Three races into 2017 and crew chiefs are still in the early stages of figuring out the latest edition of the low-downforce package.
Aside from Daytona International Speedway, which is a restrictor plate race, the other two events have been the first real tests with the new package. It is a learning experience for teams and crew chiefs who are discovering how to make the cars race better in the traffic behind the leaders.
Jason Ratcliff is this week’s guest in Tech Talk and he looks back at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, admitting the Joe Gibbs Racing brigade struggled with setup last week. He also isn’t sure that the multi-zone tire that Goodyear bring to the track might not be doing what they are set out for.
As for this week, he doesn’t feel like the dogleg is as much of a challenge as the different radius turns at Phoenix. He also touches base on the odd location for the spotters’ stand, the late-race Sun and the strategy that segments may bring to the desert Southwest.
Mike Neff – A Toyota won in Las Vegas. While they took home the trophy it seems like the rest of the Toyota crowd was off. Did it feel like JGR missed it a little bit to you?
Jason Ratcliff – For whatever reason it did. I thought we were pretty close in practice. That didn’t show up on Sunday. I knew there would be some changes to the track conditions. It was a little warmer on Sunday and things like that. I thought we’d be better. I was really disappointed by the lack of speed the car had at the beginning of the race. It just didn’t seem like we could make it up. We just kept falling behind little by little and, even if we made the balance better, we just couldn’t get the break we needed to get some track position. We did learn a lot from it and we’ll take that and move on.
Neff – Goodyear continues to bring the multi-zone tire to some race tracks. Have you developed a better feel for how those tires react and what to do with your car to achieve the best results?
Ratcliff – Yeah, I understand the objective but I don’t know that there is really a need for it. I think it opens up the door for inconsistencies from one tire set to the next. They’ve gotten a lot better but I don’t know that it eliminates the potential problems that we’ve had in the past where we were wearing the inside of the tire out. I just think it overheats the tire. I’m not sure that it really prevents what we’re trying to prevent. I don’t care for them. I don’t like the thought of splicing the tire somewhere on the contact patch. However, if they think it is a better direction we’ll keep pursuing it and keep learning. I do find that they’re a little more inconsistent than the single zone tire.
Neff – Now that we have two mile and a half races in with the new aero package, it seems like the first two or three cars get strung out, but from there on back, the racing seems to be fantastic. Martin Truex Jr. had a pretty dominant car at Vegas and Kevin Harvick was very dominant at Atlanta. Do you feel like there is still a big aerodynamic advantage for the first two or three guys but once the air is a little disturbed it equalizes the competition?
Ratcliff – Yeah, it is still early on. We all still need to learn how our cars react in traffic and get a few races under our belt. The leader is always going to have an advantage. I don’t think there will ever be an aero package that will keep the leader from having some aerodynamic advantage. Unless we do something more creative than trimming the spoiler and taking some of the front downforce off of the cars. It is going to be less dependent. I think the reason for the aero change was to get the cars more racy in traffic. I think it has done that for sure. I would like to see a little different approach than just trimming the spoiler and the splitter. Maybe we can get a little more creative with it down the road. It is a little early to tell. We’re learning some things on how the cars react differently in traffic compared to what we saw last year. We are just going to have to keep working with it and make sure we have some adjustablility in the car. Obviously we want to be out front and take advantage of that clean air. You aren’t always going to have that advantage so we need to work on making our cars work in traffic.
Neff – As far as the new package goes, did the trimming of the splitter in the front keep your balance close to the last package or is the car looser than it was before?
Ratcliff – I think they did a good job of getting the balance close to what we had in 2016. They took just a little off of the front and the rear. They did a good job of keeping it proportional.
Neff – We’re headed off to Phoenix. Depending on your perspective, is it or is it not a short track? Most people think a mile or less is a short track. It is unique with the location of the dogleg on the backstretch not being in the middle of the ‘straight.’ It has a short chute and then a long run down to turn three. Is the way that dogleg is located on the backstretch a challenge for how you have to set up your geometry of the front of the car?
Ratcliff – Not really, I think the difference between the turning radii of turns one and two to three and four is a little more difficult in finding a setup that ties both ends of the track together. The dogleg is a neat characteristic of the track, especially how guys fan out and give themselves different opportunities entering turn three and taking advantage of that. Once you get racing, I don’t think you have to do anything, setup wise, for the dogleg. You focus more on what am I going to do to compliment both ends of the track being so different.
Neff – Phoenix is similar to Pocono where you can’t really make the car work great at both ends. You have to compromise at one end in order to be successful at the other. Is it more important to get off of four and make a run to make passes going into one or is getting off of turn two with a head of steam?
Ratcliff – At certain tracks I would say yes. However, at Phoenix, if you can get off of two you can make the dogleg shorter and get to turn three before the next guy and take advantage of that. Really getting off of both corners can really be advantageous here. Some other asymmetrical tracks you find one end that is more dominant than the other for making passes. At Phoenix, if you are good off of four and make a pass getting into one but the guy beats you off of two you haven’t done yourself any favors. You have to work pretty hard on both ends of Phoenix.
Neff – We saw it last fall with the position of the spotter stand provides quite a challenge to the teams. You’re more focused on the car as the crew chief, but you are responsible for the whole team. Have you made any alterations after the last race to try and improve the spotter/driver dynamic as the spotter has to look head on at the cars down the front straight?
Ratcliff – That has always been something at Phoenix. If you can’t get a pit stall down in the corner, it is beneficial to have one down closer to the start/finish line. That way you can call restarts from the pit box rather than relying on the spotter. The driver and the spotter just have to know that is just a tough spot. You obviously can’t clear the driver on the frontstretch from the pit box. They just have to know where the blind spots are located. They need to work with each other through practice and communicate that the particular spot in turn one is going to be tough coming at you to clear the guy. It has always kind of been that way but it can still get tight here. We saw that last year, especially in an aggressive situation, it is a tough spot for the spotter to make that call.
Neff – Another challenge at Phoenix is the sun, when you are getting down into turn one. Late in the day is when it gets tough. With the start of the race at 1:30 p.m. local time, the end of the race should be late in the day when the Sun becomes difficult. It is one thing to have tape and tear-offs that are tinted that you can peel off as the sun goes away. This is more of a challenge at the end of the race where it gets harder during the final laps. Is there anything you can do to reduce the glare late in the race?
Ratcliff – You can, we have different visors and we try to move the upper, blackout portion of the windshield down as far as we can, but you can only move it so far. You still have to see out the windshield. Same thing with the visor, you still have to be able to see over the nose and down the racetrack. There is only so much you can do. You can try and block it as best you can. Typically this race ends before it gets real, real bad. But, if you get a couple of delays or a red flag you can definitely find yourself in that situation. We see it in qualifying all of the time.
Neff – You have had three races with segments now. Has it made a big difference in your strategy early in the race and are you seeing the final segment play out more like the old days without the segments?
Ratcliff – I think the three different tracks we’ve been to have each been a little bit different. Daytona you played one strategy. Atlanta is Atlanta, any time you can come to the pits and get four tires on the car you take advantage of it. We divided the first stage up into two segments and hoped the tires would last that long. Vegas was a little bit different. For us we needed to work on our car so any time we came down pit road we really couldn’t play any strategy like we needed to, to get that track position. I think Phoenix will be a completely different race from what we’ve seen. I think it is going to open up some doors for different strategies. Some guys may take two tires or no tires in some different situations than we’ve seen in the first three races.
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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