July 28, 2008

Johnson Wins, Fans Lose in Brickyard Tire Debacle

By Todd Golden, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

Jul. 28--It was a dream day for Jimmie Johnson, but a nightmare for NASCAR, Goodyear and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Johnson won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday, his second career Brickyard win, but it was a race mutilated by problems caused by excessive tire wear.

The race was littered with nine NASCAR-enforced competition yellow flags, as well as several tire failures early in the race, including violent tire disintegration on the cars of Juan Pablo Montoya and Matt Kenseth.

The race took 3 hours, 28 minutes, 26 seconds to finish. The average speed was 115.148 with 52 laps run under caution.

Most drivers said the tires had no more than 10 laps of green-flag running before they began to deteriorate.

"The last two laps of each run were not fun. I was hanging on and praying that the right rear didn't blow out. There were a couple of runs where I could really feel it vibrate," driver A.J. Allemendinger said.

Runner-up Carl Edwards admitted that the tire wear meant there were very few instances during the race where he ran full bore. He also admitted that the uncertainty over tires was disconcerting.

"In practice I was making sure my belts were tight and I knew where the SAFER barriers were," Edwards said.

The cause of the tire failures vexed NASCAR and Goodyear, the series' tire manufacturer. NASCAR has had trouble with tire wear since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's surface underwent diamond-grinding in 2004. The conventional wisdom was that the track surface would "rubber in" after the cars turned several laps. That's what happened during the last three Brickyards, which ran without major tire problems.

However, NASCAR's Car Of Tomorrow, used at Indianapolis for the first time, creates more wear on the tires than the previous car due to less downforce. Combined with the abrasive surface, it was a recipe for disaster.

"Obviously, the tread wear didn't improve as we thought it would over the course of the afternoon. We don't have the answer is to why that happened," Goodyear director of race tire sales Greg Stucker said.

NASCAR anticipated problems before the race, bringing in 200 sets of tires intended for use at Pocono next week. Pocono is the track that most closely resembles Indianapolis when it comes to tire wear. NASCAR allotted each team 10 sets of "Indianapolis" tires before the race, hoping it would not need to revert to the Pocono tires. It was the first time since Dover's 1994 race that Goodyear brought tires not intended for the track they were designed for to a different venue. The Pocono tires were never used, but most teams used up nearly all tires allocated for Indianapolis.

The first caution occurred on lap 4 as Michael Waltrip got loose entering turn 2 and was hit by Paul Menard. The second came on lap 14, just before NASCAR's first mandated competition caution, when Kurt Busch spun coming out of turn 1 and collected Kevin Harvick.

NASCAR elected to have another competition yellow at lap 32, but tire trouble came to Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 25. Earnhardt Jr. led 11 laps after he had pitted during the Waltrip-Menard accident, so he had 20 laps on his tires at the time his tire went down.

NASCAR adjusted its competition yellow flag plan, pushing it back to lap 30, but not before Juan Pablo Montoya's tire disintegrated on the front left side on lap 29 in turn 2. Montoya's incident brought out its own yellow flag, which NASCAR counted as its second competition yellow.

NASCAR scheduled another competition yellow for lap 47. There were no incidents until lap 46 when Matt Kenseth's right rear tire exploded on the backstretch, taking much of his right rear quarter-panel with it, leaving shredded tire tread and debris littered on the backstretch. During the same lap, Carl Edwards also appeared to have a less severe tire problem.

After Kenseth's violent tire failure, there was major concern on the part of the NASCAR brass and teams.

"[The track] never really did take rubber, so I got really mad in the middle because they were letting us run until the tires were blowing up. I was like, 'You can't put us in this situation,'" Jamie McMurray said.

Competition yellows were flown on laps 64, 81, 97, 121, 138 and lap 150. Most drivers expressed relief that NASCAR accelerated the amount of competition cautions in the second half of the race, even if it gave the fans few green-flag laps to get excited about.

"As soon as we got the cautions are when I needed it. I could feel it, I was about to wreck if we didn't have the [competition] caution," Denny Hamlin said.

Johnson led 58 of the first 120 laps before Hamlin took a chance with a two-tire stop during the competition yellow on lap 121 to lead 26 laps late in the race.

After the last competition caution, Johnson took two cautions and made up several spots to take the lead on the last restart. He was joined by Carl Edwards in a duel for the race win. Edwards threatened Johnson on the restart, but couldn't get past him.

"I ran like hell, that's all I could do. I was on two tires and didn't have the grip I would have liked, but I held him off," Johnson said. "I'm so stoked. It's been a tough year, we've had our butts handed to us a few times, it's nice to get back with a win."

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton regretted the way the race turned out, but thought fans would understand.

"If they're good fans, I'm sure they understand that things like this happen," Pemberton said. "If you're a good fan and you don't get what you want, it's OK to be disappointed. We'll learn from this experience this weekend and do better when we come back."


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