Drivers still carping about Vegas track, tires

Sunday's Nextel Cup race in Las Vegas had a lot less mayhem in it than predicted, but there are still many drivers upset over hard tires, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 12, 2007, 3:18 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Ryan Newman smiled as he walked toward his car prior to Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart
Warren Wimmer/WireImage.comTony Stewart wasn't happy with the track and tires before Saturday's Busch race, but he softened his tone a little after Sunday's Cup race.

"You're going to have plenty to write about after this one," he said.

There was plenty to write about, but it wasn't the mayhem and mass destruction of cars that Newman and others anticipated because of a harder-than-rock right-front tire designed to slow speeds on the newly resurfaced tack.

After three cautions in the first 19 laps the race settled into a fairly normal event with only nine cautions. Oh, there were a few anxious moments. Winner Jimmie Johnson nicked the wall once.

But it wasn't the type of embarrassment that NASCAR and Goodyear endured in 2005 when 37 cautions -- a record 22 in the May race -- turned two races at Lowe's Motor Speedway into wreckfests.

By the time the sun set Sunday over the nearby mountains, even two-time champion Tony Stewart softened his stance.

"You just had to be a lot more cautious than normal," he said. "You knew that if you pushed too hard and got over the edge that it was going to cost you.

"It was just one of those days where you had to be very, very careful because of the circumstances. You raced as hard as you could with what you had."

Two days earlier, Stewart was so upset that he called the tire the worst he's been forced to race. He also offered half of his salary if the Hoosier Tire Company could start supplying tires instead of Goodyear.

He was so harsh that team president J.D. Gibbs sought out Goodyear officials to apologize.

Stewart later aimed his frustrations at the track.

And there was reason to be frustrated. Teams spent three days and a ton of cash for a three-day test in Las Vegas prior to the season. They had all the data necessary to prepare their cars for this race.

Then NASCAR and Goodyear mandated a harder right-front tire and smaller fuel cell that made much of the data worthless.

"If we could have tested with the small fuel cell and foreseen the problems and knew what was coming, and we had the three days that we had before on this tire with this configuration, there wouldn't have been any frustration," Johnson said after collecting his 24th career win and the 150th win for Hendrick Motorsports.

"But when you go home and work on your data and try to sort everything out and then it all changes, it really complicates things. You don't know what to do. You don't have any data. And it's really trial and error."

Teams such as Johnson's that focused on fixing the problem instead of whining about it had the most success.

But in the end it came down to drivers being smarter than we give them credit for sometimes. After 12 cautions in Saturday's Busch Series race and three quick ones on Sunday, they slowed down enough to turn a potentially disastrous situation into a tolerable one.

"Very smart driving, as smart as I've ever seen these guys drive under all the pressure that they're under," points leader Mark Martin said. "They all did a great job and it wasn't nearly as much of a disaster as I thought it was going to be."

Stewart agreed.

"I went as hard as I could without crashing," he said. "I could see situations in front of me where everybody was giving each other room and trying to be courteous to each other. The drivers made the best out of a bad situation."

That doesn't mean there weren't scary moments.

Jeff Gordon
Harry How/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon wishes somebody would ask him his opinion before they change a racetrack.

"I had two or three incidents where I lost control of the car," Johnson said. "With the sun beating down on the track and this hard of a tire and the lack of practice, it's just tough.

"If we continue to work with this tire, we'll figure out how to make it work. But when you don't have much practice, and you don't have any data, you're just shooting in the dark. That's why [there were] the ill-handling cars."

Jeff Gordon, who finished second to his teammate, said NASCAR needs to involve the drivers and teams in future decisions concerning track configuration and tires.

"There is no reason for us to show up at tracks and go through a white-knuckle experience throughout a whole weekend like we were," he said. "We have smart people and NASCAR has been doing this too long that we have got to figure out how not to bring tires like this to the racetrack."

Gordon, who will test tires at Darlington on Wednesday, suggested forming a committee to include drivers and crew chiefs. He said a little less banking -- the track was changed from 9 to 20 degrees -- would have helped.

Gordon already plans to address Goodyear on speculation that it will bring a harder left-front tire to Lowe's Motor Speedway in May. He also has suggestions for the planned resurfacing of Bristol Motor Speedway.

"I do feel like multiple drivers' input is important, because we are the ones running 500 miles out here and we know a lot about these racetracks," Gordon said.

If that happens, perhaps we'll be talking more about great racing and less about the kind of gloom and doom that Newman anticipated at Vegas.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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