Since February, I’ve been a supporter of NASCAR’s new rules package. I know many critics of the sport have felt differently, but I thought racing at places like California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta was better than it had been in some time; in the case of Las Vegas, it produced the best racing that track has ever seen. In my view, Sunday’s race at Martinsville was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting held this season. Beating and banging all over the race track and some continuous side-by-side racing (which we struggle to see anymore) ruled the day at the shortest and slowest race track on the circuit. Still, I think Sunday started to uncover a problem with the handling package, and one I think needs to be addressed quickly before the positive changes get overshadowed by some major problems.
And that issue is simple; anybody watching on Sunday could have figured it out. By my count, roughly one-third of the field was affected by a serious tire problem at Martinsville. The list ranged from part-timer Johnny Sauter, who raced like he was shot out of a cannon until a tire failure cut the brake lines and ended his day, to contender Jeremy Mayfield, who ran in the Top 5 and led a handful of laps until a cut right front threw him out of contention. Even the race winner, Jeff Gordon, experienced a right front tire problem within the first 100 laps of the race that put him 3 laps down. Luckily, he had time to recover; for a list of other contenders which included Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty, Ken Schrader, and Dave Blaney, they did not (in case you’re wondering, Tony Stewart’s tire problem appeared to be due to loose lugnuts, so I’m not counting him on this list).
If this were one race, then I wouldn’t be too worried about it, but this follows a race at Bristol in which we couldn’t get through a set of green-flag pit stops without a tire failure bunching up the field. Come to think of it, the same problem happened at Martinsville Sunday…and at California…and at Las Vegas. While the whole issue of “debris” or “not debris” has ratcheted up the rate of cautions this year, you can’t help but notice that the rash of tire failures have taken its toll on that number too. It seems that the new softer tire can lead to some setups with incredibly low air pressures; and as a result, the tire has trouble withstanding a long green-flag run, and more than often blows up before the fuel load runs out.
Some might say that this rash of tire failures is simply due to cars making contact on the race track every Sunday. And that’s partially true. But for those fans new to the sport, you have to understand that a decade ago tires didn’t go flat every time one car touched another. I remember a race at Richmond back in 1992 where Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace ran side-by-side for the lead for over 200 laps, beating and banging against each other all the way; there was no tire failure there, and they weren’t just lucky. You see, running side-by-side and giving each other a smack or two on the driver’s side door is good for the sport, and has been around since the days NASCAR began. It’s that type of close side-by-side racing that drew fans to our sport in the first place, before the words “wind tunnel” and “aero push” and “chassis dyno” entered everyday stock car conversation. Simply put, the tires have to be built to withstand the fact they come in contact with things every once in awhile. Somehow, the word “soft” to describe a tire doesn’t exactly go together with the fact that it’ll be hitting some metal three or four times per green-flag run.
What really shocks me about this whole tire issue is the CINGULAR fan poll Fox had during the race that asked the viewers if the tire failures were caused by aggressive setups. The answer, astoundingly enough, was 82% yes, to 18% no. It was probably the silliest result I’ve ever heard. Sure, the pressure in Nextel Cup racing today is such that you have to race with an aggressive setup in order to outduel your closest competition. And that aggressiveness leads to low tire pressures, which could indirectly lead to tire failure. But did you think the drivers racing back in the 1970s weren’t racing “aggressive” setups? Did you think the drivers a decade ago were just stroking it while the sport grew by leaps and bounds? Crew chiefs have been going with aggressive setups since the dawn of the sport. Fooling around with tire pressures isn’t a new thing. But the responsibility lies solely with Goodyear, as well as NASCAR, to predetermine how aggressive those setups will be and to make a tire able to stand up in those types of conditions.
So far, they’ve failed in that regard, and while the quality of competition is better, the racing on the track has more of an element of luck involved than ever before. Everyone is crossing their fingers that their tires make it for a whole green-flag run, instead of wondering how to adjust them to win the race, and that shouldn’t be. Because the more sensitive the tires get, the more paranoid drivers will become about cutting them. The ability to beat and bang with these cars is what separates us from open wheel racing; once we lose that, the ability to swipe some paint without puncturing a tire or destroying the car, then aren’t we just a slow, single-file parade of open-wheelers in stock bodies? It’s a question I don’t ever want to answer. So let’s not tilt in that direction.
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