NASCAR Report: |
By Monte Dutton
The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Don't blame Bruton Smith. Don't blame Goodyear. The problems at Las Vegas Motor Speedway rightly belong in NASCAR's lap.
When drivers experienced tire problems during a late January test at LVMS, NASCAR officials opted to reduce the size of the fuel tanks used in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 from 18 to 13 gallons. It's a remedy used previously at restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega) and at Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Only NASCAR would treat a tire malady by changing the fuel capacity.
It could have worked, but it didn't for an odd reason: During the period between the January tests and Sunday's race, Goodyear hardened the compound in the tires leased the teams, effectively defeating the purpose of the fuel-tank change. The idea was to force teams to pit more often, thus creating more opportunities for tire changes and lessening wear. The harder tires, though, reduced adhesion and made crashes more likely. They also eliminated the need for extra pit stops.
It would be easy, of course, to assume Goodyear was at fault. The tire manufacturer, however, reacts to NASCAR instructions. By hedging their bets on the fuel tanks -- a rather appropriate ploy at a race held in the gambling capital -- officials forced drivers to beat the odds every time they ducked into the corners.
In fairness, it wasn't as bad as many anticipated. There were three crashes in the first 17 laps. Thus warned, drivers pulled back on the reins, taking a clue from the early mayhem.
The race, however, was still quite the muddle. Frequent pit stops artificially created a statistical facade of heightened competition. The race set track records for lead changes (28) and total leaders (16). Most of this was a result of contenders pitting and pretenders briefly inheriting the lead.
The instigating factor in all this was change. Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, drastically revised the track, which has been the site of NASCAR races since 1996 and Cup races since 1998. He raised the banking, moved pit road closer to the grandstands and installed fan-friendly bells and whistles in the infield for premium customers. Good moves all.
Though it was a bit lost in all the disorder, spectacular passes were made during this race that seldom occurred when the turns were banked at only 12 degrees. The new banking is variable -- perhaps the often used local term "progressive" fits better in Vegas -- in that the turns are now 18 degrees at the bottom, 19 in the middle and 20 at the top.
Had the race been run with standard fuel tanks and the harder tire compounds, it might have been a memorable event. Or the smaller tanks coupled with the compound used in testing. As it was, the race represented a notable example of NASCAR overkill.
Tossing aside changes that amounted to racing on a different track, Jimmie Johnson won here for the third consecutive year. The reigning Nextel Cup champion proved what he had suggested on Friday: The victory would likely go to the driver and team best capable of adapting.
"The No. 48 team (i.e., his) does a great job of adapting to new challenges," said Johnson, "and this is one of those.
"I'm not worried about it. I like it. It's a challenge. If you can get your car to work on the bottom (of the track), there's one lane, and if it doesn't work, with the progressive banking we have here now, move up the track and find a lane that works for you."
Sounds simple, huh? Apparently it isn't. When it came time for the race to be decided, Johnson roared past his teammate, Jeff Gordon, and Jeff Burton in a span of four laps, then led the final 28, winning by nearly three seconds in spite of a late caution flag, for Kasey Kahne's crash, that brought the field back to his rear bumper.
On a day in which the going was tough, Johnson went faster. He overcame a pit-road penalty and a brush with the wall.
Gordon, who has been one victory shy of Dale Earnhardt's career victory total of 76 for 21 races, had to settle to second for the third time during that span.
"Jimmie deserves a lot of credit," said Gordon. "He drove from the back (Johnson started 23rd and overcame the pit-road mistake), he had a fast race car, he saw an opportunity to get by me and he did, then he went up and passed Burton. You have to give him credit for that, too."
But Gordon's criticisms of NASCAR were withering.
"There is no reason for us to show up at race tracks and go through a white-knuckle experience throughout a whole weekend like we did this weekend," he said. "They have too smart a people, they have been doing this too long ...and NASCAR has been doing this too long that they have got to figure out how not to bring tires like this to the race track."
Gordon finished second, which gives him a certain stature. He, like Johnson, surmounted obstacles he considered absurd. It wasn't whining on his part. It was telling it like it was.
"If we could have tested with the small fuel cell and foreseen the problems and known what was coming ... it would have worked out and there wouldn't have been any frustration," said Johnson. "But when you go home and work on your data and try to sort everything out and then it all changes, it really complicates things. You don't know what to do. You don't have any data, and it's really trial-and-error. When you have a short amount of practice like we do on race weekends, it continues to ramp up the frustration."
Johnson took advantage of the trials and heaped the frustration on others.
LOST IN ALL THIS FRIVOLITY
--Tony Stewart was by far the most outspoken driver in criticizing Goodyear for the harder tire compound, which underscores the reality that there's more opportunity for freedom of speech now that the tire manufacturer leases, not sells, the tires to teams. Before 2006, Goodyear often provided top teams with their tires gratis. In 2000, Stewart commented before a race at Martinsville that the only thing wrong with his car was what connected it to the track. The result? No more free tires for Joe Gibbs Racing -- it cost Gibbs a six-figure tab that year. Now there are no under-the-table deals, and Goodyear's ability to play hardball is diminished. Stewart, by the way, managed to come up with a seventh-place finish in Vegas, tire quibbles and all.
--Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th, which might not seem like much, but it certainly beats his disastrous showings in the first two races. Eleventh was sufficient to raise him from 40th to 28th in the standings. Patience, everyone. There are 23 races left in the regular season. Earnhardt is 250 points behind points leader Mark Martin. Given the expanded Chase format -- 12 drivers make it instead of 10 -- Earnhardt probably could stand to lose 300 more points and still make the Chase. Some wrote that Vegas was "make or break" for Earnhardt. That's absurd. His team has plenty of time to get its act together.
--Martin still leads the points, and he still says he isn't interested in competing full-time again. Martin has famously reconsidered before, but that was when he was still at Roush Racing and pressure was brought to bear on him to give it one more try in the wake of Kurt Busch's departure. The whole idea behind Martin switching to Ginn Racing was to give him freedom to race when he wanted. He's got that freedom. He still insists he wants to race for fun. For gosh sakes, do it. Stick to your guns, Mark.
--Robby Gordon touched off a crash by making a wild, three-wide maneuver on the ninth lap. Sheesh. Sometimes it seems as if the "other Gordon" isn't interested in trying anything mortals can do. Yes, he's talented. He's also racing's Peter Pan in the sense that he never seems to grow up.
--In Matt Kenseth's case, it isn't a disappearing act. It's an appearing act. Kenseth's ability to magically appear in the top 10 at the end of a race is right out of Kreskin's bag of tricks. He finished fourth at Vegas. On lap 200 of 267, Kenseth was 15th. It seems as if he does it every week.