There’s an increasing number of media pundits and plain old race fans who are calling for Dover to lose one or both of its race dates, having decided that racing at the track has become single file and even, perhaps, boring. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised to have this site’s owner and editor-in-chief, Tom Bowles, suggest as much in one of the questions for last week’s Friday Faceoff column. The odd part is Tom’s the only member of the site’s staff that actually lives closer to Dover than I do. I can’t recall off the top of my head (where the hair used to be) if I’ve been to more races at Pocono or Dover, either as part of my employment or for merely for enjoyment, but I’ve been down to the white cliffs of Dover plenty of times. And say what you will about Dover (and Pocono for that matter), but I’ve never heard them referred to as “cookie-cutters,” those bland 1.5-mile tri-ovals that are a pox upon our sport.
Having said that, I’ll have to admit I thought Sunday’s race was tepid, to be kind. OK, it was downright boring and by the midpoint I was using my cell phone to listen to old Juice Newton songs. (Yeah, I’m in the minority here but I’ll put Ms. Newton’s impassioned “Baaaay-hey-beeee” at the three-minute mark of Angel of the Morning right up there with anything Grace Slick ever sang with Jefferson Airplane. But I digress.) Call it a case of “ugly puppy” syndrome, but I couldn’t find fault with the track itself on Sunday; it was simply another case of the new cars and their aerodynamic deficiencies with the tires used for the event indicted as co-conspirators, yet another example of a bad afternoon caused by a Goodyear.
Late in the race a caution flew but eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick elected to stay out on worn tires. Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 team and Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 bunch elected to go with two fresh tires while the majority of the rest of the pack went with fresh rubber on all four corners. Yep, my fellow old-timers and I have seen a similar scenario play out numerous times towards the end of races, especially with so few cars left on the lead lap. Only this time it was a matter of “the same but different.” Usually in the days of yore, a couple guys running at the tail end of the lead lap would have stayed out, hoping to steal a victory if a couple more cautions flew to slow the proceedings and the cars on two fresh tires served as blockers for those drivers on four new tires. That was considered a high-risk strategy that normally didn’t work. Almost invariably, the guys on fresh tires would run down the gamblers and make mincemeat of them in a few laps, particularly at Dover. It made for some spirited slicing and dicing at the front of the pack (the sort of action that used to sell tickets to races) but advantage of fresh rubber (a.k.a. mechanical grip) was normally too much to overcome given the falloff of lap times on worn tires.
But that’s not how things played out Sunday at Dover. In fact, it was the two leaders who decided to stay out because the advantages of clean air (a.k.a. aerodynamic grip) at the front of the pack greatly outweighed the advantage of fresh tires. Yep, we’ve seen this Loony-Tune before, especially this season.Whichever driver leads the race on the final restart almost inevitably wins the race, as Johnson did Sunday, leading the final 23 laps virtually uncontested. Once or twice Harvick mounted a credible challenge on the No. 48 but once he got too close to that car’s rear bumper and lost the air off the nose of his Chevy, he lost the handle on the car. This year, watching the second-place driver close on the leader is like watching a bulldog trying to run down the UPS truck. Even if he does catch up he’s not going to be able to do anything with it.
How to eliminate or reduce the aerodynamic advantage the leader now enjoys is a question for engineer aerodynamicists who’ve been to wind tunnels more times than I’ve been to Sonic. I’d suggest they start with taxi-cab strips on the roof and getting those cursed front splitters up off the track, but what do I know?
As far as the tires I have my own solution, and while on the surface it seems radical, it’s simply a matter of going back to what used to work. I’d like to see NASCAR and Goodyear dump the radial tires and go back to the bias-ply tires used in the days of yore. I realize there’s more than a few folks reading this column who have probably never driven a street car not shod with radials. Folks my age have logged countless miles flogging our Laramie Equalizer 60s and Belted TAs mercilessly. There’s a decided difference when it comes to driving techniques for the two types of tires. Radials have higher limits of adhesion, all things being equal, but when they break loose, they do so unpredictably and with little warning. Bias-ply tires have lower levels of grip, but when you push them towards the limit, you can feel it and run them right up to the jagged edge without losing it. Watch some old tapes of Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond racing one another. Both of them were masters of bias-ply tires and they were sideways constantly in the corners, but still able to race side-by-side lap after lap and not wreck. I’m willing to listen to contrary opinions, but in my mind Richmond’s victory in the 1986 Southern 500, run on a race-slick racetrack, is still the finest example of car control by a NASCAR driver I’ve ever witnessed.
But Matt, old son, some will chime in, Goodyear is never going to agree to go back to bias-ply tires. That’s dated technology and they don’t even make them anymore. Haven’t you been listening every week when Mike Joy reminds us that everything that goes into making tires work in stock car racing goes into the ones we drive on the street? Balderdash. I don’t know anyone who buys tires for the Family-Truckster that need to be replaced every 50 miles and can’t be used in the rain. Back when radials were introduced to stock car racing (and numerous big name drivers were injured as a result), Goodyear wasn’t looking to improve racing by switching to radials. They were looking to drive upstart Hoosier racing tires back off their turf, thinking Bob Newton’s (No relation to Juice) tiny tire company couldn’t afford to develop radials (Whoops). The tire wars weren’t pretty, but now that Goodyear has exclusive rights to NASCAR racing, it behooves them to bring some raceable rubber to the tracks. The boys from Akron seem a bit gun-shy to do so since some ugly afternoons, most notably the ’08 Brickyard 400 debacle. (The caution flag had to be displayed every 15 to 20 laps because that’s about all the teams could get out of a set of tires without them falling apart. That race earns my vote for the worst Cup race ever.) Just remember campers, there are no bad Goodyear tires. There’s just bad teams that do bad things to good tires. Larry McReynolds says so, so it must be true.
If I’m understanding the static correctly, the sport has reached an impasse. NASCAR knows they have a problem, even if they won’t admit to it publicly. They know they have to make changes to the cars and the oft-rumored but seldom seen 2016 rules package cars that were supposed to debut at the All-Star race did not. NASCAR can’t test the gen-next cars until Goodyear provides suitable rubber for them. Goodyear doesn’t want to commit their resources towards building those tires until NASCAR finalizes plans for the new cars. Team owners obviously don’t want to spend money building those new cars knowing that they might have to be radically overhauled before they ever turn a wheel in anger on a track. Meanwhile, while those three parties work out their differences, fans are left with lousy racing, leading one to wonder if by the time the next-gen cars hit the track if there’s going to be anyone left watching.
How bad was the racing at Dover Sunday? This is what Johnson had to say after the race. (Keep in mind he won the SOB!)
“The top-five cars were so equal that it was just – you couldn’t pass. You really just could not get by somebody. If they made a bobble or a mistake you could close up, but then the next set of corners, they would get back to the bottom and run a line and kind of hold you up and you couldn’t get anywhere.”
Some Parting Shots
My vote for the most awkward sponsorship deal of the season goes to the No. 32 team this weekend for Sunday’s race. Mike Bliss finished 35th in the Corvetteparts.net FORD. I know a lot of Corvette guys. Corvette guys hate Fords. I recall seeing a fellow at an all Corvette show wearing a t-shirt that read “Better a Sister in a Brothel than a Brother in a Cobra.”
Conspiracy theorists on the open-wheel side of the sport ran amok after Saturday’s first race at Belle Island as part of this weekend’s double-header. IndyCar called the race prematurely citing lightning in the area. That “gave” the win to Carlos Munoz while Marco Andretti finished second, both of them in Honda-powered entries out of the Andretti stables. Had the race gone green again, allegedly the Chevrolet contingent was ready to eat the Honda’s lunch. Some felt the win was handed to Honda as a sop after the terrible drubbing they took at Indy last weekend. I don’t know about that. In Sunday’s second race, Honda-powered cars took eight of the top-10 finishing positions. It just seems that rain at the racetrack negates the huge advantage that the Penske and Ganassi teams have in the dry. As far as stopping or ending a race because of lightning in the area, I’d say it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you disagree I welcome you to Google “Brian Zimmerman Pocono.”
Admit it. How many of you tuned into FOX at 1 o’clock on Sunday and were confused as to why you were seeing an infomercial rather than a race? For the record, the rest of NASCAR on FOX’s slate of races (Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma) are all on FOX Sports 1. In brighter news, there’s an off-weekend this month as well.
It’s a sad reality. The high cost of obtaining broadcast rights to NASCAR races means that to recoup the costs, the broadcasting network is going to have to run so many commercials the race becomes all but unwatchable. (I timed it yesterday. Between the commercial break that preceded it, the mid-race report, which provided nothing of use, and the commercial break that followed that report, fans didn’t even get a glimpse of what was going on for 7:20.) Most of you have been subjected to the same barrage of repetitive commercials week after week, so I’ll invite you to vote on which of two exceedingly annoying corporate spokespeople we vote off the island. Is it time to give Flo from the car insurance company the boot (hopefully before the new “dysfunctional family” ad airs during a race) or Jan from Toyota? Poor Jan is just doing her best to be as bland and boring as the Camrys she hawks, and she’s not too rough on the eyes, so how about we have her start running stock car races in a car sponsored by an internet start-up company running mid-pack? Who knows? Maybe lightning can strike twice.
Finally, perhaps NASCAR isn’t alone in displaying a high level of ineptitude in promoting the sport. I never thought I’d see the day when a major golf tournament used Easy Rider and Grand Funk Railroad tunes to promote an upcoming event.