Race Weekend Central

Bristol Was Fun, So Getting Rid of Tire Wear Would Be a Mistake

With all the negativity surrounding short track races with the Next Gen car in the last two years, last Sunday’s (March 17) Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was an all-time classic that served as a beacon of hope for this car on NASCAR’s shortest ovals.

And the kicker? The action we saw on Sunday happened by complete accident.

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The tire that Goodyear brought was the same one used at Bristol last September, but it was a combination of 60-degree weather, resin applied to the track by NASCAR and the track not taking rubber that created the perfect storm of extreme tire wear at Bristol.

The result? An all-time NASCAR Cup Series record of 54 lead changes on a short track, and a strategy game of the drivers and crew chiefs conserving their tires and equipment while maintaining pace with the front of the pack. And unlike many races of today, the dreaded words dirty air, aero push and aero tight were never a factor.

Many drivers expressed that they had fun racing once they got out of their cars, and others remarked about how unique of a challenge it was to face the circumstances they were dealt.

But of course, the event wasn’t universally acclaimed by everyone. Some onlookers were disappointed that the drivers had to lay back and not go all out on the racetrack, and Ryan Blaney likened the tire management at Bristol to the excessive fuel saving seen by the pack at the start of the 2024 Daytona 500.

The event was predominantly praised overall, however. And after the non-stop discussions about raising the horsepower of the Next Gen cars and NASCAR’s hesitation to do after the prior event at Phoenix Raceway, Bristol showed that horsepower isn’t the only avenue to pursue in improving the racing quality of these cars.

That said, there is a fine line between an acceptable amount of tire wear and a fiasco like the infamous 2008 Brickyard 400. Bristol was nowhere close to that embarrassment of race — even if the situation looked bleak in the first 150 laps — as only one driver failed to finish the race while almost everyone else brought their car home in one piece.

But Sunday was on the verge of chaos, and several drivers that enjoyed the race agreed that the tire wear was too excessive for their liking.

With Bristol in the rearview mirror, what path should NASCAR and Goodyear take toward tire wear in future races?

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The key is that they should not bend to criticism on Sunday and bring a tire that doesn’t wear at all. No tire wear means more difficulty passing, and it makes races a game of track position because the fastest cars are unable to get by cars with older tires due to the lack of falloff speed.

Like many things, the tire wear for Cup career is a matter of the Goldilocks principle: there’s too much tire wear, there’s too little tire wear, and there’s the sweet spot that’s just right.

Sunday erred close to too much tire wear on the pendulum, so now it’s a matter of finding that Goldilocks zone: enough tire wear that drivers have to conserve their equipment and can easily pass cars at a tire disadvantage, but not enough wear to where teams are going through 10-plus sets of tires per race due to flats, blowouts or dramatic falloff.

Chris Gabehart, the crew chief of race winner Denny Hamlin, had praise for Goodyear and the challenges brought about by the tires.

“Personally, hats off to Goodyear,” Gabehart said. “I don’t think they should get heat for this. … I want them to make these drivers have to make decisions. The crew chiefs to make decisions.”

If NASCAR can find the optimal tire wear for its Cup race at Martinsville Speedway on April 7, that would be another step in the right direction for the Next Gen car on short tracks. And the best part of the accidental tire wear seen at Bristol is that finding the right combination won’t only have the potential to improve short tracks — it could have the potential improve racing at any track.

As for the concern that NASCAR and Goodyear could counteract and bring back a tire that wears too little? It shouldn’t be an issue, at least according to what NASCAR’s Senior Vice President John Probst said after Sunday’s race.

“All in all, I think [Bristol] was probably one of the best short track races I’ve ever seen.”

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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