the fuel he needed to get to the end.
I thought we were going to make it exciting at the end. It was good to come out of there with a second-place finish. We’d obviously like a win, but we’ll take the second place and that momentum and just keep building on it.
Neff – When electronic fuel injection first came out, they talked about having pickups on both sides of the tank, but the talk this weekend was about reserves. That is something that we have not really heard before. Is that something normal that gives you about .8 gallon once you start to bobble?
Ratcliff – Ever since we went to EFI, we’ve had an electric fuel pump in the fuel cell. Mechanical pumps are pretty much a thing of the past; you can have more than one pickup pump. Over the years we’ve learned what we need to do to help ourselves on fuel mileage races. It is pretty common now for guys to run two pickup fuel pumps and have one of them that gives you a little reserve. You can set it differently. Some guys try and get a lap, some try and get more than that. For us it just gives us enough notice to get to pit road before we run out of fuel.
Neff – This weekend that may come into play, with plenty of fuel mileage races at Michigan over the years. It has been a little while since the repave, but the track does not seem to be aging and the groove really hasn’t widened out. Do you have any ideas of ways to take advantage of more of the racing surface when you get there this time?
Ratcliff – You know, last time we went up there, a few weeks ago, it seemed like it widened a little on the [turns] 3 and 4 end of the track. It just depends on the weather, if you get any rain or if it is pretty clear all weekend and you’re able to put some rubber down. It seemed like from the middle to the end of the race, maybe it widened out a little bit and gave some guys a chance to run some different grooves. Restarts are always exciting because that middle lane gets rolling pretty good. It is still pretty smooth asphalt, even though it has been a few years since they paved it. It is still fresh, fresh and fast.
I don’t remember if they’re going to do anything with the Tire Dragon there to prep for this weekend or not. I think they did for the first event. I can’t keep up with them.
Neff – When you go to the plate tracks, you use really small brake packages since you only use them when you come to the pits. With the minimal amount of braking that there currently is at Michigan, is that something you do there as well?
Ratcliff – Not really. Ever since they reduced the downforce on the cars, it was pretty close last year, and then this year we decided it was time to run our normal intermediate stuff here. We’ve actually been running an aero package similar to what we run now for the last three races. Michigan was one of the tracks where we ran the 2017 package last year. It was one of the first of its kind where we noticed that the lower-downforce, less-drag package could present braking problems. It isn’t a problem, but it could be. It is right there on the line. We do not run a smaller brake package. Some of the other teams may, but it is not something that we want to risk.
Neff – Have you learned anything significant with the lower-downforce package that you have changed dramatically since the first time at Michigan this year?
Ratcliff – Not really. I feel like around the first Michigan race this year was when we started to hit our stride a little bit. We started to get our hands around what we needed for Matt to get the balance where he needed it for the race. I feel like that was one of our better races this year. It kind of got us headed in the right direction around that Michigan race and the first Pocono [Raceway] race. We’ve been able to carry that through. It won’t be a lot different, but I feel like we’ll unload a lot better than we did in the first race — at least, we should. It should give us an opportunity to fine tune and gain a little more speed above and beyond what we had in the first one.
Neff – We’ve heard plenty of complaints in the last couple of weeks, especially from Ford teams, about how much horsepower the Toyota cars are generating. From the fuel management and car management side of things, when you do find some more horsepower than you’ve previously been creating, does it increase fuel usage or does your fuel mileage stay about the same even though you’re cranking out a little more horsepower?
Ratcliff – Our fuel mileage is about the same because our horsepower is about the same. I think those guys are looking for some reason for NASCAR to make a change rather than going to work on their own stuff. Our horsepower really hasn’t changed. We’ve just gone to work on our racecars and made them faster, which makes it look like our horsepower has changed. Not that our horsepower is bad to start with, but NASCAR takes cars several times a year, and they dyno the engines so they know where every manufacturer is. I can guarantee you that the Fords are doing OK (laughs). They need to go to work somewhere else and stop complaining about what someone else is doing.
Our fuel mileage has been pretty steady. Typical stuff, if you’re going to make more horsepower, it takes more fuel to do it. We just saw a lot of Toyotas make really good fuel mileage at Watkins Glen. To anyone who has a little bit of common sense, that will tell them that they aren’t out horsepowering anyone, they just beat them on fuel mileage. Fuel mileage is something, going to Michigan, that you could need. It typically turns into a race where good fuel mileage could be beneficial at the end. It should help us again this week.
Neff – We’ve seen some brake issues come up this year after making qualifying runs or even practice runs. It happened last weekend to Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer. You talk to your fellow crew chiefs at least at Joe Gibbs Racing, so was it an instance of boiling the fluid or was there a greater issue involved?
Ratcliff – That is one of those things that, in the past, we were really close to having a problem and just didn’t realize it. We used to, after qualifying, change the brake pad and rotors on the car before we raced it, so if there was a potential issue, we just didn’t realize it because we made that switch. We never had that type of problem at Watkins Glen before, but now that it is an impound race, several teams had an issue. I don’t think it was something that bit one manufacturer or one organization. We saw a lot of teams have problems or potential problems. I just think it was one of those deals where we were learning about impound racing, everybody is learning.
There are probably a lot of guys who didn’t have a problem but were right on the edge of it happening. You get the brakes hot in qualifying, you try and put tape on everything to try and reduce drag and maximize downforce. It is easy to get them a little too warm, especially with a lower-downforce package at a high-speed road course where you’re going to use a percentage more brake. Is it 5 percent, is it 10 percent, is that percentage enough to send you over the edge on your temperature? It obviously bit a few of the guys.
Neff – With the lower downforce, do you have to use softer springs in the back of the car to get the spoiler out of the air for more speed?
Ratcliff – It is about the same. The spoiler is so short now you could just about take the thing off. It is still helpful, but it is nothing like we’ve seen in the past. Getting the car low in the back and trimming the thing out doesn’t give you near the drag advantage that it used to. You’re already pretty low on drag compared to what we were used to the last couple of years. Right now I think you’re going to find more benefit in trying to maximize your platform for downforce versus working on drag reduction.