- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The grandstands were empty, and the track was silent other than the rumbling of four cars with vanilla paint schemes. No spectators were in the infield other than 18-year-old Joey Logano, who made the two-hour trek from Charlotte, N.C., to get a feel for the facility he would have to tackle for real next month.
Hardly. What took place Tuesday and Wednesday at Darlington Raceway was as important -- maybe more -- as anything that will happen when 43-plus Sprint Cup teams show up for the Southern 500 on Mother's Day weekend.
It's called a tire test. Without them, Goodyear would be guessing at the right compound and construction that officials, drivers and fans hope will provide the best show.
Tony Stewart's gripes aside, the tire manufacturer does all it can to provide the best product for the sport. There will be 16 such tests during the season at tracks from Darlington to Indianapolis to Phoenix.
Goodyear will spend countless dollars and hours -- not only at the track but in the lab at the Akron, Ohio, headquarters -- working to find the perfect combination for these new cars that have been as much of a challenge for the tire manufacturer as for car manufacturers.
But to the masses, Goodyear is like an official at a football game. Nobody notices until a call is missed, then everybody attacks like vultures on a carcass.
Stewart has gotten downright nasty a few times, such as last month at Daytona after his car and teammate Ryan Newman's car were destroyed in practice because of a blown tire. Or last year at Atlanta, when the tire was so hard drivers felt as if they were driving on ice.
"The most pathetic racing tire I've been on in my professional career," Stewart said.
There were complaints this past weekend at Atlanta despite numerous tests to improve the grip.
"They're in the worst position in the sport to have anything positive come out of anything," Kevin Harvick said. "I don't think they ever have too many people come to them and say, 'Thanks for building a great tire this week.' You take it for granted."
He gets no argument from Bobby Labonte.
"They have to build a tire that is safe enough and durable enough," the 2000 Cup champion said. "Sometimes we can get aggravated at places we feel it doesn't have the grip or something.
"I'd say, overall, they're in one of the toughest parts of this business. They're the first one somebody is going to point their finger at if something happens."
Most race weekends, the tire isn't the main topic of conversation. That's because of tests in which compound after compound is tried to make sure the drivers and cars are the focus.
"Everybody in our organization is pretty satisfied with the effort we put in," said Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race tire sales. "We know we take it very seriously. We take it as seriously as any team out there.
"We're happy when we have a day when everybody is content with tires. We kind of accept they're not going to come up and pat us on the back publicly [when it's a good day]. Sometimes we do hear comments a week later. People compliment us on a good package, and that's enough."
And when criticism comes like a Midwest tornado, Stucker added, "We recognize we didn't hit it just right and take to the task to go back and make it better."
A golf cart was waiting to take Elliott Sadler back to his car for the Wednesday afternoon session, but the driver wasn't in a rush the way he would have been for a 90-minute practice on a race weekend.
"It's a very laid-back test," he said. "It's not a real competition factor because you never know who is on what tire, what the other guy is doing. You're just focusing on what you can do for Goodyear. You're not coming here and throwing the whole book at it and getting as much speed as you can out of it.
"We're helping Goodyear the best we can and giving them the best and most honest feedback so we can have a good race when we come back."
Had this been a regular test with 45 or more cars, teams would be fighting for track time and experimenting with countless setups. At a tire test, they try to keep setups basically the same so teams and Goodyear engineers can get more consistent data.
"We've been through seven or eight different tires since we started," Harvick said. "We haven't changed anything on the car. You find a balance and what you think you can drive on, and then you come back and see what they show up with."
Denny Hamlin doesn't believe tire tests are the huge advantage many predicted they would be when NASCAR banned regular testing at sanctioned tracks to trim team spending.
"It is a bigger advantage than it was before," said Hamlin, whose input to Goodyear is valued because his style seems to fit the egg-shaped track. "But I don't know that I would be any better coming back had I not done this test. We have very limited time to work on our cars here."
That doesn't mean teams aren't standing in line hoping to be selected.
"They're very happy to oblige," Stucker said. "It's just become they're much more critical this year because of track time. We're very popular guys."
Starting the test
NASCAR's oldest superspeedway looked as though it had been through a Las Vegas windstorm -- that's how much sand was on the surface when Sadler, Harvick, Labonte and Hamlin arrived Tuesday morning.
They spent about half the day getting the track clean and getting rubber down to the point that they could collect the best data. Sadler actually spun out and hit the wall.
"If I'd make any change, it would be just to add another car from each manufacturer [to get more cars on the track and rubber down faster]," Sadler said.
A few years ago, Goodyear might have invited only two teams to test, sometimes even both from the same manufacturer. A year ago, Toyota officials complained because Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge drivers were invited to the Darlington test and their drivers weren't.
With the ban on testing, Goodyear opted to invite all four manufacturers this season. Not that all four drivers actually are testing. Two usually spend the day putting rubber on the surface while the other two collect data.
"I haven't tried as many tires as Denny has," said Labonte, a former Darlington winner.
The number of cars selected isn't arbitrary. Goodyear insists that more teams at a test would be more difficult to manage.
"If you have other cars, they're out there running their own program," Stucker said. "You can say they are getting a leg up because they're not doing tire testing. The way we work it now is pretty fair."
Goodyear did listen when the manufacturers expressed concern that they were being put at a disadvantage by not being included. Most believe Goodyear listens more now in general, particularly to the drivers at tests and race weekends.
"They're trying to get us comfortable because the more comfortable we are, the more side-by-side racing we're going to see," Hamlin said.
Said Sadler, "They've got their book more open to possibilities now."
He recalled a tire test at Kansas a few years ago. Goodyear basically came with two tires and said they were going to pick one or the other.
"Here we have three or four different lefts and two different rights that we're trying on all different combinations," Sadler said. "Goodyear has really broadened their horizon on the way they look at things to make sure they have crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i' before we come back so we don't have another Indy."
The 2008 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway turned into what Carl Edwards called a "debacle."
The tire wore out so fast with the heavier new car that NASCAR had to call competition cautions every 10 to 12 laps for teams to make changes before mass blowouts occurred. The longest green-flag run was 13 laps.
Goodyear officials were embarrassed. NASCAR was embarrassed and publicly apologized to fans for the fiasco.
Several tests have been run since to avoid a repeat. Another is coming up soon.
"I don't know of a better way to do it," Harvick said. "Obviously, it all starts in their labs and creating tires that they bring to the test and getting a direction."
That is the biggest difference between testing now and 10 years ago. Technology allows the tire manufacturer to look at compounds and how they will react to different surfaces under laboratory conditions more than ever.
Most of the performance testing is done at Calspan Corp., an independent automotive testing facility in Buffalo, N.Y., that can replicate the operating conditions of a race tire.
"We're more prepared than we were 10 years ago," Stucker said. "We can narrow down exactly what we want to take to the track."
Teams are prepared better, as well. They have more engineers dedicated to tires, and they work closely with Goodyear on finding the right fit for the car and track. They are better-equipped with computers and data-collecting devices on the cars.
"But the ultimate is to get to the track," Stucker said. "As long as I've been involved, the track is the final sign-off."
A necessary evil
Harvick isn't a big fan of testing. There were a lot more things he would rather have been doing during a rare break in the schedule than turning laps at Darlington.
"It's a necessary evil," he said.
Labonte welcomed the opportunity to work with his new team at Hall of Fame and Yates Racing for the first time without the time restraints of a race weekend. He used the test not only to help Goodyear but to build communication with his crew that they didn't get when testing was banned.
But many are like Harvick -- Stewart included.
"He has said he's not that interested in testing," Stucker said.
They're in the worst position in the sport to have anything positive come out of anything. I don't think they ever have too many people come to them and say, 'Thanks for building a great tire this week.' You take it for granted.
”-- Kevin Harvick
Stewart is interested in criticizing Goodyear when the opportunity arises, though.
Here are two examples:
After the Daytona practice wreck that forced him and Newman to go to backups for the 500 -- "It's just frustrating because the gold-and-blue down there are the cause of another deal. I'm just so tired of talking about Goodyear it's ridiculous. I'm just over it."
After the 2008 Atlanta race -- "If I were Goodyear, I'd be very embarrassed about the tire they brought this weekend. It was ridiculous. If they can't do better than that, pull out of the sport. I guarantee you that Hoosier or Firestone could do a better job than that.
"To tell us the week before the race we have a new tire and expect everyone to figure it out is very disappointing. I guess that's why they got run out of Formula One, the IRL, CART and USAC, you name it. They couldn't keep up and provide a quality product. Maybe they don't have enough quality people."
Goodyear has been the sole supplier to NASCAR's top three series since 1997 after being challenged by Hoosier in 1988-89 and again in '94. It provides more than 70,000 tires a year for the series at a cost of more than $400 a tire.
NASCAR believes having involvement from more than one tire manufacturer would create competitive advantages that would cause problems.
Stewart has been the most critical, but he did apologize to Goodyear after the Atlanta comments. He has talked with Goodyear several times since the Daytona blowup, although Stucker stopped short of saying Stewart had apologized.
"We're OK," he said. "Everybody recognizes a few things happened. We're moving forward. The team wants to do well, and they're still one of our customers."
Stucker isn't naive enough to believe other issues won't arise. With ever-changing weather conditions, teams pushing setups further than ever and remaining unknowns about the new car, he knows there will be complaints.
But tire tests such as the one at Darlington should cut down on them considerably.
"This is a significant investment for us," said Stucker, who declined to comment on how much Goodyear spends on NASCAR. "It's significant not only from a monetary standpoint but from a time and effort standpoint.
"The company puts a lot of time and resources into the program. It's not something we take lightly. What we do at tracks such as Darlington may seem boring to fans, but it's not to us."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.