Winning fixes everything, even if there wasn’t anything broken. Matt Kenseth, Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 team played strategy well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and came home with the victory last weekend. There are many things that come into play for a team to win a Cup Series race and the historic trends don’t always play out. That was the case this past weekend.
This week in Tech Talk, Ratcliff talks about how Loudon played out, searching for lines to make the car fast and the video available to the teams on the pit box, which bit the No. 4 team at Loudon. He also touches base on strategy for this weekend, the amount of load that these cars have to experience, and making the tires work at their best.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – You got to leave Loudon covered in confetti and champagne. Give us a glimpse as to how that race unfolded over the closing laps.
Jason Ratcliff – We had a top-five car going into the race. We started a little bit behind, outside of the top 12, but we made progress. I was really pleased with the way we made progress in the first half of the race. Matt was able to move forward on the race track which told me that the car was capable of doing something good if we could get track position. The pit crew did a good job as usual of making some fine adjustments to improve the car and get him off of pit road. Just methodically worked our way towards the front. No different from any other race at Loudon, when it comes down to the last 150 laps you have to take some chances. It is all about making your car its best at that point of the race and getting and keeping track position and not losing it.
It was an unusual event for Loudon. That race usually ends with a fair amount of cautions. They are separated with some decent sized green flag runs but you don’t know where they are going to play out. You know they are coming but, for whatever reason, they didn’t happen at the end of the race. They kind of fell our way. We got the caution when we needed to to get the tires on it, with around 60 laps to go. At that point, some of the other cars that were in contention to win the race decided that they were going to try and make it on fuel. There were a couple of different scenarios and strategies playing out there and thankfully it went green and our strategy worked for us.
Neff – Watching Kenseth work his way through traffic, throughout most of the race, there were many times that we saw him all of the way down on the apron. Is that something that you set up the car to handle or is it just his ability using what he has and getting to the bottom and making it work?
Ratcliff – That is a track where it is wide and there are a lot of different grooves. You have to search around all day and figure out where your car works the best. You take some mental notes and figure out, if I’m in this situation or if I’m racing a guy, this is where my car works well and when it comes to go time I have to use my advantages and put myself into those positions. That just happened to be a spot where the car was working well for Matt. He’d learned that throughout the day, that he could make some speed there, especially at different parts of the run. Sometimes your car will work well at a certain spot on the race track early in the run, and then later in the run it may not work so well there and you have to find someplace different to run. He did a nice job of searching around and then, towards the end of the race, knowing what he had and where his car worked well. Down low and running across the apron was the spot where he could make a little bit of lap time up.
Neff – We heard Rodney Childers, on the lap 239 caution when you came in and got your tires and fuel that got you to the end, he tried to call Harvick in but he was already past the cone. He mentioned that his live video feed was actually a delayed video feed. What video feed do you receive on the box? Is it from the race track or is it the raw feed that goes out to the satellite? How do you get that?
Ratcliff – They have a live feed there. Everyone is tapped into that. We can get it right there on the pit box. Obviously there was a little bit of a delay even though they call it live right? I guess it is just more live than the regular TV broadcast (laughs). That will catch you. You used to get a delay of five or six seconds. This is a lot better but it still isn’t real time. It has happened to all of us throughout the years, we’ve been caught with that. Evidently he was relying on it and you can’t. Even though it is better than it used to be it still isn’t perfect.
Neff – Now we’re heading to Dover. It is a big, concrete mile. Over the years, due to the fact that it is concrete, does it stay more consistent and let you come back with more similar setups than asphalt tracks do?
Ratcliff – Yes and no. The track kind of behaves the same way that it always does but a lot of it depends on the tire. The tire compound and the combination that Goodyear brings, and what you will have from race to race and it is highly dependent on the weather. The temperature doesn’t vary as much because it is concrete, but the rubber sticking to the track is highly dependent on the weather, the outdoor temperature and the sunlight. That is a big deal at places like Dover and Bristol.
All in all, it is the same tire we ran at the first race. It is fairly repeatable. I would expect, with the limited practice that we’ll get this weekend, thanks to the weather, we can look back at our notes and it should be a pretty decent place to start.
Neff – Speaking of setups, the camber you put in the tires is usually in there so that you get the maximum tire patch on the ground when you get the travels of the suspension in the corner. Since you drop into the corner and have such intense banking, do you need much camber at Dover or are you kind of thrown into the corner and already maxed out on travel?
Ratcliff – There is an optimum for a given tire and whatever the design of that tire. How it is built and tested determines that. With a lot of tires the range of that optimum camber may be a little bigger window than the next tire because of the design parameters. Regardless, it is always better to have some, no matter the racetrack. Typically you don’t want it flat on the racetrack. But, like you said, the transitions from entry to load, and the way you load really hard at Dover, geometry is a big deal. How much camber gain you get or lose, and making sure you keep that tire at optimum camber and contact patch on the race track at all times, because it changes so fast. You can go through a big load transition and, if you miss it you miss it. Once you do it doesn’t recover and the only way to get it to recover is to slow down and that’s not the name of the game (laughs). You better not miss it.
Neff – Talking about the load that you deal with at Dover and other tracks, most fans probably don’t realize what you deal with. The chassis on these cars are steel, but they aren’t as rigid as people might believe. How much flex are you getting in the chassis from the loads in the corners?
Ratcliff – It is a fair amount. You see thousands of pounds of load at a place like Dover. You’re pulling a couple of Gs and the car is over 3,000 pounds. It is unbelievable the amount of structural load and deflection and compliances throughout the chassis and the suspension components. It is crazy. If the driver ever saw it he might not get back in the car (laughs). At the same time you can use that to your advantage. If you know what those changes are and you can build some of that into your car or your suspension, or at least understand it, then you are going to be able to do a much better job of hitting your targets. It is huge. It is not in the fractions of inches, it is up there pretty good, as far as deflections go.
Neff – Back when we had ride-height rules, teams spent thousands of dollars on single shocks and springs. Now that we have no ride-height rule and you can set the car all of the way down, do teams spend near as much money on shocks and springs as they used to?
Ratcliff – Yeah, well, it isn’t that you had to buy a tremendous amount of different stuff when you went to that rule, but it did take a different approach. Thankfully you were able to just make some adjustments with what you had. Shocks and springs are just as critical as ever, maybe even more so. Before, when you had a large change in travel you might be able to miss it a little bit. Now, when you start reducing travel in the car, I don’t know that it isn’t more critical than it used to be. Understanding that from a dampening standpoint and what you want differently in your shocks because, if the ride height displacement is less there is a good chance your shock velocities are less, so it is going to take something different. The importance of it and the amount of money spent in that area probably hasn’t changed much just because of the ride height rule.
Neff – With the banking that you have at Dover, which allows you to be on the gas most of the time, and the length of the track only being a mile, is engine as important there as it is at the bigger tracks?
Ratcliff – Oh yeah, there is a lot of wide open throttle time. You get back, maybe not full throttle, but into the throttle pretty decently before you ever get to the center of the corner. You carry a lot of throttle time on exit. That makes all of the difference in the world on how much speed you have when you get to the middle of the straightaway and to the next corner. It is probably as big there as it is anywhere.
Neff – We heard the No. 4 team talking after Loudon, and it applies at any track, about how much fuel Harvick had saved. Is there any way for you to tell, on top of the box within a reasonable amount, how much a driver saves or is it pretty much a guess?
Ratcliff – It is a guess but it is a calculated guess. Based on past experience and some different strategies that you may have done at a test somewhere. You had the driver do X, Y and Z and what was the mile-per-gallon change when you did it. You talk about those things so that, when you get into a fuel saving scenario, you can give him how many laps you need and he’ll have a better understanding, inside the car, if he does this he can pick up one or two tenths of a mile per gallon, which will buy him a lap within 20 laps or whatever it is. It isn’t an exact science by any means but there is a lot of thought put into it.
Neff – This is a unique week because there is actually a chance to play a specific role in eliminating someone from making it to the next round. In the competition meeting this week, was there any discussion whatsoever about you or Denny or both of you mirroring Harvick and their strategy to try and finish just ahead of them and keep them from making it to the next round?
Ratcliff – No, not necessarily with that approach. For us, what we need to do is go out and win the race. That was the main topic and focal point of our meetings. What do we need to do going into Dover? It may be different for each team. What the No. 20 needs to do may be different from what the No. 18 needs to do. For the No. 20 team, we need to go win. It is momentum, it is another race that we can win. At the same time, if we win then somebody else doesn’t win. And it isn’t just one car. There are several guys who are championship contenders who run really strong at Dover. Even if it doesn’t prevent them from advancing to the next round, it is a confidence booster. It is momentum. It is the team believing that, when they get to the next round they have as good of a shot as anyone at winning. That is what we focus on. What do each of the four teams need to do, for themselves, and what do we need to do as a group that is going to benefit everybody going into Charlotte.
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.