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Tyson Winter | NASCAR Digital Media

After ‘very good first step’ at Martinsville test, officials to evaluate rain-tire viability for short tracks

NASCAR’s feasibility test for wet-weather tires in a short-track setting went off as planned on a chilly Thursday at Martinsville Speedway, as drivers Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson made laps on the dampened paperclip layout.

Words such as “positive” and “promising” were among the descriptors used by NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation John Probst, as the one-day session drew to a close. The test, he said, wasn’t a tipping point toward a full-fledged yes or no on going forward with wet-weather tires on shorter oval tracks in certain conditions, but it was key to gathering data and feedback for further assessment.

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“We’re in evaluation right now,” Probst said Thursday afternoon. “I would say that we could have come in here today and had a complete disaster and walked away from it saying, ‘no, this can’t be done.’ I think what we learned today was positive for sure. I think that we just need a little bit of time to go through all the data to figure out what are the next best steps. I would say that we continue the journey, and it looks positive for now. Today could have ended it, but it certainly didn’t do that. I feel like everyone involved felt like it was a very positive test, but it’s still fresh and certainly a very, very good first step.”

The test culminated what’s been a busy on-track week heading into an idle weekend on the racing calendar. The NASCAR Cup Series and Camping World Truck Series held Monday races at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt layout after a weekend of rainy conditions, and officials arrived Tuesday at Martinsville for two days of testing for the Cup Series’ Next Gen car for 2022.

Thursday’s test, announced by the sanctioning body a day before, brought together Buescher’s Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford team and Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet outfit to try a number of different tire setups on damp pavement. NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said Wednesday that the test’s goal was to explore ways to get back to racing sooner and hastening the drying process in inclement weather.

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Tyson Winter | NASCAR Digital Media

After an initial shakedown of the two cars in the dry, a water truck doused the .526-mile oval as crews switched among dry-weather slicks, existing wet-weather tires for road courses, and different track-specific compounds from Goodyear that were grooved to transfer moisture away.

“We had some Sonoma compounds and then actually some Martinsville compounds that were carved to the tread profile that we’d anticipate the 18-inch tire (for the Next Gen car) would be molded to,” Probst said. “So we tested different compounds and different tread layout. Like I’ve said, we still have a lot of data to go through, but the one thing that’s pretty clear is, either of the treads versus a slick seems to dry the track much quicker.

“We’ve got to go through the driver feedback and some of the friction data to make concrete conclusions with respect to the treads and compounds, but I would say on a whole, the rain tires that we have today worked pretty well. If we decide that this is viable option for us this year, that is the most likely candidate just because we have those and those are in existence today. For now, it’s looking pretty positive but I caveat it all with we’ve got a lot of data to look through.”

Besides the data and observations, Probst said competition officials will also weigh the input from the drivers and the teams before deciding the next steps.

“I don’t really have much wet-weather experience, so it was kind of cool to figure that out,” Larson said. “Honestly didn’t drive way different. You could still slow down good, turn good. Drive-off was easy to spin your tires, but other than that, it was kind of fun to chase the grip throughout the portions where it would start drying. So it was pretty fun and yeah, I think they’ve got a pretty good product that we could honestly start racing with right away if we needed to on these short tracks.”

Said Probst: “First off, thanks to those guys for making the time to do the test. We’re going into an off weekend, so certainly the guys at Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing and their crews, this is a week that a lot of guys look forward to getting some time away, and they were nice enough to work with us through this project. Very positive feedback from both drivers, and very similar feedback from both drivers. Could definitely feel the differences in what we put on the car for them. … I think in general they — like everyone else there — were pleasantly surprised with what can be done on a wet track.”

Those first-blush reviews prompt questions about the timeline for a potential implementation. The NASCAR national-series schedule is off this weekend, but the next two stops for the circuit are at Martinsville (April 9-10) and Richmond Raceway (April 17-18) — two short tracks where rain tires could potentially be used in the right weather scenarios.

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Probst mentioned, though, the time needed for Goodyear to make enough rain tires for every team, in addition to the evaluation period for competition officials. How the rain tires would fit into race procedures — whether officials would mandate wet-weather starts or leave tire options up to teams — would also need to be determined.

“It’s certainly ambitious,” Probst said. “… I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but there’s a lot of data we need to go through. We need to not only look at can it be done, but what tracks lie ahead, and there’s a whole lot of different variables that get brought into the mix, including the weather. … I wouldn’t say no, but I certainly wouldn’t sign us up for it either — just yet.”