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Extra practice brings mixed reviews for new tires

June 16, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Extra practice brings mixed reviews for new tires
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Teams had one 75-minute practice session to adjust to new left-side tires

When it came right down to it, two days of high speeds and blistering tires were too uncertain of a combination for NASCAR and Goodyear to trust in this Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

So on Friday evening, the joint decision was made to pull 1,200 new tires from a North Carolina warehouse, load them up, and send them on a 13-hour journey to MIS that wasn't complete until early Saturday afternoon.

Quicken Loans 500

Practice 5
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.J. Johnson194.29537.057
3.C. Edwards194.13837.087
4.K. Kahne194.07037.100
5.J. McMurray193.15937.275

That left little time for the tires to be mounted in time for an unusual extra practice session that took place after Saturday's Nationwide Series race, but officials from both NASCAR and Goodyear expressed confidence they had made the correct call. Saturday's evening practice session lasted from roughly 6:35 p.m. to 7:50 p.m., and closed to mixed reviews from drivers who were forced to adjust to the new left-side tires.

Ryan Newman, for instance, lauded NASCAR and Goodyear for "absolutely making the right call." Carl Edwards said, "I'm forecasting that we'll be just fine and won't have any issues. ... What's been done here is that we took a track and a tire that was very simple to drive, straightforward with tons of grip, and they took some of that grip away and put it in the drivers and crew chiefs' hands and made the cars a little harder to drive."

Edwards' point was that a looser race car might be more difficult to handle, but in theory should actually make for better racing. He said he believed it was the right move to go to the different tire, given the fact that the slower, looser cars did not have to withstand the kind of heat in the left-side tires during Saturday's extra practice that they did during Friday's practices.

But pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among the drivers who questioned the decision to change the tires.

"This ain't cool," Earnhardt said.

Ambrose was more specific, adding: "We were out there trying to save miles on the engine, so we never really busted off a good run. The tire is very different. It hasn't got much grip. You are loose in, shake in the middle and then on the gas [you] spin yourself out. It feels unbalanced and a little bit wobbly -- and you don't want to be wobbly at 200 miles per hour. You want to feel like the car is underneath you."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said the speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour plus the blistering of left-side tires on some cars during Friday's two practice sessions at the newly-repaved, 2-mile track led to the decision to make the change. The "new" tires actually were designed and manufactured in 2006 in an effort to ensure safety and reasonable speeds following a repaving at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"Goodyear, they're the tire guys, they're the experts," Pemberton said. "We met with them through the course of [Friday]. There was a period of time where we thought the scuffing of the tires to try to harden them up would be sufficient. But as the day went on, the speeds continued to increase -- and so [Friday] evening the decision was made to pull those left-side tires off and use a new tire for the race."

The practice of scuffing is when new tires are placed on a car and run for a few laps so that the tire can go through a heating and cooling process that makes the compound of the tire harder and more durable. Many teams attempted to scuff their tires during Friday's two practice sessions, which required them making additional laps.

The left-side tires used for a Thursday test session at MIS and Friday's two practices still were used in Saturday's Cup qualifying. Greg Biffle posted the highest average speed during the final Friday practice, turning his fastest lap at 204.708 mph -- while Ambrose won the pole on Saturday by posting a track-record qualifying lap of 203.241 mph.

"The new tire should have a little less grip and so the speeds should decrease," Pemberton said.

That proved correct when Biffle posted the top speed again in the extra practice, but this time it was only 195.647 mph. He was followed on the speed chart by Jimmie Johnson (194.295), Carl Edwards (194.138), Kasey Kahne (194.070) and Jamie McMurray (193.159).

Both Pemberton and Goodyear executive Greg Stucker said the decision to go with the different left-side tires was made with both safety and competition in mind. Had the change not been made, both said the fear was that tires would begin blistering after 15 to 20 laps in Sunday's race -- possibly leading to blowouts that could have caused multiple wrecks.

"The disease we had was terminal, I think. And so when you're desperate, you'll reach for measures that in sobering times you wouldn't have considered."

--JACK ROUSH

"In talking [Friday] right after the second practice session, talking to more teams and poring over more data, we just went back and started re-evaluating all of our options," Stucker said. "We tried to determine if scuffing would be enough. And we came to the conclusion that it wouldn't be enough for everyone. That's why we thought the prudent thing was to get the backups here, to go ahead and make that switch."

The switch left drivers and crew chiefs and team engineers with just one 75-minute practice in which to adjust to the new left-side tires after two days of practices -- and Saturday's qualifying session -- working with the old ones.

"I think they did the right thing," said Kenny Francis, crew chief of the No. 5 Chevrolet driven by Kasey Kahne for Hendrick Motorsports. "The speeds and stuff were so high, they were seeing a lot of problems. So I think they were right to react to that. It should be interesting. I don't know if it's going to fix it, but it might. This gives us as good a chance as anything."

Francis admitted one of the problems facing teams was the addition of the extra practice when many of them already have put as many practice miles as they dare on engines that will be required to make it through 400 miles of hard racing in what are predicted to be high ambient temperatures Sunday.

"You try not to put too many miles on the engines during practice. ... The engine guys set the motors up to be able to run a little bit more than what they're planning on having for a race distance. But when you get outside of that area, they get worried. Mainly they worry about valve springs and that kind of thing, but we're all in the same boat," Francis said.

That's what limited Earnhardt's time on the track, much to his frustration. Asked what the tires felt like, he replied: "Like they're six years old. ... My car isn't as good as I want it to be, but I can't practice anymore."

Earnhardt also said the decision to switch the tires "would be debated for a long time."

Team owner Jack Roush of Roush Fenway Racing, on the other hand, agreed with Francis that NASCAR and Goodyear made the right call. But Roush added he hopes the new tire combination works as intended.

"NASCAR has done what they needed to do, and Goodyear did the right thing by raising the flag and saying they had a problem with the left-side tires," Roush said. "We just trust that NASCAR and Goodyear know enough about the tire we're putting on that the problem doesn't migrate over to the right side. I hope that's the case.

"The engines will be a concern [Sunday]. ... That's regardless of the tire change. Michigan has always been a place where if you have a weakness in your engine, this track will find it for you."

Howard Comstock, an engineer with SRT Motorsports that supports the Dodge teams fielded by Penske Racing, confirmed all the teams were left scrambling to learn what they could from computer simulations overnight, after learning of the change. But he said there was only so much they could do before Saturday's newly-added practice, and that there would be only so much they could learn with the limited data that would produce.

"The fact that we've spent so much time trying to adapt to the tires that were provided and now there's going to be a different tire, that's a big change," Comstock said. "We have computer programs that design suspensions to deal with specific tires and their characteristics. We model the tires, we study the tires, we think we understand the grip level of the tires -- and all of suspension simulation is built around the tires.

"Now to change the left-sides for the race, it's a big deal. It's not an insurmountable problem, but it's a big deal.

Asked if he was concerned the cure might end up being worse than the disease, so to speak, Roush forced a smile and added: "There is that chance. But the disease we had was terminal, I think. And so when you're desperate, you'll reach for measures that in sobering times you wouldn't have considered."