Sunday, July 27, 2008

2008 Brickyard 400: NASCAR's Most Tire-Some Race Ever?

Jimmy Johnson Wins a Historically Controversial Race

Who could ever imagine the prestigious Brickyard 400 reduced to a series of ten lap heats brought on by constant “competition yellows” necessitated by extreme tire wear resulting from Goodyear, NASCAR’s tire supplier, using a tire compound that did not wear predictably given the demanding race surface, the special pavement that had been prepared by “diamond grooving” at the world’s most famous race track? As sole tire supplier for all three top NASCAR series, Goodyear is in a no-win situation. Drivers might pay passing respect in going through their laundry list of sponsors in their post-race comments, but how many races this year have concluded with much whining about crappy tires, even discounting Tony Stewart’s tirades after Atlanta, with harsh criticism of their racing rubber?

NASCAR and Goodyear are in a tough situation. Safety is job one, period. Any compromise that could possibly increase the odds of injury or death to the drivers, crew members and race fans is unacceptable, no excuses. Once there is solid consensus that a virtually fail-safe safety standard has been met, only then can attention be devoted to competition. NASCAR, manufacturers, team owners, and crews spare nothing to provide the best their hardware can provide. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the most unique racetracks in a sport that has recently become dominated by look-alike, race-alike cookie cutter venues where all the variables are duly noted, providing a solid knowledge base for what rubber compounds to use in the tires, how to set up the cars, and how to develop a master strategy for running each race. Races breakdown to being endurance tests, fuel mileage races, pit strategy struggles, or even tire usage competitions. Though completely different kinds of races, Bristol and the Coke 600 are ones that often come down to the last man standing for completely different reasons. In Michigan, drivers are cautioned, "Just don't run out of gas."

What went wrong? Probably the design of the new car being raced in Indy for the first time has more to do with the problem than just about anything. Typically, a race track builds up rubber as the race progresses providing more “stick” which increases handling and decreases wear as the race goes by. The situation is much more difficult on a “green” race track where the pavement is stripped down to bare pavement. For many Cup races, by Sunday afternoon, the track is nicely rubberized after three days of practice and qualifying plus the benefit of a truck, Nationwide Series, or ARCA race the day before. The Brickyard has not hosted a race since the Indianapolis 500. Car setup for the Brickyard is totally different than any other track. Some drivers argue it has some similarities to Pocono, but what’s required of the driver is so different. Unlike other tracks, Indy’s track is essentially flat with long straight-aways and sharp turns, the configuration puts particular strain on the cars as they explode with a burst of power on among the longest drag strips in the business then having to brake rapidly to accommodate the turns. This stresses brakes, tires, and engineers requiring a unique book on how to prepare for the race. Goodyear is challenged to come up with a rubber compound to work best for these conditions allowing for the unique, generally very smooth racing surface diamond grooved where cars are most likely to loose their grip. The strange combination of rubber and asphalt created tire wear that found the rubber wearing off the tires turning into powder rather than sticking to the track. After just ten laps in practice, tires were worn to the cord, a recipe for disaster. Given this was a test of the "Car of Tomorrow" along with everything else, all kinds of unanticipated horrors emerged. The new car races heavier causing the right rear tires to fade rapidly. Meanwhile, as the race progressed, the track never “cured” with rubber buildup. Instead, tire dust was everywhere potentially creating even more problems. NASCAR and Goodyear technical experts are challenged to find a solution for next season as one of the Sports two most pretigious events cannot afford another horrible specticle like this. Open wheel fans might enjoy a little schadenfreude as their greatest thrill is the gawking and drooling driver/cutie, Danica Patrick enjoys as the one marketing icon and draw IRL can count on. Even so, Danica Patrick was well on her way to becoming racing's version of Anna Kournikova had she not won her first race in Japan earlier this season. Critics should note Patrick does post her share of top five and top ten finishes showing she is a legitimate racer but the press makes more of her cat fight with Hugo Chavez's racing babe, Milka Duno than her success on the track. Still, rumors of a Patrick move to NASCAR seldom fade. Were she to win the Indy 500 or a series championship, the money draw of NASCAR would be hard to turn down. Rumors persist she has had conversations with the Rousch already crowed stable though the image of her learning a Carl Edwards' back flip glows the color of money. Regardless of tradition or today's results, it's hard to imagine NASCAR has not come to Indy to stay.

Before the green flag dropped, NASCAR and the drivers knew they were in for a tough afternoon. Jeff Gordon laid NASCAR out for tire troubles during an interview from a late practice session. When Jeff Gordon complains, the NASCAR world listens. True to form, even with competition yellows mandated generally after just ten laps, the 2008 Brickyard 400 turned into a horrible embarrassment for NASCAR and Goodyear. This was also ESPN’s first race of the season hardly the kind of race that would keep viewers tuned in with one third of the race running under caution. The results were disastrous for Matt Kennseth, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick whose wrecks were attributable to the unacceptable tire situation not any quirk of competition. As such, Kennseth lost three spots in the standings still hanging on to his spot in the top 12 for the chase. Harvick dropped four spots pushing him out of the top 12. If Kurt Busch had any hope of making the chase, those dreams vanished today.

In the chase for the chase, the end results are a solid boost for the #48 Jimmie Johnson ride and #99 Carl Edwards. Finishing in the fifteenth slot, it was a ho-hum afternoon for leader Kurt Busch who still maintains a solid first place standing. Now the drivers face their least favorite race track, also one that is perhaps the least fan-friendly, the second trip to Pocono. Consider this, ninety three points separate the tenth position from the fourteenth spot.

10. Tony Stewart…… 2399 points
11. Matt Kennseth….. 2366
12. Clint Boyer……... 2362
13. Kevin Harvick….. 2360
14. David Regan……. 2306

Check out spots eleven to thirteen, ONLY SIX POINTS!!! If this were Richmond in September, Kennseth and Boyer would be going to the dance with Harvick losing out by only TWO points. For the ho-hum the Brickyard race turned out to be, the field couldn't be much more competative this year in part thanks to the "Chase" format. Without the chase, many fans would be yawning or booing seeing Kyle Busch appearing comfortably atop the poins standings.

The teams load up and head to Pennsylvania for next week’s action at Pocono, usually one of the biggest ho-hum’s of the summer. Given how things played out on the world’s greatest race track, tensions will be high and stakes higher as five races remain before that decisive race in Richmond that determines who will be in the final field to battle for the 2008 Cup to be awarded at Homestead in November.

If all the races were as boring as today’s, none of that would matter. There other cheaper alternatives than going to a NASCAR race – watching grass grow, paint dry….. Get the picture? NASCAR and Goodyear must do everything imaginable to be assured this kind of embarrassment will not be repeated in the future.

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