The No. 20 team was faced with some very difficult circumstances this past weekend at Pocono. Their car was severely damaged early in the race, through contact with Jamie McMurray and they were forced to make extensive band-aid repairs to try and get their car to the finish. Remarkably, driver Matt Kenseth was not only able to limp home, despite a mashed-up front end but he did so while staying on the lead lap. While the points don’t matter like they used to, especially right now when it comes to crowning a champion, it is days like that which go a long way in determining whether a team has the intestinal fortitude to be standing once the smoke clears, muscling atop the Final Four at Homestead.
It’s the hallmark of one of the sport’s top crew chiefs, Jason Ratcliff, who stops by to chat with us once again. This week, Ratcliff discusses learning during a rough day, ride height impacts on the 2013 notebook, engine cooling when cars go incredibly fast, fuel mileage prep and the inability to skew the rear of the car, once a key cog in the setup wheel heading into the Irish Hills of Michigan.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: Pocono was definitely not how you wanted to start your day, but you persevered and managed to finish on the lead lap. Were you able to learn anything about the car at the track before your problems occurred?
Jason Ratcliff: Not really. Our mindset going in was to do what we had to do to make progress and get closer to the front, but not be concerned about what the necessary adjustments were for the car — not until we got closer to the front, because it was going to change. I don’t think we learned anything prior to that. We were moving forward, which was good, but I don’t think we can take anything away from it that is going to benefit us going back. Once we knocked the nose in, it was about damage control, minimizing the losses and doing the best we could to make any gains possible…
Neff: That is understandable. It was a yeoman’s effort just staying on the lead lap…
Ratcliff: Yeah, it was pretty slow. Once we knocked the nose in, there was a lot of air packed under the hood. We got a lap down there and thankfully, the caution came out and gave us an opportunity to work on it. If we had had to go through another green-flag cycle before we could work on it, that would not have been pretty.
Neff: Most teams have a crash cart with various items to deal with instances like you had. For you, do you keep fenders, a nose, a hood and most everything else to piece the car back together on pit road for just such a situation?
Ratcliff: I’d like to think so. The guys have a pretty good amount of inventory of different panels that you could possibly need. Anytime you wreck, you don’t know what you could possibly need. Every time you wreck, it is different. The one thing you can do is learn from each one of them and be better prepared for the next one. The guys did a really good job considering the damage. They were able to go in there and repair it in three different pieces. When you get back, you say, “We could have done this better and could have done that better” but, especially at a high-speed track where you have to maintain a minimum speed and you are doing everything you can to stay on the lead lap, I thought they did an exceptional job. The team was also very prepared and had all of the pieces they needed to do their job.
Neff: Pocono was the first 2.5-mile track with the new ride height rule. Everyone was certainly right down on the earth with the track being so smooth. Did that cause you to throw out your entire notebook or were you still able to use some of what you had?
Ratcliff: Every week, you still have targets and baselines that you developed last year. They give you some direction before you go to any track. While the cars show up and look quite a bit different, there is still a lot of your 2013 package incorporated into that to get to where you need to be. Until we go back to these tracks a second time, like when we go back to Pocono in a few weeks, at that point you might take your 2013 stuff and throw it out the window because you have established a new baseline, or most people have. But we’ll need that 2013 information to get going.
Neff: Joe Gibbs Racing has had a decent amount of success at Michigan. Do you feel like you’re in a position to capitalize on that and return to Victory Lane?
Ratcliff: Yes, I think so. That was a pretty decent track for us last year even though we didn’t get the finishes we wanted. We ran really well in the first race and had moments in the second where we were competitive. It is the type of racetrack that Matt, I’m not going to say it is his favorite but, he enjoys racing there. I feel like we’ve made progress on those types of racetracks in the last year and even before that. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a lot like Kansas other than it is a little bit bigger. Those are tracks where we had success last year even though we haven’t had a lot this year. I still think those are going to be the ones, once we get the ball rolling and get the momentum going, that are going to be the tracks where we are going to start stringing some wins together.
Neff: We were incredibly fast last year at Michigan. We’ve seen that the car is even faster this year with the new rules package. Are we about to get to the point where we are too fast at Michigan?
Ratcliff: If I was the driver, we’d already be too fast. I think we are. It is what you get when you go to a 2.0-mile race track that is smooth and wide. What can you expect? You’re going to think they’ll go faster. Plus, you give them more downforce and you open up the toolbox and you give the teams more to work with. I don’t know what “too fast” is. I don’t know what point you get to where it is from a speed perspective. For me, it is pretty quick already, and I don’t know that it is going to stop anytime soon. At first, we thought it was the repaves and all of the grip in the racetrack. Now, it isn’t necessarily the grip in the racetrack, but more about how well we build the race cars. I don’t know what you do about it. Anything you do to try and counter it and slow them back down, in my opinion, just makes for bad racing. If those guys are willing to go that fast, then we’re willing to watch them race at those speeds.
Neff: When you are going that fast, does it allow the engine to cool more efficiently or do you get to a point where you go so fast that it actually inhibits the air flow into the engine?
Ratcliff: Once you get to a point, and I’m not sure what that point is, but with a certain amount of opening in the grill you are only going to pack so much air in that box. With the duct work and the radiator, there has to be some kind of resistance to slow the air down in order to have some sort of cooling quality in order to remove the heat. Once you get to a certain point, it isn’t going to get any better unless you change the components. Unless you are able to put more physical air in the box, it isn’t going to change.
I don’t think they cool any better. That is more a product of the radiators and the amount of tape you have on the grill. If you go 10 MPH faster, it isn’t like you could add more tape to the grill. You still need a certain amount of volume going through the nose; otherwise, it is just going to go around to other parts of the car. I wish that was the case. The only problem is that you’d have a perpetual situation. The more tape you add, the faster you go; the faster you go, the more tape you can add. We’d all be out there running taped off solid. There is a point of diminishing return.
Neff: Michigan has lent itself to fuel mileage races in the past. When do you start thinking about fuel mileage for up there? Have you already thought about it and worked it into your car or do you start working on it once you are up there and see the conditions?
Ratcliff: That is something that you have some control over but not a lot. It’s not like you can give up a few horsepower to gain two tenths of a mile per gallon. At that place, you need all of the horsepower you can stand. You get your car as fast as you can get it. Then, you know where you are and you set your strategy and plan around whatever that mileage number is.
It doesn’t really matter — well I shouldn’t say that but, the bigger thing is you don’t want to be worse than the next guy. If you’re getting 3.9 or 4.5, it doesn’t really matter as long as the next guy isn’t getting 5.2. That’s something we have to focus on but it isn’t as big of a priority as getting our car to perform and being as fast and competitive as we can make it.
Neff: Are you already reminding Matt that he needs to start saving gas as soon as you leave the shop on Thursday?
Ratcliff: No, he pretty much knows that is standard procedure. We do that everywhere, whether it is Martinsville or Daytona. There are certain times we emphasize how we want to do it but it is pretty standard procedure regardless of the racetrack.
Neff: Are there any similarities between the setup for Pocono and Michigan since both of the tracks have recently been repaved and are so smooth?
Ratcliff: Not really. I would say that because the tire we run at Michigan is more similar to Kansas. I think racetracks and their shapes and sizes don’t make as much of a difference. You look at tracks like Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta and the setups are more dependent on the tires that Goodyear brings than the shape of the tracks.
Neff: We were really skewing the cars out to the right with the back end of the cars a few years ago. It would seem like we’d have seen that at Pocono again but we really didn’t. Have we got the car to where that isn’t a benefit or is it just the rules prohibiting it?
Ratcliff: It is just rules. If the rules allowed it, you’d still see it but they have you in such a tight box. That’s why you don’t see it as much as you did.
Ratcliff and the No. 20 team have been knocking on the door of that first win this season; however, the stars just haven’t aligned yet. But with the success that JGR has experienced at Michigan International Speedway, it would not be a surprise for that first win to happen this weekend. Once it does, then the question will be… how many more will follow?