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|BIZARRE BRICKYARD 400 TO JIMMY JOHNSON|
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA July 27, 2008: The 15th edition of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will go down as one of the most bizarre races in the history of NASCAR as the tires that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company brought to the track were as much of the story as was Jimmy Johnson’s second win in the prestigious race.
The problem with the tires Goodyear brought to the track began with practice yesterday afternoon. In the past, rubber that wore from the tires filled the grooves in the track and produced the buffer between track and tire that was needed to prolong tire wear but these tires just turned to dust. At the conclusion of the practice session Goodyear engineers still felt confident that as the race wore on the rubber would be laid down and the tires would last longer as in the past.
What they did not figure was that the new Car-of-Tomorrow was different than last year’s car and things were different. Indianapolis has always been a track that was hard on right rear tires but the new car added to a problem that was always there.
As a contingency plan 200 tires were brought to Indianapolis overnight from the supply set for Pocono Raceway next week, in case the sets that were brought would run out during the race or that a change to that compound was necessary, yet Goodyear was still confident that the tires they brought were what they needed.
NASCAR set a competition yellow for 10 laps into the race today to check for tire wear but a fourth lap caution for a spin by Michael Waltrip that collected Paul Menard in the second turn sent many teams to the pits earlier than the competition yellow and early indication was a complete disintegration of the right rear tire in just a short time.
The initial competition yellow was pushed to the 15 lap but when Kurt Busch got loose while passing a car in the fourth turn on lap 14 and spun collecting Kevin Harvick in the process the yellow came out early.
When the rest of the field made their pit stops every one was experiencing the same excessive tire wear and NASCAR extended the competition yellows deeper into the race.
When the second competition yellow came on lap 30 it was evident that the Brickyard 400 would become a strategy race and the final result would be placed in the hands of the crew chiefs and the pit crews.
Cars could get 8 laps at full speed before the drivers began to feel the wear and the traction go away and it was determined that a 10-12 lap window between the competition yellows would be necessary.
Teams tried to adjust the car to extend the tire wear and as the race wore on it was determined that the left side tires could last a stop or two so the top running cars would change tires based on their strategy at that point in the race.
Johnson, who won the pole for the race yesterday, was the only real constant all day long. His Hendricks Motorsports Chevrolet was strong all day long and being in the hands of a two time NASCAR champion and crew chief made it better than the rest, yet he was victim of strategy calls all day long.
Because of the competition yellows 16 different drivers were able to lead the race but so strong was Johnson’s car that he led the race for 71 laps at seven different points and was able to move to the front despite coming off pit road five, six or seven spots behind the cars that took two tires. Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus played the same four tire change with each competition yellow until it came crunch time on the final stop just 9 laps from the end when they changed two tires to emerge from the pit stop with the lead and the track position that was also a key element in the equation for victory under the difficult conditions that were handed them today.
Carl Edwards who seemed to be one of the few cars that could stay with Johnson came off the last stop in second and was unable to reel him during the final 7 laps settling for his best finish at Indianapolis yet just short of the win.
The finger pointing began almost immediately after the race yet everyone agreed that NASCAR did the best they could with the conditions that they were dealt with. The six designated competition yellows coupled with the 5 yellows for accidents, debris and oil on the track made the race safe and did not place the drivers in significant danger yet they had to drive with the cloud of uncertainty about the tires on their minds.
“It was just a great team effort,” said Johnson. “Early on we maintained our pace and it seemed that we were making the right calls in the pits with four tires and were in control. As the race wore on it seemed as though Carl (Edwards) and Denny (Hamlin) were catching us. I did not know if they were holding back or not so we knew that the final pit stop would be a key, and it was.”
Starting the season slow Johnson, the defending series champion, is catching fire and he credited his crew and crew chief for handling the challenges of the season and the new threat from Toyota as well as the rest of the teams.
“The call for the two tires was the right call at the end,” Johnson continued. “We stuck with four tires while many gambled. We knew what our car would do; we new how the left side tires looked and that in the final run we could go with two and not miss a beat.”
Once NASCAR adopted the 10 to 12 laps gap between competition yellows teams were able to adjust their cars and when it comes to adjusting the car during the race no one does it better than Knaus and he showed it again today as Johnson gave all the credit to him and the calls he made today.
“We were awfully close today,” said Edwards. “I really felt like I could beat him (Johnson) but in the end I could not get close to him despite a solid pit stop by our guys. I don’t know if he was holding back earlier or not but I just could not get to him at the end. He was fast.”
“The finish is not what we hoped for, of course,” Edwards continued. “Sure the tires played into it but we adjusted for it as the race went along. We dealt with the conditions. I just hope the fans will understand and deal with what they were presented. Did Goodyear drop the ball, I don’t think so. We’re all learning this new car and the fact that we did not test here as we should was a contributing factor.”
“We just got beat off pit road at the end,” said Hamlin. “Mike (crew chief Ford) has won here twice before and despite the tires he new what was needed to win here. He made the right calls all race long and were in a position to win and that is all you can ask for.”
Following Hamlin at the finish was Elliott Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, and A.J. Allmendinger and to a one all credited their pit crews with their finishes.
“We worked our crews to the point of exhaustion,” said Sadler. “It was hot out there and they had to work more stops than usual under extreme conditions. To their credit they all did great job but I’m sure they will feel it tomorrow.”
Matt Kenseth experienced the wrath of the tire dilemma today along with several drivers. On lap 48, just seven laps into the run he had his right rear blow ripping off the entire rear quarter of his car in the explosion sending him the garage area to make repairs that would put him back on the track 15 laps in the rears. “It’s a really, really, really disappointing situation,” said Kenseth. “This is one of the two biggest races of the year, and to never have this tire here before and not come to do an open test is pretty darn disappointing.”
Kenseth came into the race in 8th and dropped to 11th in a very tight battle for the final spots in the chase for the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cu title.
Janesville’s Travis Kvapil finished 36th, the final car on the lead lap and while leading a lap was also disappointed with the tires and the final result.
Kenseth’s comments were some of the strongest heard about the tires, but one only has to look to Goodyear in this situation. NASCAR was given a situation today and they worked with it, with driver safety the most important piece of there plan and in the end the drivers escaped without injury.
Point leader Kyle Busch, led the twice due to pit stop strategy, yet finished 15th. He is 253 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. With his early misfortune Harvick dropped from the top 12 just two points behind Clint Bowyer. Johnson moved ahead of Edwards to fourth by virtue of picking up the win and the bonus points that come from leading the most laps. Hamlin moved from 12th to 8th to give him a little breathing room in the battle for the twelve spots that will battle for the title the final 10 races of the season.
Johnson said he was concerned with each corner, with each lap, but he had a job to do and did it. He hopes that the fans will respect what they did today and hopes that Goodyear will develop a plan for future races at Indianapolis.
Rick Hendrick, Johnson’s car owner summed it up when he said, “These news cars are a different animal. It is taking time to figure them out and perhaps a full test at each track we compete on would have been the right decision to make.
Formula One fans did not return in significant numbers after the Michelin debacle here a few years ago, it is hoped that NASCAR fans do not hold the track and NASCAR at fault here and look to Goodyear to provide the answers as they are the official supplier of tires for the series.