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March 17, 2024

Analysis: Bristol wows with record lead changes, unexpected tire strategy

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Crew chief Chris Gabehart said managing Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway was like being a football coach where the entire game plan goes out the window in the first quarter.

And to him, that was a good thing.

His driver, Denny Hamlin, came out on top on a day when there were a track-record 54 lead changes, a number that blew away the old mark of 40 that had stood since April 14, 1991, when Rusty Wallace beat Ernie Irvan by two feet.

It was footing — or the point where the rubber meets the road — that forced crew chiefs and drivers to adjust on the fly to stay ahead of tire falloff that was hitting them more quickly than expected.

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What resulted was perhaps one of the wildest and most exciting short-track races in recent memory.

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“It was fantastic,” Gabehart said. “The whole weekend was nothing what any of us expected, the driver, the crew chiefs, the engineers, the pit crew, the team, the spotter. I mean, from the minute practice was over, we suspected something was going to be different. I think a lot of us thought maybe 80 (laps), 100 in, this place would rubber in and get a little more familiar. But it did not.

“It was a blast. I’m not just saying that because we won. I’m saying that because it was fun to have to do something so unrefined.”

The unrefined, outside-the-box thinking also challenged the drivers, putting the race squarely in their hands as they soon realized that this would be a Bristol event like no other. The top three finishing drivers — Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski — also happened to be among the most experienced drivers in the Cup Series garage.

Hamlin, 43, said he drew upon his experience in late models to help save tires Sunday, resulting in his 52nd Cup win.

“Yeah, it was challenging,” Hamlin said. “A different kind of challenge, for sure. Certainly not something we’ve had to do for a very long time in managing tires.

“Lesson learned early on. I kind of ran a certain pace, a certain line, wore my tires out. From that point on made some adjustments internally. He (Gabehart) made some adjustments to the car that allowed me to just manage it from that point on.

“Once it got into that tire management type of race, certainly my history in late models where you had to do that big-time certainly paid off.”

What caused the tire falloff was still a bit of a mystery as teams were breaking down pit boxes and loading up haulers, but by several accounts, the 0.533-mile concrete oval just wasn’t taking on the same amount of rubber that it did last fall when Goodyear used the same tire.

Shreds of tire rubber coat the top of the Bristol concrete after the NASCAR Cup Series race.
Brittney Wilbur |

With the track eating up tires at a pace of every 40 to 50 laps, it led NASCAR to release an additional set of tires during the race, giving teams 12 sets (11 fresh and one carrying over from practice/qualifying) to get through the 500 laps. There were some anxious moments about whether there would be enough tires to get through the race, but the action on the track was undeniable.

“On the allotment (of tires) we actually removed a set of tires from the fall race coming into this race,” said John Probst, NASCAR chief racing development officer. “That’s on us, not Goodyear. So, we actually gave that back during the race as you guys saw. We’ll go back and look at it all. There were times in the race obviously when there was anxiety over whether we were going to have enough tires to finish it. But man, coming out in the end and watching all that, I wouldn’t want to change much at all.”

One difference this weekend as opposed to the fall was the use of resin instead of PJ1 as a track compound to help promote grip in the bottom lane and applied in the corners. Several drivers noted after practice and qualifying how it was giving them a different feel. But there was a reason for the change.

“One thing we learned with our testing on the wet weather on ovals was that the cars are the best way to dry the track quickly. The fans want to see the cars on track,” Probst said. “So when we came here and tested, we tried the PJ, and when we wet the track down, it was almost like oil on the track, the cars were getting no traction. So when we came back here this year with the wet-weather package for Bristol, we elected to use the resin vs. PJ1.”

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There will be much to unpack from this race, and Probst said NASCAR would work with Goodyear and the teams to look at things further. Goodyear echoed that assessment.

“We tested here last year with the intent to come up with a tire package that generated more tire wear,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “That was the request from NASCAR and the teams.

“And we feel like we had a very successful test and a very successful race in the fall of last year because we did exactly that. We ran a full fuel stop and definitely saw wear, but we thought it was spot-on. So now we’re trying to understand what’s different and why is the race track behaving differently this weekend than what it did a year ago.”

Stucker also said he thought it would be a good bet that there would be a test between now and the race in the fall at Bristol, which will be the elimination race in the Round of 16 of the NASCAR Playoffs. That should give everyone plenty of time to think about what just happened at Bristol and the unique situation that unfolded on Sunday.

“While it’s hard on us, yes, it’s supposed to be hard, you’re supposed to see these guys struggle,” Gabehart said. “You’re supposed to see the 25th-place car look like a mess and the teams trying to figure out how to rebound and rally. Help (the driver) understand whether this run the (tire) management didn’t work or the leader’s running too hard this run, but tell your driver … and let him adjust inside (the car). It’s supposed to be hard. This is not supposed to look easy.”