It’s becoming commonplace to hear the “new Bristol” being described as too tame, too radical a departure from the old bullring every time NASCAR returns to tackle Bruton’s highest banks. And, after four years of experience with the track’s newest repaving it’s a debate that, for all intents and purposes has grown tired. Either one enjoys the side-by-side racing that inevitably ensues with three grooves and 43 cars taking to a half-mile circuit – the current format they see today – or they yearn to see the days of 2003, where over 20 cars were involved in crashes over the course of one Saturday evening.
Truth be told, both camps had something to be disappointed in when the checkered flag flew over Brad Keselowski this past weekend. Only six cautions interrupted the 500 laps run, and half of those were thrown for debris, a fourth for a blown motor. Crumpled sheet metal was at a premium. Problem is, so was meaningful side-by-side racing. Sure, the battle between Martin Truex, Jr. and Jeff Gordon for the runner-up slot as the laps wound down was intense. But that doesn’t change the fact that this short-track race was won the way they’re won at Fontana or Michigan: on pit road. Brad Keselowski had a good car all night, but he almost certainly did not have a car that was darn near a straightaway better than anyone else in the field.
Still, all it took was Keselowski and the No. 2 team knowing how to speed on pit road to get them out front, and that was all she wrote… nearly 80 laps of dominance before the checkers flew. Martin Truex, Jr. gave him a race for a lap, but that’s all, regardless of just how many grooves there were available on the Bristol concrete.
For better or for worse, Bristol, for all its grooves has fallen victim to the same racing curses that have befallen nearly every intermediate oval; tires that don’t wear, far more giving than taking by the competitors on-track, plus the tyrannical reign of track position as king. And it’s the tires that, for whatever reason got a free pass this weekend, another overly conservative effort by Goodyear after a questionable compound irked drivers back in March. The tires certainly weren’t failing in droves, but they weren’t proving to make any difference, either. Just look at how Joey Logano darn near beat Kyle Busch for the Nationwide win on the same tire… except his were older, as in the neighborhood of 50 laps older. Being able to wheel a car on old tires and make something of it is one thing… but being able to wail on Goodyears until hell freezes over and keep on going is something else.
Nothing less should have been expected. After a span of two weeks this spring that saw Goodyear miss the mark at Bristol with tires that resembled dust after only a few laps, followed up with a chorus of drivers whining because of chunky rubber being left by the Eagles at Martinsville, Goodyear got its bell rung. So they did what they always do… came back with rocks that won’t wear or burst, but won’t do anything else, either.
Bristol’s not alone. Rock hard tires have contributed to Charlotte still not being able to put on the races it used to… even though “levigating” certainly played a part in that. Darlington Raceway has been reduced to having the Southern 500 won… by a car that didn’t take tires on the final pit stop. And let’s not forget Indianapolis, where more tire testing has occurred in recent years than any other track on the Cup circuit… and still, two-tire stops are all but the norm on the 2.5-mile oval.
It’s understandable, if not desirable, that Goodyear brings a safe tire package to tracks that are recently repaved. But these aren’t recent developments. New Bristol is more than one year old, the same with the repave jobs at Talladega, Darlington, Indianapolis, Charlotte. And yet, the tires have scarcely softened, steadfastly refusing to put on a great race wherever they land.
Goodyear is the exclusive tire provider for NASCAR. Well, they’ve exclusively proven they can produce a round brick of a race tire that doesn’t pop. And what’s more, teams are fully aware of how to manipulate said tires. Time and time again, staying out on old rubber has translated into race wins.
So where’s the alternative? It’s time for Goodyear to step up and provide one, seeing as how NASCAR makes good money keeping their competitors that would do so out of the sport. What’s stopping the tire company from expanding to have two different tire compounds available every weekend? Keep the bricks… but bring the grip as well. Bring a conservative tire and an aggressive one, one that wears fast but offers supreme grip in the early laps of a run.
Truth be told, having that grip option is a new necessity. Track position and the aero influence being as paramount as they have become on just about every NASCAR circuit, from the Bristol bullring to the superspeedways, the first few laps when the field is bunched up is the only time a pass for the lead is going to happen. For those not fortunate enough to be on the front row at that start, like Keselowski was with Truex this past Saturday night, every single bit of speed, grip, everything, is absolutely essential in getting up front quickly.
Bring a fast-wearing, aggressive tire to the track, and suddenly those early passes become a reality. Sure, in the long run chances are a team or driver is going to get burned staying out way too long on such a tire, and if Saturday night’s race had gone caution free drivers that tried such a strategy would have been dropping like flies while Keselowski rode off into the sunset. But they still would have added flavor to a race that, no matter the outcome, was decided over 80 laps from the finish because one driver managed to break the speed limit on pit road without getting caught. Call me crazy, but I see that play out on the Beltway 50 times a day. And I don’t have to suffer through ESPN to view it.
For years, I’ve chastised both Goodyear’s unwillingness to aggressively pursue better race tires and NASCAR’s complacency with a monopoly that does nothing to improve competition. Either get on Goodyear’s ass, forcing them to create tires that open up both racing and strategy that goes beyond pit road, or find someone that can.
For crying out loud, we’re talking about tire issues at a short track. If that’s not a serious issue, I don’t know what is.
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