Drivers hope All-Star race lessons learned
The Coca-Cola 600 is a marathon race, and drivers used to worry most about not tiring long after day gave way to night. Last week's Nextel All-Star Challenge, universally used by teams as a practice for the 600-miler, confirmed competitors' worst fears: They still will be talking tire, but not as in fatigue.
The biggest lesson learned from this past weekend's race was that the track and tire combination results in little grip and a so-called chattering issue that have crew chiefs scrambling for answers. After Lowe's Motor Speedway repaved its track surface, Goodyear, which supplies the tires for the Nextel Cup teams, reconfigured the composition of the tires it would provide to teams.
Jeff Gordon explained the resulting situation best: "Here's the way to sum it up," he said after this past weekend's all-star event. "I had a flat right-rear tire; I went into Turn 3 and got sideways. I ran another two laps because I wasn't sure that it was just the tire that got loose. That's how little grip the tire has. You have no idea if you even have a flat tire. I felt like I was running on run-flats."
So did Kasey Kahne. When he tried to make a move about halfway through the race, he was unable to control his No. 9 Dodge, made contact with Mark Martin's No. 6 Ford and started a wreck that took out almost half of the field of racers. Kahne cautioned that teams should learn from his mistake and be patient during this weekend's race. Kevin Harvick, just after finishing second this past weekend, said he thinks that sentiment goes without saying.
"I think everyone was geared up to run 15 or 20 laps tonight, which next week, you won't be able to do that," he said. "You need to gear up for a full run. I think the biggest thing we learned was just to get your tires prepared properly and you can do some different things with them to continue through the race with some different tire strategy."
One tire issue everyone will be watching is the chatter many drivers say they felt, presumably as a result of the track conditions and tire combination creating a condition where the race cars have difficulty turning.
"When the car is not handling right, it definitely picks up a chatter," said Jimmie Johnson, who won the All-Star Challenge. "Instead of the tire slipping like it used to, because it is so hard, it chatters now. That is kind of the tire slip that you feel. The way I kind of look at it, and at times [during the All-Star race] I did have it when my car was too tight, the front tires would chatter across the racetrack.
"It is something we are all paying attention to and trying to understand why because this is the only track where we have such a severe chatter with the tires. The other mile-and-one-half [tracks] and short tracks, you rarely, rarely see a chatter unless the car is so tight and you put an absurd amount of steering wheel angle into it, then it will chatter. But very minimal amount of steering wheel angle here and the tires chatter, and that is something we aren't used to. I think that is why most of the drivers have been paying so much attention to it and talking about it."
Drivers aren't alone in their concern. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, predicts the chatter issue will be worse this Sunday.
"It is something that is going to be very, very difficult to deal with ... over the course of 600 miles," he said. "Four hundred laps around here is a long, long time."
Many teams are ready to try anything to fix the problem, and with such a long list of things to try, each practice leading up to this race is going to be important.
"Next week is going to be a real handful, but what we'll probably do is start with a little bit different spring package and maybe do something with spring rubbers to maybe get the car a little more adjustable," Gordon said. "We can do a lot with air pressure at the beginning of the race [with] tape and different things like that. We're actually going to be running two different races ... . I know we just keep talking about tires, tires, tires. But these tires are so, so finicky and you've got to be so careful on it that [the 600] is really going to be a survival race."
If a driver wins the race of survival, only then will he have a shot at winning the race for the checkered flag. Although tire composition will play a role in attrition, pit strategy and car setups will be more influential in who ends up in Victory Lane.
Trust that everyone will recall the deciding moment in this past weekend's race -- when Johnson took four tires on the last pit stop and Harvick took just two. Johnson cruised by Harvick's No. 29 Chevy and put his own No. 48 Chevy in Victory Lane.
Said Johnson: "I think everybody in the garage area learned something there."
But the car has to handle properly, too. Too many racers figured out their rigs aren't running so smoothly, so while they search for answers to tire questions, they'll also be searching tirelessly for better setups.
"If there was a good thing about the All-Star race, it was that we know all the stuff -- or a lot of the stuff -- that doesn't work," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've definitely got to get faster just to run in the top 10."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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