Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Tires, Shocks & Unknowns with Jason Ratcliff

Coming off a challenging weekend at Martinsville Speedway, where qualifying was canceled and teams had to start on points, Jason Ratcliff and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team for Matt Kenseth had to battle hard but managed to overcome that initial deficit to come home in ninth. The outside groove came in and made it difficult to pass and the bump-and-run wasn’t as useful as it used to be.

Looking ahead to Texas Motor Speedway, there is a myriad of challenges facing the teams. The track was repaved, but there was no tire test or open testing on the new surface. Ratcliff is preparing for a weekend where he’s facing a surface that isn’t necessarily going to be as smooth as you’d think. The tires may or may not blister and the loads on the car are going to be completely different than they were last year. As a result, shock absorbers are going to be the primary focus for the weekend with tires a close second.

Learn how Ratcliff plans to utilize them and more in this week’s edition of Tech Talk.

Mike Neff – We are coming off a race at the track that has been on the schedule since the very first year of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It still tends to give us different challenges every time. You didn’t have a great day at Martinsville, but it wasn’t terrible. How do you break down your day?

Jason Ratcliff – Since we didn’t get to qualify on Friday we had to start where we are in points. That isn’t very good at the moment. So [we made] our way up from 25th to one point we were in the top five. I felt like we had a car capable of finishing in the top five. We had to pit at one point a little bit off sequence from where the leaders were. It worked out fine and we worked our way back into the top 10.

It seemed more difficult to pass than what it was in previous years. I think the right-side tire that Goodyear brought made that upper groove a little more appealing than it has been in the past. And that makes it tough because the cars that are running up there carry just enough momentum that you can’t pass them. I don’t know if that is good or bad. You don’t get as many of the bump-and-runs as you did in the past. I always thought [those] were a part of Martinsville and were kind of fun to watch. We didn’t see a lot of that because it was two wide and that made it tough to pass. Otherwise I felt like we probably could have worked our way into the top five.

Neff – It seemed like there were two or three cars who really took advantage of that high groove. Is that something that, if you’re going there to look at taking advantage of that, you have to change the way you set up your car to exploit that greater radius turn?

Ratcliff – No, not really. Once the track rubbers in a little bit you can find a little grip. When your car gets tight you are able to roll up there and, like you said, the radius is a little bigger. It allows you to keep up just enough momentum to make it tough on the guy behind you. We don’t do anything to intentionally run up there. There are times during the race when it is not good. Under caution, when everyone comes in and puts new tires on, you kind of pick that stuff up and it can take a period of a few laps for it to lay back down and become good again. We’re always set up right around the bottom, right around the curb. When the top comes in that is just another place you can run if you need to.

Neff – For Texas, has NASCAR given you any extra sets of tires and/or given you extra testing time to dial in your cars?

Ratcliff – They’ve given us an extra hour on Friday. We typically get right at an hour and a half and then qualify. Friday they are giving us right at two and a half. As far as extra tires, not really. They are giving us an opportunity to scuff our race sets. With the repave, odds of blistering tires goes up. Not saying it will, but it is a possibility. Scuffing tires on a repave usually helps that situation should it pop up. They are giving us an opportunity to do that. I think we’ll probably spend the better part of that extra hour they are giving us actually scuffing tires. I don’t know that we’ll learn much there. The track is going to be green. We are the first ones on the track, and it is going to change a lot from the time we unload on Friday until race time on Sunday.

Neff – As you look at that development and plan for that, when the track does get some rubber on it for the first time, do you feel like it will tighten up or loosen up?

Ratcliff – I think it will gain grip. I think it will be slick without any rubber down. My guess is it will tighten up, but you never know. Sometimes the life of the tire and the cycle on the tire can affect the balance at some of these repaves as much as anything. The track taking rubber just makes the conditions better for everyone, especially if you’re expecting or thinking about running somewhere out of the bottom groove, as we lay some rubber down that is a possibility. To start, it will be a one-lane track. Hopefully we’ll get enough rubber laid down that it widens out a little bit. We’ll see.

Neff – Not only did they repave the track but they dropped the banking in Turns 1 and 2 by a few degrees. Does that mean you take your old Texas notebooks and throw them in the trash, or at least put them on the back of the shelf for a few years?

Ratcliff – Right now that is really all you have. Since there was no testing and the teams haven’t had an opportunity to get on the track, no one has collected any data. The only thing you have is that Turns 3 and 4 will at least be somewhat similar to what it has been in the past. One and two is going to be a mystery. You know it is going to be flatter so you’d think it would be a fair amount slower than the Turns 3 and 4 end of the track. Every team is in the same boat. We just have to work through that. We’ll hold onto those notes for now. I am sure, by the end of the weekend, the notebook will look drastically different than the old ones we have. Then we’ll probably throw them away and start over.

Neff – When they repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway years ago (1997), the first couple of races you could run just about flat out for an exceptional amount of time. Do you think the reduction in banking in Turns 1 and 2 will prevent you from matting it for three or four laps when you go back to green?

Ratcliff – I think so. I think the bank angle is going to change a lot. I think it is going to be a more significant change than the repave. As far as Texas being Texas, it is just going to be a different racetrack. It will still be in the same location but a different track. You know how these repaves are. They’ve come a long way. In the past it has taken a few races to where the groove widens out and you can do some passing. Some of the newer repaves that we’ve seen over the last few years it doesn’t seem to take as long. Whether that is the asphalt they’re putting down or the way Goodyear is developing tires for the repaves, I’m not sure.

Hopefully Texas will be that way and come in a little quicker. I know they’ve done some work leading up to the event. They’ve cleaned the racetrack and they’ve drug some tires around the race track to fill those little crevices with some rubber before we get on it. That always helps. A lot of times the conditions and the outdoor environment for that particular race track and where it is located can affect it more than anything. You get some hot, sunny days in Texas so the track will probably season a little quicker than some other tracks.

Neff – Are you going down there with an aggressive shock package to keep you down on the earth all of the way around the track?

Ratcliff – You’d think it would be smooth, but I guess, in [Turns] 3 and 4, they didn’t take up the old racetrack, they just paved over it. I don’t know that it is going to be as smooth as we think it is. There could still be the bump that we had in 3 and 4. The biggest one down there. There were a few obviously, but the biggest section through 3 and 4 that was rather rough in the past, I think that might be the same as it always was. Now one and two, since they reconfigured it and flattened it out, you’d think it will be very, very smooth. Until we get on it and get up to speed, 180 or 190-plus, it is really hard to say what you’re going to need. You just have to be prepared for anything.

Neff – Going into the weekend knowing that Turns 1 and 2 have less vertical load than in the past, how do you go about attacking with the front end of the car? Do you utilize the same geometry that you utilized in the past or do you alter how the front end works since you’re going to have that lesser banking in 1 and 2?

Ratcliff – You have to go with what you know, what you’ve been working with at other intermediate tracks. You have to have a gameplan. Any time Goodyear brings a new tire you kind of chase that with your front end settings. You try and optimize that they have. Then you add a repave on top of that. We’ve talked about shocks and that is going to be a huge factor we’re going to work with all weekend. As far as your baseline, front-end package, you just have to go with your intermediate stuff that you’ve been running all season and tune from there.

Neff – How many shocks will you have on the truck this weekend and is it more than you normally take?

Ratcliff – We have a pretty good inventory on the truck. It consists of probably 125 shocks, so you have 30-40 per corner inventory built up and, of course, they’re rebuildable. It seems like you have that many shocks and you never have the one you want. The shock specialist will be quite busy this weekend. Until the track does get to a point where we can start making some changes and learning some things, I think that will be one of our biggest go-tos to start.

Neff – Did you make sure your shock specialist has their inventory up to date for this weekend?

Ratcliff – Oh yeah, he’s always got it up to date every week. He’s always tuning on it to make sure we have everything we need for the next event.

Neff – We’ve done stage racing for six races now. Has it played out kind of how you thought it would or have you learned a lot over this first handful of races?

Ratcliff – It has been what we anticipated. I feel like, for us, we haven’t had an opportunity to take advantage of it as much as we’d hoped. We haven’t started as close to the front as we’d like to. For whatever reason we seem to keep finding ourselves on the outside looking in to gain those points or take advantage of winning one of those segments. I think it has played out like everyone anticipated it would. Everyone is going to continue to learn.

The biggest variable is how everyone else plays it. That is where you learn and kind of get a feel for what guys are thinking and what your competitors are going to do in certain situations. You kind of build a database off of that and going forward that helps you get into a position to win a segment or collect some points, you’re a little wiser than in the past. Is the action going to be greater as we get to the end of these segments, knowing you can get some bonus points, I think we’ve seen that. I think we’ve seen some guys racing like it is the last lap. That’s what we want. I think that was the intent and I think it has worked out. That’s a good 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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