Christopher Bell and crew chief Jason Ratcliff were thrown into the fire.
Leavine Family Racing had about as harsh a start to the season that a team can in the NASCAR Cup Series. Bell’s average finish is 29th, putting him 32nd in the point standings due to two DNFs and a best finish of 21st in the Daytona 500, along with a mix of mistakes (like damaging the car when hitting the wall) and misfortune (a jack bolt from another car going through the radiator).
Ratcliff knew coming into the year that it was going to be a learning process for his No. 95 Toyota team. It’s a group he has not worked with before, and Bell is a rookie trying to navigate the highest level of stock car racing. But Ratcliff told RACER he feels they made progress through those rough races.
“As a team, we’ve learned a lot,” said Ratcliff. “Whether it’s implementing new procedures – whatever that might be – to make us just a better all-around team, and at the same time, Christopher, in his first four races, he’s seen a lot of things that would take guys half a year to experience. He’s learning fast, and learning what he needs to do to be more competitive throughout the races for the short runs and for the big-picture long run, so a lot of positives coming out of it.
“We always look at results because that’s what we do, but I think we’ve done a good job managing that and putting things into perspective and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to be capable of moving beyond this.’ We just need a few races under our belt where we can perform up to our standards and expectations, and get out of this hole.”
Before racing and the rest of the sports world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ratcliff felt the team had gotten through the toughest portion of the early season stretch. That run of three consecutive west coast races is challenging on teams logistically, but with car preparation done primarily before the season, it also leaves teams without much time or chance to make updates.
While Bell is a little fish in a big pond, Ratcliff has been here before. When he was paired with Bell in 2018 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ratcliff left behind the Cup Series, where he had been a crew chief for six full seasons and 15 wins with Joey Logano in 2012, and Matt Kenseth between 2013 and 2017. After two years away, Ratcliff is getting reacquainted with the ins and outs of the top tier.
“It’s been everything I expected it to be,” he said. “It’s very challenging in comparison to Saturday racing in the Xfinity Series. Not that the Xfinity Series isn’t challenging. It is. I think each series has its own challenges, but Cup, it is what it is. It’s got the best of the best there. But that’s why we do it. For guys like myself that kind of thrive on that and look for new challenges, that’s the most exciting part about being back on the Cup side.
“But it’s been difficult for us. Not all our own doing. We’ve definitely made some mistakes in the first four races, but also had some unfortunate circumstances as well. So, we’re not where we want to be by any means, but we understand the situation also.
“Phoenix was more back to the norm for what I’m used to with the aero package changes, but [Las] Vegas and Fontana, that aero package, it’s different and how you prepare for that. That has probably been one of the biggest changes. With each rules package change, whether it’s rules or aero or mechanical things, your priorities and what you need to focus on and what brings speed on race day is different. For me, what we’re having to focus on right now to race on these intermediate tracks is different than what I have ever experienced, so the guys that lived it last year have a leg up, and I’m getting my hands around it.
“The second thing, the (weekend) schedule has been trimmed down quite a bit, and I felt like coming from the Xfinity Series, where the schedule is pretty tight, that I’d be able to manage that as good or better than some. But it’s more difficult than I anticipated, and especially when you’re back in the points, it’s tough. These guys, they walk in the garage, and they don’t even have an opportunity to eat lunch at times. It’s difficult to manage, and again, if you get up into the top 10, even the top 15 in points, I think it exponentially improves, but being back where we’re at, it makes it difficult on the team, and that also makes it difficult to dig out of those holes if you get one little hiccup throughout the weekend.”
The main quality that Ratcliff can bring to the table for Bell is his experience. Ratcliff has called 638 races as a NASCAR crew chief between the Xfinity and Cup Series, and has 66 victories. He has worked with rookies and veterans, and experienced the sport’s highs and lows, and now Ratcliff can use all that he’s learned along the way to make sure Bell keeps the right head space.
“Even if you had someone who has experienced it and says, ‘Hey, look, I’ve been through this year, don’t get worked up about it, it’s just part of it’, it’s still difficult to hear that and move beyond it, especially with all the success that Christopher’s had in the last three or four years.,” Ratcliff says. “But I feel like my experience will be able to help him.
“At the same time, I have to manage it. I’m very competitive, and right now, we’re not living up to the expectations I have, so I have to keep telling myself that, and on top of that, help Christopher walk through that knowing we got greater things ahead, and we’re going to get where we need to get. It’s just going to be a process.”
Despite the trial by fire, Ratcliff says the mood in the Leavine camp is “very good” as they look to get back to racing and back on track.
“Everyone gets discouraged, rightfully so,” says Ratcliff. “I would be disappointed if we didn’t, but at the same time, everyone’s done a nice job putting their head down. It’s almost like, and I’ve seen this with the different teams I’ve worked with, the more that they experience a little bit of defeat, the harder they dig their heels in and push forward.
“I’m excited about that. I know that is definitely going to pay dividends down the road.”