Goodyear gets a grip in Cup series
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Stu Grant stops to shake the hand of a Sprint Cup team owner. Farther down the line of haulers in the Atlanta Motor Speedway garage, he is greeted with smiles from a couple of drivers who have just completed practice.
Grant smiles back, too.
He can these days. Even after Sunday's race, in which there were more than a dozen blown tires, Goodyear's global manager of race tires doesn't feel as if there's a huge bull's-eye on his back.
How things have changed.
This time two years ago, Grant and Goodyear wore bigger targets in the garage than Brad Keselowski does on the track. Tony Stewart was so angry leaving Atlanta that he said the best thing the tire manufacturer did was "make that gold trophy at the end of year" for the series champion.
He added that that the tires were "not worthy of a street car."
Now not only is Goodyear being defended after events in which there are blown tires; many are crediting the company with improving the overall quality of racing.
Yes, we're taking a break from the Keselowski-Carl Edwards feud to talk rubber meeting the road.
More so than tweaks to the car to improve downforce and handling, more so than the governing body loosening the reins on competitors and telling them to "have at it, boys," arguably the biggest reason we've seen better races this season is the tires.
Cars aren't sliding out of control as they were through the middle of last season. Drivers finally are comfortable that the only thing separating 3,500 pounds of steel and sheet metal and them from the track will stick when they enter and exit the corners.
"It doesn't matter what kind of race car it is; ultimately it contacts to the racetrack in four spots, and those four spots are pretty darn important," said Sprint Cup director John Darby. "You can go as far as realistically saying [the tires] have greatly contributed to the excitement we've seen on the track and quality of our races."
No magic compound has been discovered, but there has been a change of philosophy. Goodyear engineers finally realized that harder doesn't mean safer, or even better, as they thought two years ago. It took a while. It wasn't until countless tests following the 2008 debacle at Indianapolis, in which NASCAR had to call a competition caution every 12 laps or so, that a solution was found.
"You like the old adage 'Out of every black cloud comes a silver lining,'" Darby said. "The 2008 Brickyard race and the amount of extensive testing Goodyear went forward with, through the process of fixing Indianapolis, there was a learning curve that was big for the entire sport."
There were seven tire tests, to be exact, in preparation for last year's race at Indy. At some point Goodyear learned innovative things about wear degree and how it relates to rubbering in the track that benefited every facility.
So the company adjusted to a softer compound, one that would be durable enough that it wouldn't wear excessively and efficient enough to lay down rubber at a rate that would provide more grip. More grip meant better handling and better racing.
"The conventional wisdom was if you have a tire that is fast and wears out then you harden it up and slow the car down to improve the wear," Grant said. "It didn't work out like that, we found out."
The final major test was this year's Daytona 500, the second-biggest challenge behind Indy because of the rough, abrasive surface -- even before the pothole.
"Cars get in the draft, they move around so much, and with that abrasive surface they just tear tires up," Grant said.
Goodyear has done a helluva a job bringing us good tires. California is one that sticks out in my mind. We've struggled to put on a good show for the fans. That's the best show we've put on there.” -- Clint Bowyer
So Goodyear conducted a 17-car test much like it did at Indy to as closely as possible simulate race conditions. It came away with what drivers and Grant called the "best Daytona tire we've had in a long time."
The same thought process was used at California the next week and Las Vegas the week after. That was followed by more praise for tires than we've heard since the new car was introduced.
"If the drivers are comfortable, they'll go fast," Grant said.
To be fair, Goodyear was put behind the eight ball, just as the teams were, when the new car came out. Officials were searching just as hard as crew chiefs to figure out what would and wouldn't work.
"It was difficult for us to get a grip," Grant said. "It's nice to hear them say nice things now. These guys, as we know, are brutally honest. But we've had a lot of good one-on-one input from them on how to make the racing better."
Jeff Burton tried to tell us this was coming a year ago. He said the racing was going to be better, and the tire would be a big reason.
"And I was right just for the record," he said with a laugh. "For me, I like a tire that makes good grip, doesn't make crazy grip, but it keeps a fair amount of grip during the run. What I've seen is that the racing is better when the tire makes more grip."
Will that change when NASCAR replaces the wing with the spoiler in two weeks at Martinsville? Grant doesn't think so, although there's no way to tell for sure until the cars are on the track. NASCAR, to its credit, is doing whatever possible to make sure the balance of the car doesn't change much so the pressure and wear on the tire remains consistent.
Goodyear will keep a close eye on that during Tuesday's spoiler test at Talladega.
"If we need to react, we'll react," Grant said.
Right now it's all about reaction, and for the most part it's been positive. Even some of those who had blowouts at Atlanta raved. Denny Hamlin, who cut one tire and blew another when he ran over something, said on Twitter "it was the most drivable tire we ever had at Atlanta."
When Elliott Sadler was asked about Atlanta tire issues during Tuesday's tire test at Darlington Raceway, he responded, "What tire issues?"
Ditto for Clint Bowyer, also at the test.
"Goodyear has done a helluva a job bringing us good tires," he said. "California is one that sticks out in my mind. We've struggled to put on a good show for the fans. That's the best show we've put on there."
No wonder Grant is smiling.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.