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Long List Of Suspects To Grill After Fontana

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 25 2014

Tires problems kept pit workers busy at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

So, wrong tires, bad decisions by teams or a race track in need of a new surface? The correct answer – though not one that those wanting to pick a fight on this one will want to hear – is: Yes.

NASCAR’s latest tire drama was one which featured three anti-heroes.

Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway started with high hopes. Especially after Saturday’s Nationwide Series counterpart turned out to be so exciting – at the end, at least.

But once the big-series race got started, so too did trouble. Tire trouble. Trouble which lasted most of the race, which took several of the most popular drivers out of contention and which exercised undue affect on the event’s outcome.

The tires were going down at an unnatural rate. Many of those tires were located on the left side of the cars – the left rear seemed to be the most affected area.

Finally, Kyle Busch won the race after a green/white/checkered restart but mostly because he and his team decided to avoid the problems which cost Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski  and others shots at the victory.

(Oddly, watching the final 20 laps or so of the race in Fontana was like watching a tire-oriented version of a fuel mileage race: You wondered not which car would run out of fuel in pursuit of the victory, but which car would start belching smoke from a wheel well.)

On the final stop of the day, the one which forced the green/white/checkered finish, Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers opted to take four fresh tires – even at the risk of giving up track position.

“It was really the only decision,” Rogers said of taking four Goodyears. “You knew a lot of people were going to take tires. You knew there would be a couple that would try two or try none, but early in the race the 2 car (of Keselowski) stayed out and in a lap he was back in 20th. You knew how it was going to play out.”

For those which things didn’t play out well, the finger pointing began.

Goodyearr was singled out by Johnson and Gordon.

Johnson, who had a big lead and appeared headed to victory until a tire problem with seven laps to go cooked his chances, said things “out of our control” were the culprit. He was obviously referring to tires.

Gordon inherited the lead but having good eyes and impeccable racing judgement, opted to give up his lead and pit for tires on the final caution of the day. “I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for,” Gordon would say after the race.

But Goodyear also had defenders in the post-race garage. Those defenders backed up the contention by Goodyear and NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton that blame should not fall on the tires, but on the teams’ decisions to not run pressures that were recommended by the tire manufacturer.

Asked why his Joe Gibbs Racing team didn’t have tire problems, Busch said, “I don’t know what it’s a testament to, but our team believes it’s too low of air pressure and that’s what those were doing to get them to wear funny and essentially blow out during the run. We never had any issues during the whole race, I don’t think the 11 (car of teammate Sam Hornish Jr., who was subbing for Denny Hamlin) did, I don’t think the 20 (of Matt Kenseth) did, so we’re all good. Overall the performance of the tires I felt like were fine. I had no issues with them. I think you just – it’s sort of like playing with fire. If you pour too much gas on it or let too much air out of it, the thing is going to go boom.”

Before dismissing Busch as being sweet grapes because he won, remember that all racing is all about pushing limits. It’s about seeing how close to the line you can come without going over it.

It seems a lot of teams  went a pound or two too far.

Then there was a third theory. One which was advanced by driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the race.

“It’s not air pressure and things like that,” he said. “We’re moving air pressure around and it ain’t saving the tire.”

Earnhardt said it was the racing surface at Auto Club. Huge bumps, he said, were causing the tire problems. Huge bumps made bigger by the high speeds which are generated by wide, flat Auto Club.

“To be honest with you,” Earnhardt said, “the back straightaway is very rough and I think the tire can’t handle the load that it goes through on that back straightaway. And it’s just tearing the tire up where the sidewall and tread are put together. There ain’t another race track on the circuit besides Kentucky that has bumps like that. They’re incredible huge, huge bumps. And I think that plays a big role in it because the tire must see astronomical loads through that section of the race track that it never sees any other time at any other circuit.”

So as you gather information about the tire-oriented problems which spoiled Sunday’s race in Fontana, you kind of form the opinion that there were only anti-heroes in the drama: Less than perfect tire by Goodyear, over-zealous setups by teams and a track surface in need of smoothening.

Not a satisfying answer for some – perhaps many because people in 140-character America demand simple answers to complex questions.

And it’s an answer which comes with a caveat: Temper a lot of what you hear in the garages these days with knowledge that the entire sport has been placed on notice about toeing the line on issues that affect the series and its “partners”.

But the answer that there were three factors at play Sunday does pass the eye, ear and smell test and that’s about the best fans can hope for.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 25 2014
One Comment

One Comment »

  • kelly says:

    Perhaps all three MIGHT be the logical and only answer, we will never know. Nascar a scant couple hours after the debacle absolved their in bed partner of any wrong doing. How is that possible? The blame was clearly placed on the shoulders of the teams. I find it hard to believe that so many teams, engineers and crew cheifs were dummies and just couldn’t or wouldn’t adhere to Goodyear’s recommendation. And that doesn’t pass the smell test. But hey its all about the money between Goodyear and Nascar. It ain’t gonna change.