News & Media

Drivers need slick strategy to survive at Atlanta

September 01, 2012, Mark Aumann,

HAMPTON, Ga. -- If you hang around the garage area at Atlanta Motor Speedway on a race weekend, you'll hear the words "tire management" bandied about. In reality, what's more likely to happen Sunday is managing to have any tires left on the car at the end of a fuel run.

As more rubber gets laid down on Atlanta's ancient pavement throughout the weekend, it makes the track slicker than an ice cube on a hot frying pan. So the idea that you can somehow "save your tires" would seem to be an exercise in futility.

"I like to be able to look around, start the bottom, the top, the middle. You can just look for that spot that your car feels the best and carry the momentum."


Within a lap or two of the green flag, drivers already will be sawing on the steering wheel in an effort to keep their cars going somewhat straight. Carl Edwards tried to explain Friday how quickly Sprint Cup cars lose grip at AMS.

"When you start the first lap, you pull out of the pits, you drive through Turns 3 and 4 and it feels great," Edwards said. "It feels like you've got 2,000 pounds of downforce. The car has all this grip. You get into 1 and 2 it feels really good, but almost by the time you get back to 3 and 4 again ... you can start to feel the tires get slicker.

"Every lap you run, it's like you lose an inch of tire. The tire gets narrower and slicker, and that's what it feels like until finally you're running around with literally no grip. You'll see guys with their hands just slinging that steering wheel around trying to keep the car going in the right direction because it's sliding all over the place."

There was a time when fresh rubber might give you an advantage for a handful of laps, but according to Greg Biffle, that's no longer the case. The tire wear seems to begin right from the time the new tires are bolted on -- and you're lucky to get even one good lap in before you're slip-sliding away again.

"This doesn't seem like the old Atlanta where you could go out there and be like Superman, [when you had] all kinds of grip and then it falls off," Biffle said. "Right when you pull out of the garage and go on the track, it doesn't have any grip, so that's a little bit different than the way it used to be here. But it is fun when the cars slide around a bit more."

Still, there are drivers who think there's a strategy that can be employed to try and have a grip advantage in the closing stages of a run.

What Atlanta requires is a different mindset than almost anywhere else on the schedule. As Jimmie Johnson said, it's almost like the advice given at Darlington before it was repaved: "Race the track, not the competition."

Given that everyone else is having the same issues, it comes down to focusing on what you can do inside the car to maximize your effort.

"Maybe your first lap on track or your first lap on stickers there is grip and you can drive the car, the rest of it is all about compromising and trying to manage the balance of the car and the tire life," Johnson said. "Things are deteriorating rapidly. Every lap you make, the track gets more slick, your tires are going away and the environment is changing. I just have to remind myself of that."

Edwards has tried running conservatively and aggressively and, honestly, doesn't really know which one works best.

"I think there are some schools of thought that say you should just go as hard as you can on the tire the whole time and that will make it stay good, and some people think you should go easy. It's hard to say. I've had some good runs where we were great at the end here, and I've had some green-flag runs where we've been a second off the fastest guys. I haven't put it together."

Kasey Kahne has tried in the past to baby his tires at Atlanta, but as the track surface has gotten more worn -- and has considerably less grip -- his strategy is now closer to how you'd run a sprint car race on dirt: go for broke and try not to burn up the right-rear tire.

And even though there's no dirt "cushion," Kahne said drivers can search around on Atlanta's wide corners for the groove that best matches their car's setup.

"You go as hard as you can every lap," Kahne said. "You always are trying to save your right rear from getting it hot. Giving up lap times early doesn't really give you any more later.

"I like to be able to look around, start the bottom, the top, the middle. You can just look for that spot that your car feels the best and carry the momentum."

So with only five sets of tires to use over three practice sessions and qualifying, coming up with a winning setup is more likely to be a blind guess.

"With a challenging racetrack, you have to keep throwing a setup at it and hope to stumble into something that you like for the race on Sunday," Brad Keselowski said.

That's pretty slick advice.