Inside NASCAR’S wild, unpredictable race at Bristol

Drivers wanted tire wear and they got it

NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying
Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Even if NASCAR wanted it, there is likely no replicating the circumstances that led to what happened on Sunday in the Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The end result was a track record 54 lead changes amongst 16 different leaders but how everyone got there was due to one of the most anomalous set of circumstances in recent NASCAR history and everyone is still trying to process it.

Despite returning to the high banks with the same tire combination from September, tire wear was extreme in every sense of the word and chewed up tires beyond any conceivable use in less than 50 laps.

The PJ1 TrackBite was replaced with resin, ambient temperatures were colder than last time, and the track just never took rubber.

As a result, by the end of the first stage, everyone realized that they would have to slow down tremendously to make tires last. That played a part of how many lead changes there were, because the leader would back their pace up and someone else would decide they wanted to lead instead.

Comers and goers is a racing cliché but it doesn’t even begin to articulate what Sunday looked like in Thunder Valley.

Even having slowed down so much, a 35-lap-plus run put teams in what the broadcast booth accurately described as the danger zone, since tires would start to lose grip and could fail at any time. Everyone was just holding on, waiting for the caution, and hoping it wouldn’t be for them.

At one point, in real time, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 spotter Eddie D’Hondt radioed over to Rodney Childers to say, ‘this is the craziest race I have ever been part of,’ and the veteran crew chief said bac ‘me too,’ which is objectively wild given their 50 years of combined motorsports history.

In the end, Denny Hamlin and crew chief emerged Chris Gabehart emerged victorious, because they had the best combination of pure speed, a set-up that preserved the life of a tire and a driver who spent his formative years racing Late Model Stocks that require this sort of discipline above all else.

“This is the first time the driver played a huge role in a long, long time,” Hamlin said. “A long time. It’s a different philosophy from what we’re used to, which is everyone is just kind of on the gas all the time running the bottom, the shortest way around.

“Technique was a huge deal today.”

It was an appropriate bookend to a week in which the discourse around the sport has revolved around a need for a horsepower increase and how drivers want a rules package that gives them more input in performance.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champion, said racing in the Cup Series does not require discipline in the way the previous generation of cars did. On Sunday, say what you will, these cars on these tires on this surface required a tremendous amount of discipline.

“It was big today,” Keselowski said.

So, what exactly happened to produce this outcome, because Gabehart said it caught literally everyone off guard on Saturday on practice.

“The whole weekend was nothing what any of us expected, the driver, the crew chiefs, the engineers, the pit crew, the team, the spotter,” Gabehart said. “I mean, from the minute practice was over, we suspected something was going to be different. I think a lot of us thought maybe 80, 100 (laps) in, this place would rubber in and get a little more familiar but it did not.”

Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 crew chief, with driver Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels echoed that sentiment.

“I promise you, no one saw that coming,” Daniels said.

It never took rubber and Goodyear director of racing tires Greg Stucker was left befuddled.

“If you look up in the corners, the tire rubber is being worn off and it’s just not adhering to the racetrack,” Stucker said. “That’s why you see all the marbles up in the corners. And again, last August, it took rubber immediately.

“As is typical with concrete, you run around under caution it’ll pick it back up. We see that at Martinsville, we see that at Dover, we see that here. But immediately when we go back green, it lays back down and that’s just not happening.”

Maybe that was the resin and/or the cooler temperatures. Either way, it was kind of an apologetic Goodyear as Stucker felt like his team missed something and felt like it did a disservice to the racers.  

“It’s the same [race] package and it’s the same tire combination,” Stucker said. “Obviously, the difference is resin was placed on the lower groove instead of the PJ1. Yet I still think the racetrack should be taking rubber as it did last year. It took rubber immediately during that race.

“It’s still a bit of an unknown as far as why it’s not behaving the same — that being the racetrack. But that’s kind of what we know now. Obviously, everybody is kind of in the same boat but some guys are able to manage through it a little bit better than others. It’s still a tough situation, and we’re going to have to try and understand exactly what’s happening, what’s different, and adjust from there.”

While the crews appreciate his diligence, everyone also said lay off Goodyear, and others said they shouldn’t change a thing come September.

“In my opinion, the sport needs to learn from this,” Gabehart said. “Again, I’ve been saying for a while that we got to stop talking badly about Goodyear … This is not bad. Goodyear can make a million-mile tire that I have on my car when I get to the airport and drive home. It’s fantastic. I never have any trouble with it.

“This is supposed to be a sport. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to force these guys to make decisions in the car. Do I go now? Do I not?

“The crew chiefs to make decisions on how they treat the tire, what their setup is, how long do you want to run this stint. You can’t just run the fuel tank out and the tire not blow. It might blow on you.”

He’s saying a competition tire is meant to be different than a road tire and Childers agreed with that too.

“Goodyear tries to do a good job and I passed Stucker coming back from the bathroom and I hugged him,” Childers said. “He thought it was weird.  They’re trying to do the best they can do like we’re trying to do the best we can do.”

Drivers, for the most part, enjoyed the challenge.

Hamlin concedes that he is biased because he won on Sunday afternoon but this is also the element that he says has been missing from NASCAR for a long time and this is a version of what the sport needs more of.

“When you have off-throttle time, that is an opportunity for me to drive in deeper than the other guy and make a pass,” Hamlin said. “When we’re all matting it, driving all the way till we get to the corner, there’s no off-throttle time, there’s just no passing.

“Today was seconds of falloff. It was incredible. I certainly wasn’t believing what I was seeing.”

Josh Berry has a similar background as Hamlin, the Late Model Stock Car, and called Sunday the ‘most fun’ he has ever had ‘in a shit show race,’ and had a blast.

“I have never seen anything like that,” Berry said. “We got our wish wanting tire fall off. They fell off but they fell off a little bit and then all at once when they went to cord. I don’t know what the change is there, but it needs more rubber on it because we were running on fabric there at the end.

“I finished the race on three flat tires but I kind of had fun though. I’m not going to lie.”

Justin Haley of Rick Ware Racing said he loved it.

“I don’t know what social media says, but as a driver I thought it was fun because you had to manage it,” Haley said. “You weren’t all-out the whole time, so it was fun to have a major part in how the car ran.”

Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas had the most reasoned take.

“I don’t mind trying to save tires, but we can’t have the tires just coming apart like that,” he said. “It would be fun if we fell off two or three seconds and you didn’t have to worry about tires coming apart. I think that would be really fun, but when you’re trying to not make them blow up, that’s not very fun.”

The only real negative feedback came from Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Larson, who finished fifth, especially railed against the race all day. He wanted NASCAR to red flag it and apply PJ1 over the resin.

“It was weird and I never want to do that again,” Larson said. “Doing that every week would be, not good. Honestly, it’s probably a black eye to Goodyear since rubber didn’t get laid down. It was just different and I made the most of it to get to fifth.”

Blaney said he didn’t have fun.

“What’s fun about riding around, grouping around there,” he said. “You can’t run 50 laps unless you blow a tire, and you’ve got guys blowing stuff, creeping around the racetrack. I can’t believe there wasn’t an accident.

“You know what it reminded me of, the first half of the race? It reminded me of Daytona fuel saving … literally, we were two-by-two, creeping around there at quarter-throttle, saving your tires, and you just don’t know whether you wanted to go or not. They say they brought the same tire, but it’s complete B.S..”

That was it from the naysayers with NASCAR generally approving of the product on Sunday too. NASCAR chief racing development officer John Probst had nothing but praise for the show from his vantage point in the tower.

“[It was] certainly a record-setting day for us, ” Probst said. “I know the race teams are probably pretty wore out right now. I know our track crew and folks up in the booth are pretty wore out just from a pretty exciting day all around on the track. Certainly, had some anxiety around some tire wear and things like that. All in all, I think it was probably one of the best short track races I’ve ever seen.”

Probst said the decision to go with resin instead of PJ1 came down to how the two substances respond to moisture and NASCAR’s decision to bring a wet weather tire with a chance of rain this weekend.

But, holistically, there isn’t a lot he would change.

“There were times in the race, obviously, when there was anxiety around [having] enough tires to finish it,” Probst said. “But man, coming out the end and watching all that, I would not want to change much at all, honestly. Just maybe give them more tires [in the fall].”

Probst also recognizes that a race like this mirrored a lot of the things drivers have been asking him for over the past several years.

“Frankly, they’ve been asking for more tire wear for a while now,” Probst said. “We’ve been working on it. It could have been a combination of resin temperature and all of it today. … It’s too soon to put a definitive reason to any of it, but great race.”

Hamlin says it’s a data point.

“Do we want them (the tires) wearing out in 40-50 laps? No, that’s on the low end but that’s what you get when you have tire wear. There’s a lot of comers and goers. That’s how it used to be. It was fun from my standpoint.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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