Race Weekend Central

Wearing Out the Weekend

Given all the “throwback” elements we saw at Darlington Raceway last Sunday night, there was one that seemed to provide a true link to an earlier era in NASCAR.

It was the tires.

Goodyear brought a different tire to the Southern 500 for use with the low downforce aerodynamic package being run on Labor Day weekend. The tire had little in common with the rubber used at Kentucky earlier in the summer – the last time we saw teams tackle the low downforce configuration.

Kentucky was a popular Sprint Cup event with both drivers and fans, but Darlington was a resounding, off-the-charts success with all of NASCAR Nation. Cars skinned to look like classic favorites were the topic of conversation, but it was the tires that made Sunday’s race look like something out of the late 1970s that put fans and teams on the edge of their seats.

Simply put: the Goodyears run at Darlington faded fast. For drivers, the loss of grip meant getting a grip on what it took to be a good race car driver.

And that’s what this business is really all about.

Veteran crew chiefs and cranky journalists have grumbled about it for years. More downforce, when paired with tires designed to maximize the added traction, leveled the playing field for drivers. As long as a stock car would suck down and cling to the asphalt, the driver was little more than an occupant. For drivers getting seat time in the Busch/Nationwide/XFINITY Series, gaining experience meant gaining comfort with excessive downforce that rarely went away.

Learning to run in the Sprint Cup Series, for a long time, seemed to be a matter of learning how to ride, be patient, and watch your gauges for possible problems.

As Barry Dodson, who won a Sprint Cup championship as Rusty Wallace’s crew chief back in 1989, explained to me many years ago: drivers familiar with heavy downforce and tires able to handle the strain could go fast, but they were at a loss when (or if) their rubber began to lose grip.

This, according to Dodson, was what made the NCWTS so much fun, and why the best drivers in that division over the years tended to come from careers in Midgets or Sprint Cars. Those cars could lose grip in a hurry, which made drivers responsible for going fast as the tires faded during a lengthy run.

The difference, as Dodson told me, was being able to stay fast when the grip wasn’t there. Since tire engineering allowed sets to survive long runs, Cup drivers rarely had to address the problem of losing traction. And given the availability of new tires, four tire stops kept cars almost continually shod with sticky rubber and lots of bite.

As Greg Biffle said earlier this season, the current downforce-and-rubber combination has made it difficult to even spin a Sprint Cup car, let alone make passing a realistic option.

Maybe it was this regular use of durable compounds and solid construction that led Competition Tire to drill holes in discarded Cup tires to keep that same rubber from showing up on other cars? It might also explain the Draconian system used when mounting wheel rims and hauling Goodyear tires to race locations.

Tires have evolved over the years into something akin to a different animal.

At least until what we witnessed on Sunday night at Darlington. A new generation of tire matched to the new low downforce aero package provided what was perhaps the ultimate “throwback”: Cup teams dealing with sets of Goodyears that wore out to the tune of losing two or more seconds per run. What to do when sticking morphed into sliding?

Opting for new sets during pit stops wasn’t the simple fix. Ask Kasey Kahne about that strategy. Nothing like running short of new tires to turn pit road into the trading floor of a brokerage house.

But nothing better than wearing tires out in search of grip on a hot and gritty night in South Carolina. Chassis adjustments and tire management were the center of attention given the record number of caution flags thrown. Suddenly the “throwback” weekend was complete. What better way to match the retro paint schemes, uniforms, and facial hair than to relive the kind of racing we saw during NASCAR’s golden era of big cars, small spoilers, soft tires, and Darlington stripes for everyone.

For next year’s Southern 500, might I suggest adding flaps in the floor pans and small strobe lights circa NASCAR 1965? If tire wear continues to be an issue, drivers should keep a closer eye on things. Especially if the low downforce aero package is an every-week part of NASCAR 2016….

I, for one, hope it is.

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