Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Drivers, Teams Caught Off Guard by Bristol’s Goodyear Gremlins

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The NASCAR Cup Series’ return to Bristol’s concrete surface was received by many, drivers and fans alike, as a positive move for the 2024 schedule. Sunday’s (March 17) race undid almost all of that positivity.

Truck Series and Cup drivers alike struggled with their cars through Saturday’s qualifying sessions and truck race, with many naming an increased level of tire wear and consequent loss of handling among the most surprising aspects of the weekend.

For NASCAR’s return to the Bristol concrete, a layer of resin was applied around the track’s bottom grove in an effort to ensure multiple racing lanes would be present for both events. To the surprise of the drivers, teams, NASCAR and even Goodyear, the on-track product was nigh on out of control.

Well before the race’s halfway point, it had become clear that tire management could make or break the race, and by the two-thirds point it was up for question whether drivers could plausibly conserve tires to an extent that would allow them to finish the race.

Eventually, Goodyear had to call an audible and offer teams an extra set of tires to get them to the end of the event.

The scenes around the Goodyear garage, situated in Bristol’s infield near turns 1 and 2, were chaotic and tense, to say the least. By the time NASCAR approved Goodyear releasing extra sets to the teams, numerous crew members had shown up to be as close to the front of the line as possible, while officials had began ushering non-team members in the area away from the building.

By day’s end, tires were all anybody was talking about, and to call reactions varied would be an understatement.

See also
Denny Hamlin Survives Chaos in Thunder Valley, Wins at Bristol

Defending Cup champion Ryan Blaney had perhaps the most blunt take on the matter: “Did you enjoy the s*** show?”

“I didn’t have fun,” Blaney said after race. “What’s fun about riding around, grouping around there. 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.”

After stage two, the situation had deteriorated to the point that Goodyear Director Greg Stucker spoke directly to the press on the matter in the track’s media center.

“It was the intent to come up with a tire package that generated more tire wear,” Stucker said. “That was the request from NASCAR and the teams. And we feel like we had a very successful test, we feel like we had a very successful race in the fall of last year. Because we did exactly that. We ran a full fuel stop, definitely saw wear but we thought it was spot on. So now, we’re trying to understand what’s different; why is the racetrack behaving differently this weekend than what it did a year ago? It’s the same package, it’s the same tire combination.

“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 fall. It took rubber immediately during that race, so still a bit of an unknown as far as why it’s not behaving that way, but that’s kind of what we know now.”

Notably, Stucker said Goodyear was not consulted on the decision to use resin for the weekend. “That was a track decision.”

“We all want tires that wear out, that we have to manage,” Alex Bowman said after collecting his second top-five finish of the season. “This was just too far, probably. I think only being able to go 40 laps on tires at Bristol is difficult. But, the tire didn’t change from the last couple years, so it’s not the tire — it’s the resin. We all told them to put PJ1 down last night instead of resin and nobody listened, and this happened.”

Kyle Larson described the situation within the race as something close to beyond saving.

“If we would’ve had 10 extra sets of tires, I don’t think it would have looked any different,” the 2021 Cup Series champion said. “So … yeah, just wild, wild that it never took rubber.”

When asked by Frontstretch if knowing how the tires would behave ahead of time would have made any difference, Larson wasn’t convinced.

“I don’t think that it would’ve made any difference,” he admitted. “We could’ve had 10 more extra sets of tires but you’re still going to play the race out the same, because you don’t know when a caution’s coming out.”

For a different perspective, Frontstretch also caught up with Chad Knaus, who served as crew chief for all seven of Jimmie Johnson‘s Cup championships with Hendrick Motorsports.

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate,” Knaus said. “You can’t blame the tire solely, there’s a lot of other contributing factors to what played out here today.

“It was over cast all day, the track was cool, the track treatment is a different substance than what we’ve used in the past and what this tire was built for and designed for. Since we’ve been here it’s been a different traction compound, so when you throw that into the mix and cool temperatures, you can have results like this occasionally.”

Ultimately, Knaus shared the confusion that was weighing on the rest of us. “Nobody intended for this to happen today, I can tell you that.”

On the other end of the crew chief spectrum — that being a current crew chief — Chris Gabehart, who called the race for winner Denny Hamlin, was more sympathetic to Goodyear than somebody in Blaney’s shoes.

“This weekend, for whatever reason, we just missed,” he said. “We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen cold Martinsville races not rubber up, we’ve seen Dover last year in practice — concrete track — didn’t rubber up. Yesterday, all of a sudden, it didn’t rubber up. There was small change with the traction compound that got laid on the bottom, whether that contributed or not, who knows? My guess is we will bring something different back, but I really think we have to learn from this. You’ve been hearing the drivers and the teams ask for challenges, effectively, and it was a challenge today.

“Me, personally? Hats off to Goodyear. I mean, I don’t want them to get any heat for this. I think Goodyear makes million-mile tires on the road, I don’t think they should make million-mile tires on the racetrack. I want them to have to make these drivers make decisions, make these crew chiefs make decisions, and if they blow out, that’s on the crew chiefs, that’s on the team.”

Hamlin likewise seemed composed and relaxed after collecting the win.

“It was challenging, but it was a different kind of challenge for sure,” the driver of the No. 11 Camry said. “Certainly something that we’ve not had to do for a very long time in managing tires. So, lesson learned early on. I kind of ran a certain pace, ran a certain line, wore my tires out. And from that point on, made some adjustments internally and [Gabehart] made some adjustments to the car that allowed me to just manage it from that point on. So, once it got into that tire management type of race, certainly my history in late models, where you had to do that big time, certainly paid off.”

See also
Josh Berry Ends Up 12th After Roller Coaster Day at Bristol

Josh Berry, who made his name in dirt racing before advancing into NASCAR, found a season-best finish for his No. 4 team, coming out of the chaos in 12th place after staying out for an unusually long run to the checkered flag.

“We made it 73 laps. I don’t think it would have made it 74,” he said.

Beyond these, multiple other drivers shared their opinions and reactions to the day’s tire turmoil with Fronstretch after the race.

It would be nothing but honest to say that expectations were all over for this weekend’s return to the concrete configuration of Bristol. Somehow, all of those expectations were shattered, for better or for worse.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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Stop putting sticky crap on tracks. Just stop it.

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