Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Jason Ratcliff on Testing, Tweaking & Hammering Down

Before Bristol, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Jason Ratcliff, the crew chief for Matt Kenseth, was on Tech Talk and his team promptly went out and put its No. 20 car in Victory Lane.

This week he is back for another technical preview and he hopes to ride the TT mojo to a second post-interview victory.

His team is coming off a top-10 finish at Kansas after spinning in the middle of the race. Now it is preparing for the big bucks All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, which are both run at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the two upcoming weekends.

This week Ratcliff talks about testing Coke 600 equipment during All-Star Race practice, going for it once the green flag drops for the million dollars and rolling out the newest generation of the 2015 race package. He also explains the mindset around the positioning of the driver adjustable, track bar by the driver during pit stops.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch Kansas, a crazy night with spinning out, a rain delay and some late-race shenanigans. How do you feel like your evening in the Midwest went?

Jason Ratcliff – I thought that, at the beginning of the race we had some cars to pass since we didn’t qualify as well as we would have liked. It seemed like we were able to make our way to the front. Matt [Kenseth] was patient there, knowing we’d get a competition caution there early. We just bided our time. It seemed like he was able to move into the top 10 pretty quick. It seemed like the car had speed.

All in all, I think it was a pretty good weekend for us, especially with the setback there around the midpoint of the race. We recovered from that and got up there and I felt like we were going to have a top five. We were pretty close to it and came out with a top 10. It was a decent weekend. I felt like we could have finished better than that if we’d have qualified better. You have to start better to finish better, but not always. The guy who won the race started right behind us I think. The setback at the midpoint of the race was difficult to overcome, restarting 32nd. All in all it was a good weekend for us.

Neff – After the rains moved through and we got restarted, it was significantly cooler that when the race started. When you get a temperature drop that is more than a handful of degrees like that, do you have to make suspension changes or are you able to just adjust for it with tape?

Ratcliff – Pretty much just tape on the grill. The biggest variable is the track, especially a track that has multiple grooves that gets washed off, when it takes rubber to make those grooves come in, you just have to hit the reset switch and do it all over again. Once we got going, 50 laps or so after the red flag, it seemed to stabilize there. Like you mentioned, it gets a little bit cooler and you can put some tape on the grill. You still have to adjust but I think traffic and just laps on the track to get it rubbered in is probably still the biggest variables.

Neff – At this point in the season I believe every team has installed the driver adjustable track bar. From a philosophy standpoint when you come in for a pit stop, as Matt makes adjustments during the run, do you have him reset to zero and you make adjustments to get to where he is or do you have him leave it where it is and go from there?

Ratcliff – Both, really; they have the digital readout in the car so it makes it nice for Matt to keep up with the adjustments he’s made. But for the most part, he has to remember where he is at. He has to know if he asked for something this run or if he’s where he started the race, or if he’s headed in one direction or another. It is another thing for those guys to remember. You give them more adjustment options, which is great, but sometimes it isn’t. If it takes their focus off of what they need to be doing.

We do our best to communicate that throughout the race and remind him of at least being mindful of it and checking it when we pit or put tires on or get ready for restarts. Sometimes, if they’ve moved it throughout a run, they kind of need to reset and go back to ground zero to get going again. Now that we are however many races into the season, it is kind of old hat now. It seems like all of the drivers are used to it. They have a pretty good feel for what it is going to do to their car throughout the race. They have a pretty good feel for how they need to adjust for restarts and new tires and things like that.

Neff – We are heading off to race for a million bucks. Winning the All-Star Race is a feather in anyone’s cap but we also have a really big points race the following weekend on the same track. Do you treat the All-Star Race as a test or are you really out there, going for broke, for a million bucks?

Ratcliff – I think, going into the weekend, setting up for practice we kind of use that as a test for the 600. Maybe throw some things at it that we don’t feel like we’ll get a chance to do the week after. Also taking into consideration that the 600 is a longer race and sometimes we are limited on practice time from the engine builders request. They don’t want us to put on any more miles than we have to. You kind of get that benefit on All-Star weekend. You hope to get enough practice to get a few changes in there and get enough notes to think through for five or six days before you get back. Then once that is over and it is time to qualify go in the All-Star event it is no holds barred (laughs).

You come out swinging and give it all you got to try and win that thing. That is what we do. Whether they pay us a million bucks or just hand out a little trophy at the end of the day, that is what we live for. That is what we do best. Any time they drop the green flag we are going to shoot to win it.

Neff – The All-Star Race is a dash and you are also trying to size up how you are looking for the 600 as well. Do you, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization, ever put in experimental parts for the All-Star Race, just to see what they’ll do?

Ratcliff – If we have them we do. Things have come so far in this sport, when you say experimental it is different. When it comes to putting miles on a part or making revisions to a part, the technology and tools and equipment have come so far that we pretty much do durability tests on everything at the shop before we ever get to the race track. As for experimental setups and trying something different, I think we do that on a weekly basis almost. Unfortunately you are, all of the time trying to evolve and take, what you consider to be a baseline setup, and try and improve on it.

The All-Star Race is an event where you can step out there a little bit further and it might cost you a win and a million bucks but it is a whole lot easier to live with that than losing points in the 600. So we do a little bit of that. With four teams here, if each of us does a little bit of something, you can actually learn quite a bit on a weekend like this. Not that we don’t kind of do that most every week but you can definitely take more risk on an All-Star weekend.

Neff – Do they run the same tire in the All-Star Race that they do in the 600 or do they run a softer compound since the segments are shorter?

Ratcliff – No, it is the same tire as the 600.

Neff – Since we do run such short segments in this race compared to a typical race, are you able to be more aggressive with you tape or do you have to be conservative so that it lasts until the end of the night?

Ratcliff – I think you can be a little more aggressive with everything. I think you push the limits of tape or camber or whatever it might be that you might be a little more conservative with in a 500- or 600-mile race. You push it all as far as it will go. The thing about that race is, when they drop the checkered flag on that race, you want everything to be used up.

Neff – The rules on the All-Star Race can get a little convoluted from who wins segments to where you will start and things like that. Do you personally keep track of what you need to do form segment to segment or is one of the race engineers tasked with being the rules guru?

Ratcliff – The way it is now, and the way it has been recently, intentionally on the part of the guys setting the rules, you need to go out there and win every segment you can. That is your best shot at winning the whole thing. There is no more ‘win one and then lag back until the final segment.’ You need to use your average finish in all of the segments, and that is going to be your best opportunity to come down pit road first on that final pit stop. It is pretty straightforward. You need to go out there and do everything you can to get the highest finishing spot possible in every segment. If you can do that it will be your best shot at winning the thing.

Neff – It was announced this past weekend that the Richard Childress Racing teams were having their crew members wear fire retardent socks under their helmets and may actually change the helmets. Is Joe Gibbs looking into anything like that and have you heard if NASCAR is considering mandating anything like that?

Ratcliff – NASCAR already mandates a fair amount for safety for the guys over the wall and some extra things for the guys who handle the fuel, whether it is him or the man who helps him get the can back and forth over the wall or even the guys who take the cans back and forth to the fuel pumps. There are requirements there that NASCAR has in place for the safety of those guys. We feel like they watch that well enough so we feel like the rules they make are sufficient. I don’t think there is anything. It is kind of ironic; If I’m not mistaken, the NXS fire they had at Richmond was also an RCR car. Not sure if it was just an incident or if they have something going on but they definitely need to get their guys covered up if they are going to keep doing that (laughs).

Neff – The guys on the race broadcast last weekend said something about JGR bringing out a whole new car this past weekend. Was that a whole new car? We asked a few weeks ago on Tech Talk and you said every car is new compared to the previous week. Did you do a complete new car or was it just some more changes like you normally do?

Ratcliff – It was more of an upgrade. You get those a few times a year. At least once a year you get a major upgrade whether it is a chassis design or something like that. It was a pretty fair upgrade. I hope, we are in a position now, especially with the four teams, we’re building new cars to not only get that team up and going, but as we are progressing towards the Chase, I am sure it won’t be the last one. It is a little bit different generation than what we’ve ended the season with last year and a little big different than what we started the season with. It raced well and I hope we can get it back on the track for the 600.

We will not have it for the All-Star Race, It did good. All of our cars did well. The No. 20 car probably had the newest version of what we run here at JGR. Everyone ran well at Kansas. I don’t think we had any bad cars (laughs). They all do pretty good. Everything evolves so fast, just like we talked about last time. Whether it is a chassis update, a setup, an engine package. I hope every week we have a new generation something. If not it is going to be tough to keep up with the competition I think, and I think they would say the same thing.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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