Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Talking Aerodynamics, Strategy & Shift Levers with Jason Ratcliff

The last four weeks have been quite a challenge for the crew chiefs in the Cup garage. The head wrenches had to prepare a low-downforce car for Kentucky, a standard 2015 rules package car for Loudon, a high-drag car for Indianapolis and now another standard package car for Pocono. Don’t forget that every team brings a backup car too, so they essentially prepared at least six unique cars for the last three weeks. To say the guys on top of the pit boxes have earned their paychecks this month would be an understatement.

This week in Tech Talk, Jason Ratcliff looks back on Indianapolis and the high drag package that NASCAR put on the cars. Echoing the sentiment of most everyone involved last weekend, he was less than supportive of trying to use that package going forward. He also speaks about Kyle Busch‘s and Carl Edwards‘s impacts on competition meetings at Joe Gibbs Racing. As for this weekend, he enlightens us on race strategy, calling races on 2.5-mile tracks versus shorter venues, brake packages and backup cars.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch You came out of Indianapolis, one of the four ovals where Matt Kenseth does not have a win, with a seventh-place finish. That is your third finish of seventh or better there in a row. Did you feel like you had a pretty good effort with the new aerodynamic package?

Jason Ratcliff – I thought so. It was kind of like Kentucky. We went in there with a lot of unknowns but it was the same for everyone so it gave us an opportunity to shine. We did that as a group at Kentucky and obviously we did it again at Indy. That doesn’t mean that we want them to go with that aero package, but it was a good week for us. We’ve had some good runs at Indy the last two or three years. I feel like we’ve been close every time we go. If we could get the pit strategy and the track position and put it all together we could pull it off. We’ll have to wait another year and try it again but it was certainly good to see the No. 18 come out of there with a win.

Neff – There weren’t a whole lot of thumbs up for the aero package. It seemed like there was a decent amount of people who felt like it was a step in the right direction, but the handling in the corners was just evil wicked. Is that the way Matt felt about it?

Ratcliff – The handling in the corners was fine, as long as you didn’t have someone in front of you. We call it racing because you put more than one car on the track, so therefore it wasn’t great. I don’t think it was a step in the right direction at all. I thought everyone did a good job of giving it a good effort and going out and putting on a good show. In the end it was a good race but I think we’ve had a lot of good races this year. The question is, what are we trying to fix?

I think the racing is good. I think it has been good with three different aero packages in the last three weeks. I think, if you’re just looking to create more competition and parity across the group, then the Kentucky package is probably a better direction. I’m not saying the Kentucky package is the fix-all or exactly what we need, but directionally I think it is better than the Indy direction. The clean air to traffic balance disparity is too large at Indy. It was much closer at Kentucky. Whether you were following a guy or by yourself, the driver knew what he had. There weren’t as many unexpected events happening just because you were in dirty air.

Neff – Kyle Busch is back and on the roll that he is on, and JGR in general is on a pretty good roll right now. Has his presence in the competition meetings helped push everyone to a higher level?

Ratcliff – Absolutely. I think it was no different going into the season. When you add a guy like Carl Edwards to the group and you have one more really valuable data point that you can bring in, it is always better. Kyle being back is a huge plus. He’s another guy who is very talented and can bring a lot of good feedback to the group. That is the case with all four of the drivers. Definitely having him back is elevating the group as a whole.

Neff – We are heading off to Pocono this weekend. Haven’t heard any reconnaissance reports but it is assumed they fixed the bumps in turn 2. When you go into this race are you able to pull anything over from the first race since, aside from the bumps in the Tunnel Turn, the track was pretty good?

Ratcliff – I think so. Overall what we had in the first race will be a good place to start. There are a few things we can approach differently now that we don’t have to go through the section of whoop-dee-doos down the backstretch (laughs). All-in-all it seemed like it caught everyone by surprise. No one knew it was there until they got onto the track and tried to cross it as 170 mph. Once we got into the weekend and worked around it you didn’t really hear about it anymore. I don’t think there will be a lot different other than there won’t be any surprises going through the Tunnel Turn. Maybe we’ll get a little more racing through there. It did seem like it made it more of a one groove racetrack with everyone white knuckling it through the Tunnel Turn last time so hopefully that will be fixed.

Neff – With the new engine package, momentum is a pretty big deal to begin with. If you throw in the long front straightaway at Pocono and how important it is to get through turn 3 are there aspects of how you set up the car, whether it is the gear ratio or the aggressiveness of the suspension that will allow Matt to get to the power more quickly so he can get launched and make the run faster down the front straight.

Ratcliff – Similar to road course racing, you have to determine which is going to be the best compromise because you’re not going to get all three corners put together perfectly. So you have to determine where you’re going to make your passes, where it is going to be most valuable. Getting off of turn 3, if you can make that happen you can see it on the stop watch and then that is a place you can pass cars. That is a corner we always focus on. It isn’t that we don’t focus on the others, but it is definitely important, once you get racing, especially if it is warm outside. It can be tough to get up off of that corner and you carry third gear through that corner, some guys longer than others. That will change the balance of your car as well. You have to focus on all of them but for us, if I had to rank them in order, I would say turn 3, then turn 1 and then turn 2.

Neff – It seems like Indianapolis and now Pocono are being approached like road courses because you can pit without going a lap down. Do you feel like you’re starting to work those tracks backward and worrying more about getting into your pit window rather than when the caution flags fly?

Ratcliff – There are at least a couple of ways to approach it, and probably more than two ways. Obviously, to be victorious at the end of the day, there can be six different pit strategies that can pay off at the end of the day. It is definitely one at those tracks where it pays dividends, but there are times when it doesn’t. We saw a couple different strategies at Indy. Guys were working the fuel windows and other guys were working it like a normal race and trying to maintain track position other ways. In both scenarios you can be bitten pretty quickly if the caution flag falls at the wrong time. You just have to weigh it out. Any track where you can get down pit lane and get out before that caution flag flies without going a lap down is what you want to do. If you can avoid coming down pit lane with everyone else that is a benefit.

Neff – Indy and Pocono are both so big, is that a benefit or a detriment when the caution does fly? Do you almost have too much time to second guess yourself when the yellow is in the air?

Ratcliff – Not really. Actually, those tracks are pretty straightforward for race strategy. The mile and mile-and-a-half tracks are more difficult to actually call a race, I think, than the bigger racetracks. Maybe that is part of the reason. You have more time to think about it. You can weigh all of the scenarios and make sure that you’ve got all of your Ts crossed and your Is dotted. You get at a place like Richmond where you only have ¾ of a mile sometimes you can miss one of the details. I think, for me, the bigger tracks are easier to call than the smaller tracks.

Neff – Early in the year we seemed to have some trouble with shift levers, although they haven’t been much of a problem lately. Is there any concerns going into Pocono, because you are shifting so much, that you need to beef up the lever to make sure it doesn’t cause a problem up there?

Ratcliff – It is always a concern. Any time you’re doing something that is different from every other week you definitely don’t want to overlook it. You put a spotlight on it and keep an eye on it. Our guys do a good job of beating up parts pretty good when we go through our quality control so to speak. That keeps us from having those issues but everybody is pushing it. Nobody is above breaking a part or a piece. That is how we learn though. When we do break one we learn from our mistakes. We’ve broken a few shifter handles in our time but, at least that part we have under control.

Neff – You don’t typically talk about brakes at Pocono, since it is such a big place with sweeping corners. You aren’t on the binders too much in (turns) 2 or 3 but getting that car slowed down in turn 1 is a big deal. Do you have to have a little bit bigger brake package just because you have to slow down for turn 1?

Ratcliff – You do. Our package is just a little bit bigger than what we run on a typical intermediate track. It isn’t something that we typically have a problem with in practice but during the race you get out there on that long straightaway and you get a draft off of a group of cars and your entry speed can get up pretty high. So getting that slowed back down can be pretty tough for turn 1. So the package is a little bit more robust than at an a normal intermediate track, so we put a little more cooling to it.

Neff – Before the aero package change at Indianapolis, teams would normally use the same backup car for Indy and Pocono. Were you able to swap out the splitter and spoiler from Indy and use the same car for Pocono or did you have to prepare a completely different backup for this weekend?

Ratcliff – We could have done it that way but we didn’t. If it was just a spoiler and a splitter I would say that would have been the way to go. However, with that tail piece, not that it would have been hard by any means, but we just chose to avoid it this time around and brought a completely different backup car.

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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