For the second week in a row, the end of the Sprint Cup race came down to a pit decision that resulted in a driver who was not up front all day taking the win. As the laps counted down toward the end of the race, the caution flag flew with 37 laps to go, leaving teams with a crucial decision. While Mark Martin stayed on track, Matt Kenseth and five other drivers chose to take two tires to get up toward the front of the pack, hoping to get clean air on the nose of their cars.
Meanwhile, Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson, who’d led 353 laps to that point, took four tires and lined up behind the drivers who were making the tire gamble. As the race wound down, the combination of clean air and rubber buildup on the track allowed Kenseth to pull away while preventing the dominant cars and drivers of the day from making up the positions they’d sacrificed in the name of four new skins.
Last week, Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart rolled the dice at the end of the event in Darlington and, while Stewart faded, Smith turned the gamble into a victory, Keselowski into a podium finish. While the discussion throughout this weekend was about the amount of rubber being deposited on the track, the final decision to only put two tires on the car, and take advantage of the added downforce on the nose, proved again that the current car is far more dependent on the air than on tires.
There are hundreds of decisions made by crew chiefs throughout a race weekend but, if the last two weeks have shown us anything, it is that the position of the car on the track is the most critical when the race is winding down. The current car design creates a huge amount of disturbed air in its wake, and overcoming the lack of downforce on the nose requires time and strategy to execute a clean pass. With the number of cars that stayed out in front of the dominant cars for Sunday’s final restart, there simply wasn’t enough time for the four tire cars to pick their way through the two tire cars and get back to the front to challenge Kenseth.
Racing is a delicate balance between horsepower and adhesion. A car can have all the power in the world, but if it can’t make the tires grip the racing surface as it goes around the corners, it won’t have a chance to win. With the ever changing tires that are brought to the race track each weekend, the teams are constantly having to figure out how to make their car grip the race track over the residue left behind from the wearing tires.
Some weeks the rubber is laid down in the grooves and crevices in the track in just the right amount to allow the tires to grab but not slide and wear out gradually. Other weeks too much rubber sticks to the track, as it did this weekend, and the tires slide across the track and do not wear out, so the crew chiefs are presented the option of taking two tires on a stop to get out in front of the pack, an option that has the added benefit of more air pressing down on the hood, making the front tires turn better. The last option, and the worst which has affected the series a couple of times this year, the tires do not leave enough rubber on the track and the tires wear out prematurely, which can result in blown tires and torn up race cars.
The tires that the series utilizes have become far too complicated of an endeavor and have had too much of an impact on the outcome of races already this season. There is nothing wrong with an occasional tire gamble paying off for a driver, but the key word in that statement is gamble. The driver needs to be faced with a far more difficult handling race car that he is forced to wrestle around the track as the laps wind down to realize the return on their strategy. The time has come for NASCAR to put pressure on Goodyear to come up with a consistent tire across race tracks which performs nearly the same under race conditions, so that the teams can spend their time working on the cars and not trying to figure out how the tire du jour is going to handle.
Strategy calls in racing should be about putting the driver in a position to race his way to the best finish possible, with the race car and their skills allowing them to maximize the strategy. When the race track and the car make all of the difference, and the driver and crew chief are merely bit players in the final act, the parameters of racing become skewed. Here’s hoping NASCAR and Goodyear can get their act together to allow the best in the business the opportunity to display their talents and expertise, with the outcome of the races determined by who does everything the best, not who was lucky enough to be in front the last time the green flag flew.
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