Being in the final 16 of the playoffs in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series adds a lot of pressure to race teams for sure, and that was evident at Chicagoland Speedway last Sunday when people were speeding on pit road, leaving lug nuts loose and jumping over the wall early.
The pressure will only continue to increase as the number of races remaining gets smaller.
For the No. 20 team of Matt Kenseth, crew chiefed by Jason Ratcliff, it was a business-as-usual day, without any miscues but also without any great fortune. As they prepare for New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Ratcliff has a few different items he has to knock off of his to-do list before the green flag flies on Sunday.
In this week’s edition of Tech Talk, Ratcliff looks at the challenges of making the car turn at Loudon, getting the drive off of the corner and how much tire to lay on the track to make speed. He also touches base on multi-zone tires and his lack of love for them.
Mike Neff – The playoffs have begun and the race in Chicago was interesting, not necessarily from the racing but from the execution failures of a lot of teams. You pretty much flew under the radar for most of the weekend. Was it just a show up, do your work and head to the next race kind of weekend?
Jason Ratcliff – We didn’t qualify as well as I’d hoped we would on Friday, and we ended up just kind of stuck there. I felt like we made some progress as the green-flag runs were going. I thought we were making gains through the pit stops, and then we had a couple of restarts where we got into the wrong lane so we lost everything we gained. For whatever reason, as wide as the track was, it was still difficult to pass. We were fast enough to catch people at times, but once you got to them it was difficult to complete the pass.
We came out with a top 10, which wasn’t what we wanted. I felt like, after testing there a few weeks ago, we’d be at least a top five and maybe in contention to win it. It just didn’t work out for us. It wasn’t a terrible day. We’ll take it and move on.
Neff – Tires were a big deal at Chicago, which has been the case a lot lately. Was the compound brought ideal for the race?
Ratcliff – No, I don’t. I don’t feel like it has been ideal at Chicago in a while, honestly. For whatever reason, we go to the test and things seem really good. Then we go up there for the race, and in racing conditions, maybe it is just us, but it seems like the grip level just isn’t where it needs to be. I blame it on the zone tread tire. To me it has never been what it was advertised to be. [Laughs] To me it is just so inconsistent.
You’re fine with one set of tires, you put on another set and you have a whole different set of problems. I think that has been that way for a while. Maybe we’re the only team who experiences that. Other teams seem to do fine with it. I think they need to regroup and do something different at Chicago.
Neff – New Hampshire is a big, flat mile that puts a premium on getting the car turned and heading in the opposite direction better than anyone else. Outside of that, what do you want to accomplish before the green flag drops on Sunday?
Ratcliff – As we saw last race, the treatment of the track with the VHT has changed up the game quite a bit, seeing how your car handles in multiple grooves, different lanes. It seems like the stuff stuck around for the whole race; it wasn’t like it wore off. I felt like we did a pretty good job of managing that last time. That is something we have to deal with in practice, because it is going to be a factor in the race. If you’re going to go out during the race and pass people, your car is going to have to handle. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to run low or high, or the middle I should say, that is going to be key. For us, it seems like we’ve been pretty good there but we have to make sure we’re able to pass.
Neff – Does the compound override the track when it comes to handling? If a team is good on PJ1 at a track, will they be good on it at any track, or does the track design more greatly determine the handling of the racecar than the grip of the tires to the track?
Ratcliff – I think it is different everywhere. I don’t think you can look at it from the standpoint that, if they put PJ1 on the track, that it is going to be enough grip to suit some teams over others. I think it is always going to be track-dependent. All they are trying to do is add a racing lane to a track or equalize two different racing lanes at a given track. At some tracks it lasts for 100 laps and at other tracks it lasts for the whole race. It is very track-dependent. At Loudon it seemed to work out pretty good. It seemed to do what they wanted it to do and it seemed to last the whole race.
Neff – Turning through the center is important, but getting drive off of the corner is also a key to being fast at Loudon. Does the radius of the corner have an impact on that? Will a longer, more sweeping corner allow you to get the better drive off, or does a tighter turn that points you back in the opposite direction more quickly allow you to get the power down better?
Ratcliff – I think a tighter radius makes it easier. If you get the car turned off throttle and pointed in the right direction, you’re driving straighter off. At Loudon, the corners are so big that when you pick the gas up, you’re asking the car to do two different things. You’re asking it to continue to turn off of the corner as you build speed, and you’re asking for more lateral grip while at the same time asking the car to drive forward. When you ask two things of the tire, or multiple things of the tire, that can be more difficult to put together vs. just asking it to do one thing.
Neff – With the flat banking at Loudon, it is a more lateral G-force track than a vertical G-force track. Do you do things from a geometry standpoint, with the front suspension, to implement more or less camber, based on the load, to get it to turn more efficiently?
Ratcliff – Yeah, flat tracks like that are unique. They obviously take a completely different setup than Dover [International Speedway], which has a lot of banking. You have to create more lateral because you don’t have any banking pushing you down into the racetrack. So it takes a completely different thought process to build speed in the car vs. a track that has banking built into it.
Neff – Camber and tread patch affects grip levels and how well the car turns. Do you have to balance the amount of camber you put into it, in order to get the bite from the edge of the tire, vs. the total tread patch you get onto the track in order to have the grip to make it turn?
Ratcliff – Every tire is different. They depend on the construction, the sidewall construction, the compound of the tire, whether it is a multi-zone tire or not. They have different characteristics. They don’t all make optimum grip at the same camber or the same air pressure. We have some tire data, which is helpful, but you still have to tune at the track. Sometimes you’ll sweep camber, put some in or take some out, just to see which side of the sweet spot you’re on. You’re always tweaking on that whether it is camber or toe or air pressure, whatever it might be to try and find that sweet spot. It is track-dependent obviously, but it is also very dependent on the tire construction and what the Goodyear engineers design it to be.
Neff – There has been a lot of discussion about rear end parts and fail inspections. The pieces that are in question, are they trying to get the rear end to move so that it gives the car a little more yaw or pitch in the corner, so that the car will turn better?
Ratcliff – It can be a couple different things. You can have the approach that you’re trying to get more angle in the car or more yaw to try and create more sideforce. Back when we could run the big rear toe housings, you’d see guys going down the straight sideways, and that was the thought process. I am going to try and get this thing going through the air sideways to create sideforce. So you have that, then you also have parts and pieces and compliance factors that all create grip as well. You have a shock and a spring that take vertical load and dampening, which the tire ultimately reacts to that.
It is the same thing with lateral. If everything is so stiff, then the sidewall of the tire is going to take the brunt of it. You have a couple of different things there. If you make things too stiff it can be inconsistent or snappy. A lot of the things, not completely but, that I feel they’re seeing when they inspect the cars are not really new. They’ve been around since the beginning of time, we’ve just never looked at it that way before. Now we’re trying to figure out how to prevent it as a team so that we don’t get into trouble on Tuesday. It is not something that we’ve ever really paid that much attention to. Now that it is under the microscope, everyone thinks it is new. I’m not so sure that it is new. I think it has been around a long time, we just haven’t made a big deal of it.
Neff – NASCAR has said it’s finally looking at a choose cone for restarts. Is that something you’d welcome so that you don’t have to worry about shenanigans on pit lane trying to get into the right lane for restarts?
Ratcliff – Really? That would be interesting. I have to think on that one. Typically there is a preferred lane, but I don’t think you’re ever going to see one lane get four cars stacked into it before someone chooses the other lane. If the outside lane is the preferred lane, you aren’t going to get four guys choosing to be in that lane and nobody choosing the inside lane. It is going to be better to be in the bad lane and be two rows ahead than be in the good lane and be three rows behind. It will just be another element of excitement, so to speak. We’ll see; that will be interesting.