Jason Ratcliff’s story of becoming a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief can be likened to a sports story that is near and dear to many sports fan’s hearts… a Triple-A baseball player finally getting called up to the big leagues.
After spending most of his professional racing career rising through the ranks and proving himself beyond a doubt, just prior to the 2012 NASCAR season, Ratcliff “got the call.”
Now, the South Carolina-native will lead the No. 20 Husky Tools/Dollar General Toyota team and driver Matt Kenseth in the chase for the Sprint Cup Championship in 2013.
Ratcliff has spent the previous seven years as crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Nationwide Series team. And like most Triple-A baseball players try and do, Ratcliff has put up some impressive stats on his way to the big leagues.
No Nationwide Series team has been better over the past three seasons as the team won two-consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series Owner’s Championships in 2009 and 2010 and narrowly missed out on a third-consecutive title this past season finishing just a few points out in second. Over the past three seasons, JGR’s No. 18 Nationwide Series team has won an incredible 30 races, with 68 top-five, and 85 top-10 finishes. In addition, they have led an astonishing 6,124 laps over that time. During that time-frame, Ratcliff has worked with experienced drivers like Kyle Busch, Logano and Denny Hamlin and helped mold some of the sport’s up-and-coming drivers, such as Michael McDowell, Brad Coleman, Ryan Truex and Kelly Bires.
Ratcliff’s journey to being a championship crew chief began with his birth on Dec. 8, 1967, in Sumter, S.C. He moved no less than six times as a child before settling in Westlake, La. While in Westlake, he began his racing career working on mini-Sprint Cars.
“I used to go the racetrack with the father of a friend of mine,” said Ratcliff, who graduated from Westlake High School in 1985. “I’d look to help anybody with a racecar because I couldn’t afford one.”
After graduation, Ratcliff moved to Texas, where he spent much of the next nine years working on sprint cars.
His professional racing breakthrough came in 1995, when he joined Sadler Racing in Nashville, Tenn., as a mechanic and rear tire changer for drivers Chuck Bown and Gary Bradberry in the Nationwide Series. After two years with Sadler Racing, Ratcliff left the team and spent the 1997-1998 seasons at LAR Motorsports, headquartered in Columbia, Tenn., where he was chief mechanic for Casey Atwood and Jeff Purvis over a two-year span.
Ratcliff’s first year as a NASCAR crew chief came at Brewco Motorsports in 1999, when a young Atwood was a Nationwide Series rookie. Ratcliff and Atwood were together at Brewco for two years before Atwood left for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride at Evernham Motorsports and was replaced at Brewco by Jamie McMurray for the 2001 and 2002 seasons.
“Casey was just 18 and I was a rookie crew chief, so that first year we both got a lot of experience learning together on the job,” Ratcliff said. “That lasted a couple of years with Casey, and then we started all over again with Jamie. I’m proud to say we won a couple of times with Casey and a couple of times with Jamie, which is quite an accomplishment with an independent Nationwide Series team.”
The 2003 and 2004 seasons at Brewco gave Ratcliff the chance to work with veteran Nationwide Series driver David Green, and the crew chief-driver tandem hit the ground running from the opening race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in 2003. They went on to win three races, score 11 top-fives, 21 top-10s and two pole positions en route to second place in the season-ending driver championship, a mere 14 points behind title-winner Brian Vickers.
Working with Green, Ratcliff showed his mettle and again showed the NASCAR community that it was indeed possible for a non-Cup-affiliated Nationwide Series team to compete at a championship level week in and week out.
Before arriving at JGR prior to the 2005 season, Ratcliff had netted seven wins and seven pole positions with his combination rookie and veteran driver lineup. That set the stage for his new life at an established NASCAR Cup-affiliated Nationwide Series operation, which promised huge dividends.
Ratcliff enjoyed a solid run with former JGR driver J.J. Yeley in 2005 and 2006 as they collaborated on 13 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes in those two seasons on NASCAR’s junior circuit. In 2007, Ratcliff worked with the trio of Aric Almirola, Brad Coleman and Kevin Conway as they shared the No. 18 car. Collectively, they scored two poles, four top-fives and five top-10s.
Busch and Denny Hamlin split time in the No. 18 Toyotas in 2008, with Busch scoring four wins and Hamlin one win with Ratcliff sitting on top of the pit box.
Then in 2009, the tandem of Ratcliff and Busch rewrote the history books with one of the most successful seasons in NASCAR’s 62-year history.
The duo won its first NASCAR title of any kind by defeating runner-up Carl Edwards by 210 points in the season-ending championship standings. Their total of 5,682 points scored in 2009 were the most ever by a Nationwide Series champion, as were the 2,698 laps Busch led throughout the season. Busch scored nine wins – four more than any other driver – while he finished second 11 times for a single-season Nationwide Series record. Busch’s 25 top-five finishes were the most since Jeff Green scored 25 top-fives in a 32-race season in 2000.
“It was incredible,” Ratcliff said. “When you stop and think about it, it becomes a little bit emotional. To think about what we were able to do, the blessings that we were blessed with all season long – Kyle and this whole team, what we were able to accomplish as a group – it’s just awesome to be able to put those goals up there in front of us and go out there and achieve them. We did everything we set out to do, and then even more than we expected.”
Away from the track, Ratcliff resides in Huntersville, N.C., with his wife Christi and children Cade and Dakota. In his free time, he enjoys working on cars, golfing and boating.