Monday, July 18, 2016

Right Sides Only: Notes from New Hampshire 301 Winning Crew Chief, Jason Ratcliff

by Stacey Owens

Jason Ratcliff isn't a magician, but he certainly has a magical touch when it comes to leading his driver, Matt Kenseth, to Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, aka The Magic Mile. The No. 20 Dollar General team won there last fall and repeated their winning ways in the New Hampshire 301 on Sunday.

Of course, Ratcliff doesn't chalk up the win to magic.

"Well, it seems like this is one of our better tracks," Ratcliff said. "We've had some good runs here in the last three years, and we always look forward to coming here. It's been a track that's not only good for the team but obviously good for Matt.
            
"And today, right off the truck, we felt like our Dollar General Camry was fast. We didn't get the qualifying and the starting position that we hoped for on Friday, but yesterday in practice we were very pleased with it, came in this morning, didn't really make a lot of adjustments to it.
            
"Early on in the race, though, it wasn't responding the way we anticipated it would, but after the first stop it came around and had really good speed for the rest of the day."
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
There were times throughout the afternoon, however, that a trip to Victory Lane wasn't a forgone conclusion for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.

"Early in the race we weren't able to make a lot of ground up, but after the competition caution, we got another set of tires on it. Matt said the car responded really well.  He was able to drive up into the top five and for the rest of the day kind of stay there.
            
"But all our cars, as Coach (Gibbs) mentioned, everyone works really hard, and I think all the JGR cars and the 78 car were really good today. I think any one of those guys could have won this race. In the end it just came down to minimizing mistakes and having yourself in the right position when it counted," Ratcliff said.
            
"It worked well for us. Early on it didn't look like it was going to, but the cautions kind of fell our way, and the adjustments worked well. You don't make many stops here. It's a track position race.  We saw some long green flag runs today, so thankfully we were able to hit on the few stops we had and close the deal."

As strong as the No. 20 team was this weekend, Ratcliff isn't satisfied.

"... I think our cars are where they need to be right now, but I think a lot of teams can say that. We've got to keep pushing. We've got to be prepared and be better when we get that last team.
            
"When we come back here, it's going to take a lot more than what we had today. But this has been a good place for us, and I think we saw that today running up front. The setups that we've had year after year have worked well, and you just keep building on that when you come back, and we share that information. So if one team does well, then that benefits all, and I think that's what we're seeing."
 
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

Ratcliff, like many other crew chiefs, believes that the key to success on Sunday is great preparation on Friday. When asked how his team keeps up its momentum during the second half of the season, he gave the quintessential crew chief response.

"I think a lot of it is Friday. A lot of our guys call flat up front, and then the competition caution they took two, so they kept their track position, and we had the long green runs and the cars obviously ran well, so they started in the front, they stayed in the front, and he led a lot of laps. We didn't get a lot of cautions until late in the race, and it's a tough place to pass. You've got to work on your strategy and know when to take four and when to take two and work towards the end, and it just paid off for us, and it paid off for Toyota and JGR today," Ratcliff explained.

With so few Fridays left until the Chase begins, how do Kenseth and Ratcliff plan to make a run for the championship?

"Well, you learn from Adam (Stevens) and Kyle (Busch) and what they did, what they felt like they did right, what they felt like they didn't, and also look at our race team and what we could have done better," Ratcliff said. "TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is providing great horsepower for us. Guys are building great cars back at the shop, and as Coach mentioned earlier, they're working hard, working late nights, and doing everything they can. Championships mean a lot to them.
            
"We're all going to keep learning from each other and keep building on it and do our best to get one of those things, the big trophy at Homestead."

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     Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

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