Tire woes leave drivers with helpless feeling
Ask the NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers and, to a man, they'll tell you they preferred the bumpy roads of old to whatever road they traversed on Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Earlier this year, Lowe's president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler made the decision to shave out the bumps on the 1.5-mile quad-oval track in Concord, N.C.. The result, as fans and racers saw over the weekend, were faster speeds and a Goodyear tire combination that didn't stand a chance.
In all, 16 drivers, including five Chase racers, encountered busted tires during the UAW-GM Quality 500 Saturday night. Anticipating issues, NASCAR scheduled a planned caution for 30 laps into the race to let teams adjust to the new situation.
It didn't help, and as the sanctioning body watched busted right-front tire after busted right-front tire -- mixed in with the occasional flat right rear or flat left front, NASCAR finally issued a mid-race mandate on minimum air pressure for right front tires and even had inspectors police pit road threatening to dock points from teams that disobeyed.
The pressure mandate didn't help, though. And if you ask Tony Stewart, who watched a 75-point lead in the standings slip away, the mandate hurt.
"We make the adjustment and the next thing you know, we have a problem," said Stewart, who finished 25th. "You know, it's just one of them screwed up nights. We had the best car all night, we should've been 100 points ahead in the lead tonight, we left here and instead I'm tied for the lead tonight. Nothing like feeling like you've got your hands tied behind your back."
Jimmie Johnson found a way to overcome battery problems and dodge major tire issues to win his fourth straight race at Lowe's. That propelled him three spots up to first, tied with Stewart. This, after Stewart led more than 60 laps. In fact, Stewart's right front blew while he was leading.
Although Stewart was visibly frustrated, he restrained himself before throwing blame. He said he didn't blame Goodyear because the company didn't know what composition tire to bring for a track surface it's never seen. He didn't blame NASCAR, either, because it was just scrambling to fix a problem unfolding before everyone's eyes.
And though Stewart didn't blame Wheeler or the racetrack, he didn't absolve them from his list of dislike.
"It was the most screwed up night I've ever seen, so all I want to do is just go home right now," the 2002 Cup champ said. "I don't care about anything else right now."
Sterling Marlin, who also busted a tire, wasn't as forgiving.
"These track owners," he said referring to Wheeler and track owner Bruton Smith. "I wish they'd contact somebody before they do anything to the racetrack. They had a good track here before and didn't need to mess with it. They messed with it and messed it up and ruined it tonight for everybody."
Elliott Sadler led the most laps but fell victim to the tire problems. He said it didn't take long for him to figure out that the speeds were getting out of control and that he wasn't going to be able to race full-throttle under Saturday night's conditions.
"I think they are just going to have to bring back a harder tire, maybe like the tire we run at Texas," Sadler suggested. "We're just going too fast around here. The speeds are too much for this tire. In the start of the race, I wanted to run hard through [turns] one and two to get my five bonus points by leading a lap but it just abused the tire too much to run a 100 percent."
That was the consensus among all drivers.
"I'm only driving my car 85-90 percent out there," Kyle Busch said. "[I was] not even pushing it the final 100 percent just because I'm scared to death from seeing all the other people with problems out there. It's just terrible circumstances out there to race in. It's not Goodyear's fault. It's not the racetrack's fault. It's just circumstances. It's a tough break."
A tough break that nobody was happy to experience. Racers knew going into the Chase that Dover, Del., would cause problems and that, without question, Talladega, Ala., would cause problems. Most drivers were looking forward to racing in the Charlotte suburb, though, where many teams have their base. Nobody was expecting this kind of massacre.
"I don't think I ran one lap as hard as I could," Carl Edwards said. "That's just the way we had to race. This was not a lot of fun to be honest with you. It just isn't. You're risking your best car and a good headache. You're just trying to make it for 330 laps."
When the tires finally stopped rolling, Johnson wasn't the only happy driver in the garage after pulling up to tie Stewart for the lead. Greg Biffle was content with pulling to within 11 points of the lead. Ryan Newman, despite dropping two spots to fourth, made up considerable ground in the points, going from 75 back to just 17. And Mark Martin and Carl Edwards pulled to within 51 and 54 points, respectively.
But that's the points race. That's not what fans paid money to see, or tuned in to watch, on Saturday night. And neither was the tire-shedding circus drivers described after the race.
"This is the biggest joke in racing that I've ever seen," Kevin Harvick said, "and it's just terrible. Everybody saw it coming last night [in the Busch Series race] and out there, not willing, but just knowing that at any time the tires are going to go. It's pretty disgusting and pretty embarrassing for our sport."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.