NASCAR: Changes throw some Sprint Cup teams a changeup

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJune 27, 2014 

— For years NASCAR teams have clamored for the sanctioning body to loosen the reins on its rules packages in order to encourage more innovation.

In the offseason, NASCAR did just that, and with 10 races remaining until the field is set for the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, there are still many teams having difficulty adjusting to that newfound freedom.

“We all felt like we wanted more options, and then when we get them, we all wish we didn’t have them,” said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for driver Matt Kenseth.

The changes – including eliminating the pre- and postrace front height rules and inspections – were designed to make the cars more stable and predictable.

But the difference between the changes crew chiefs could make and what drivers felt on the track from last season to this season is night and day.

“When the cars get on the race track, they pretty much all look the same,” Ratcliff said. “But if you look at the cars in the garage, you see a lot of different approaches and a lot of different concepts being tried.

“Everybody is so competitive and they know every little bit they pick up could be what they need on race day – the difference between finishing fifth and winning the race.”

There is no better example of the difference of simply running well and winning than Kenseth and his No. 20 Toyota team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Entering Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m., TNT), Kenseth is fourth in the series standings with a pole, five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 16 races – but no wins.

A year ago, Kenseth left Kentucky with his fourth win of the season but was fifth in the series standings.

Those wins were important last season as Kenseth went down to the wire contending for the series championship with Jimmie Johnson. They would be even more welcome this season, as wins are the de facto method drivers have to qualify for the Chase.

Kenseth insists he feels no sense of urgency in earning the win. If there is urgency, it’s getting the organization as a whole running better and more in line with Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske, which seem to have adjusted well to the offseason rules changes.

“We’re not running as good as we did last year as a group,” he said. “We’re not leading as many laps, sitting on as many poles, winning as many races. As a group we’re not doing near as much of that or running up front as much as we were last year.

“We’re already working as hard as we can and we’re calling the races the way we need to call them to get ourselves in the best position. We’re just going to keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win more, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later you’ll get a win.”

Having more options is a good thing for a crew chief, but Ratcliff said it also can be a challenge, particularly when you are struggling to find the right starting point.

“What the rules have done is open the box to where we can put the car in optimum attitude around the race track, where last year you were somewhat limited. It was more about compromise,” he said.

“This year, you can really pick apart the race track, and in my case, determine what Matt needs and where throughout the race. But you have to be careful, because you can end up down the wrong road very quickly.”

Ratcliff believes much of the advantage Hendrick and Penske have this season comes from the work the organizations do before their respective teams even get to the track.

“The cars are so close, in my opinion, a lot of the difference comes when you open the back door of the hauler and you see how detailed and precise the guys were in the shop,” he said.

“They’ve gotten it as close as they can to get every count of downforce out of the car. As I said, when we get on the race track, we all look very similar. Then it comes down to the best job at building the best race car.

“That’s where the speed’s at.”

Utter: 704-358-5114; Twitter: @jim_utter

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