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NASCAR’s wet weather tire Cup Series debut a success at Richmond

What could have been nearly an hour rain delay lasted 15 minutes

It dawned on Chris Gabehart during the post-race press conferences that he and driver Denny Hamlin became the first winners of a NASCAR Cup Series race that began in wet conditions.

“If it tells you anything, when Sirius interviewed me in Victory Lane, I just realized we had won the first-ever oval race that started in rain, points race,” Gabehart said. “Honestly, to me hats off. I thought it all went pretty seamlessly and exactly like they advertised they wanted to do it.”

This is actually the second time that a NASCAR Cup Series race had been conducted on the wet weather tires, but the first was last May during the All-Star qualifying races at North Wilkesboro Speedway. That was a non-points exhibition but it went well then too, with drivers saying the wet tires actually raced better than the standard slicks.

NASCAR got the track halfway dry from a deluge earlier in the afternoon but started the race anyway with the benefit of having the treaded tires. They went 30 laps on the compound before a scheduled competition caution brought the field down pit road to return to the standard slick tires.

Gabehart gave the entire process high marks.

“It was nerve-wracking for all of us because we had never done it before,” he said. “There was points and a lot on the line. You’ve got to watch the radar. NASCAR is trying to communicate to the teams when are we going to go, how is all this going to work.

“They told us it would be situational, whether it would be competitive pit stops or not. At lot of logistics that has to be covered for the teams and NASCAR. Honestly, I thought it went seamless. I thought it did exactly what they wanted it to do.”

Chris Buescher said he isn’t a fan of the gummy treaded compound but also ‘it wasn’t as much of a circus as I thought it would be.’

His boss and teammate at RFK Racing, Brad Keselowski, wish that run had lasted another 5-7 laps.

“It wasn’t that bad. I wish we would have run a little bit longer. They threw the yellow around lap 30 or 35 and I was just starting to get it figured out.”

Josh Berry drove from 30th to 15th on those tires in 30 laps.

“It felt kind of normal, honestly,” Berry said. “It was weird. I really had no expectations of how that was gonna be and just kind of drove. I think we just had a really strong car. Rodney had a good plan for that and the car took off really well and we were able to get a lot of track position really quick.”

Hamlin said he actually felt like NASCAR wanted the data point once it started raining because he believed they could have gotten the track entirely dry for the start of the race but didn’t.

“I think they wanted it to be wet,” he said. “I say that because there was no jet driers out there. They had the option to use jet driers and they did not. I think they wanted to try this out. This is probably the right track to do it.

“I’m glad we didn’t all just pile up in the corner. Everyone was kind of patient the first few laps. I think it played out just how they wanted it.”

Indeed, NASCAR vice president of competition Elton Sawyer said the league was pleased with how this first official racing stint on the tires played out on Sunday night. With that said, he actually didn’t think they could get the track all the way dry in time and the tires actually shortened the time of delay.

“First of all, credit to (NASCAR CEO) Jim France,” Sawyer said. “He tasked Goodyear and the R&D Center to come up with a tire to run in the damp and tonight was a success. We were able to get the race started, pretty much on time. The guys did a great job with the tire. Goodyear did a phenomenal job.

“We called the competition caution on Lap 30 and that was about where we needed to be. We could have gone another five or so laps but the main thing was that we were able to get the race started, get going, our fans at home and at the track could watch the race.

“Mission accomplished.”

The only push back to the practice was that NASCAR threw that caution on Lap 30 and opted to stop counting caution laps so that pit crews could swap over to slicks. What that meant was that positions could not be gained or lost on pit road.

The order on pit road would be the restart order.

In road course racing, sanctioning bodies like IMSA or IndyCar allow teams to decide when to come off the wet weather tires and those pit stops are competitive. Even NASCAR road course races for that matter. So why not on Sunday at Richmond?

“Unlike road courses, where we would let teams make the decision when to take their dry tires, on the short ovals, we’re not at a place where we’re comfortable with that,” Sawyer said. “We’re looking out for the safety.

“This is only our third (oval) event where we’ve run wet weather tires. We ran them in the Truck Series last year at Martinsville, obviously Wilkesboro. We have another data point. That’s another we want to work on — to start the race and put it in the team’s hands, strategy, when to put tires on and not have the sanctioning body be a part of that decision.”

Sawyer said they will get to that point at some point but this was a successful data point. All told, the rain delay only cost NASCAR and FOX a 15 minute deviation from the scheduled green flag time.

Hamlin agreed that it was a success, but there’s only so many ovals NASCAR can do this at.

“I was okay with it,” Hamlin said. “People immediately will ask, ‘Well, surely you can do this everywhere.’ You cannot do it any track that we run faster than this one.”

So, basically, the road courses, Martinsville, Wilkesboro, Richmond and New Hampshire. They also can’t be used in an actual rain shower or with standing water. They can only be used, at least for now, when the track has stopped taking precipitation but is still damp.

“It was just uncomfortable enough entering Turn 1 at those speeds with it being wet,” Hamlin said. “It was executed just how they wanted. I thought the drivers did it perfectly.”

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

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