Catastrophic tire wear made for one of NASCAR’s best races in years

By | March 18, 2024

Tire wear made for one of NASCAR’s best races everIcon Sportswire – Getty Images

NASCAR has a short track problem. The tight and limited layouts that historically produced the best racing in the category have struggled since the series switched to the Next Gen car in 2022, and major aerodynamic revisions introduced last week at Phoenix did little to to help the cause. That meant excitement was unusually low for Sunday’s race at the beloved Bristol Motor Speedway. The excitement returned immediately when serious and accidental tire problems occurred mid-race.

Officially, Goodyear doesn’t know exactly what happened. The response from the brand’s racing director during Sunday’s race suggested that the biggest factor was that the track was not taking rubber, leaving the racing line relatively green while the outside of the corners were filled with mountains of abrasive tire marbles. Goodyear says it brought the same left- and right-side tire compounds to the track, so the only other obvious variables were track conditions and a another type of adhesive applied to the inner groove of the track by NASCAR. That only affected one of the circuit’s raceways, but the center and outer grooves were also not as rubbery as in previous races. There is also the possibility of an unknown change in the tires themselves, such as a different construction technique or supplier tolerance that may have caused the same tire compound to react differently.

Nascar Cup Series Food City 500Nascar Cup Series Food City 500

Meg Oliphant – Getty Images

Goodyear did not immediately respond Road & Tracks request for comment.

Whatever happened, the teams were caught off guard and had not set up their cars for the possibility of extreme tire wear. That meant that over the life of a set of tires, drivers would regularly experience wear during a green flag run, long before a fuel stop was necessary. It also meant that tires regularly punctured under green conditions.

Those are big, legitimate concerns. Teams are right to be frustrated by a race that is so different from what they intended to see, and drivers like Kyle Larson have good reason to feel uneasy about a race with so many suddenly blown tires.

“I’ve never driven a race like this before,” Larson said, Autoweek reported. “I hope I never have to run a race like that again. It wouldn’t be good to have to do a race like that every week, and it’s probably a black eye for Goodyear honestly, just with all the rubber that can’t be put down and just worn out tires and all that.

From a spectator’s perspective, however, the race proved that dramatic tire wear makes for an exceptionally entertaining product on the track. With further refinement for safety and a little more durability, a package built around this kind of tire degradation could deliver better, more fun to watch racing every week.

The race delivered a headliner 54 lead changes, the highest ever for a NASCAR short track. As exciting as that was, the real highlight was how those battles for position actually played out. This was nothing like the kind of drafting battles we see at Daytona, Talladega and the new Atlanta, which produced a three-wide finish earlier this month; these were battles between drivers at completely different levels of control, battles that required so much skill that it was obvious to viewers outside the car. Cars travel at very different speeds at different times as they figure out how to handle these types of tires, and those differences make for more visually exciting racing. Add to that the slides and lifts a driver needs to stay on the racing line at the end of the life of these tires and you get a real thrill.

Unfortunately, this cannot be implemented everywhere overnight. NASCAR and Goodyear must first figure out what happened here, and determine what specific combination of rubber, heat, surface material and surface finish led to an event like this. They then had to try out ways to safely replicate it on other tracks. Only then could Goodyear actually start building the thousand-plus tires needed to host a race weekend designed around this type of racing.

car march 17 nascar cup series food city 500car march 17 nascar cup series food city 500

Icon Sportswire – Getty Images

To do that properly, it must be ensured that this type of tire wear can occur without so many sudden blowouts. Furthermore, more wear and tear does not necessarily mean more crashes. As challenging as Sunday’s race was, the drivers were able to complete two full stints under green without any warning. That’s the product NASCAR needs, one that is a visible challenge for everyone, but not necessarily more dangerous than what the series is racing now.

That should be the immediate goal of everyone involved with the series. The sooner that process starts, the sooner we can have more races like this. As veteran NASCAR reporter Matt Weaver said Monday, this race was a happy accident. Now is the time to act with purpose and ensure more events like this happen on purpose.

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