Tire Terror leads to Denny Hamlin victory in Bristol

By | March 18, 2024

car march 17 nascar cup series food city 500

Tire Terror leads to Denny Hamlin victory in BristolIcon Sportswire – Getty Images

For everyone clamoring for NASCAR to return to its roots, their wish was granted Sunday night in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

With Bristol Motor Speedway’s return to concrete for the spring race, so did a previous era of NASCAR racing. Drivers battled the track the entire race, as they had to push harder to save their tires than at any recent NASCAR race. Denny Hamlin, who cut his teeth on the short tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, won his fourth Cup race in Bristol ahead of his teammate Martin Truex Jr. Hamlin would take the lead in 13 separate intervals for a total of 163 laps.

This was NASCAR’s third sole attempt at the concrete track with the Gen 7 car since it was run on dirt tracks last spring, and the car behaved very differently than it did during the fall race, even though both races ended with the same result from a Hamlin wins.

Early on, the drivers were burning through tires at an unprecedented pace, causing NASCAR to give each team an extra set of tires to hopefully make it to the end of the race. NASCAR took a set of tires from the total allocation between the fall and spring races and had to correct their mistake mid-race.

Tire management is a telltale sign of a good short track racer, and it’s no surprise that the series veterans were the few who could hold on until the end of the race.

Besides the two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates at the front, only three others stayed behind on the first lap to finish the race. RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski finished third, and Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five, although there’s a good chance that if the Hendrick drivers completed a few more laps, they would be on a lap as well based on the difference in the leader lap times and the benefit of clean air.

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

Extreme tire wear mid-race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Sunday, March 17, 2024Icon Sportswire – Getty Images

This was the first time since Dover in 2004 that five cars or fewer finished on the lead lap.

During the race the track would not require any rubber and could create a narrow racing line at the bottom, but there was little to no grip as the cars entered the track. Greg Stuckler, Goodyear’s director of racing tire sales, was on site to put the tire situation into perspective.

“We tested here last year with the intention of coming up with a tire package that generated more tire wear,” Stuckler told NASCAR on FOX’s Bob Pockrass. “That was the request of NASCAR and the teams. We feel like we had a very successful test, we feel like we had a very successful race in the fall of last year. We made a full fuel stop and definitely saw wear and tear, but we thought it was perfect.

We’re trying to understand what’s different and why the circuit behaves differently than it did a year ago. It’s the same package; it’s the same tire combination. The difference is clearly that resin was placed on the bottom tuft instead of PJ1. I still think the track should have used rubber, just like last fall. Rubber was needed immediately during that race.”

Tire management became everything; those at the front of the pack with clean air were able to control their pace and keep their throttle slightly higher than the rest of the pack. But no matter how much some drivers felt like they were saving, it wasn’t enough, and some of the newest drivers on the field nights ended up in heartbreak.

Ty Gibbs led 205 laps for most of his career and claimed his first two stage wins, but during the final run he lost his right rear tire. This followed his highest career finish last week at Phoneix International Speedway.

“I felt like we were great all day,” Gibbs said via the Toyota Racing News Release. “On that last run, the right rear just fell apart. We were only two laps late when we came in. When the tire broke, I think I was four laps down at one point. Just frustrating, but you have to work for it here.”

Hamlin was the last of all drivers to stay out and therefore had the most usable tires at the end of the race.

“Once it became a tire management race, I liked our chances,” Hamlin said in his post-race interview. “Obviously the veteran Martin [Truex Jr] went well too.”

Experience paid off in the race as the podium was filled with the three most experienced drivers in the field. Truex and Hamlin both made their Cup Series debuts as rookies in 2006 and Keselowski in 2010.

As drivers had to slow down and save their tires, this led to 52 lead changes over the course of a 426.5-mile, 500-lap race, the most of any race on a track shorter than a mile in NASCAR history.

In the end, the racing was tough, and most drivers loved that. We are seeing an evolving NASCAR season with many different types of races; some opted for the pit row, some decided with a few milliseconds, and this one was plagued by tire wear. What we get out of this is a well-rounded season and a well-rounded champion.

Of note, NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer John Probst met with the media after the race to talk about the positives and negatives of the race.

“Definitely a record day for us,” Probst said in a post-race scrum. “I know the race teams are quite exhausted at the moment; I know that our track crews and the people in the stands are quite exhausted just from the exciting day at the track. I definitely had some concerns about tire wear and things like that. All in all, I think it was probably one of the best short track races I’ve ever seen.”

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