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May 18, 2024

Intrigue, strategies, early positives abound as tire choices get All-Star tryout

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — It’s early still, but the introduction of tire choices to NASCAR Cup Series short-track racing has shown some promise.

A compelling 50-minute practice session Friday afternoon at North Wilkesboro Speedway had teams and drivers on their heels and learning, trying to understand the nuances of Goodyear’s “prime” tire — the control tire with yellow sidewall lettering — and the softer, faster but less durable “option” tire with red lettering. The freshly paved racing surface at the historic 0.625-mile track has added yet another variable.

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The session offered a glimpse into the strategy potential for Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) and the All-Star Open qualifier (5:30 p.m. ET on the same networks). But the tire experiment under the heading of a special non-points event could also have potential applications at other tracks measuring one mile or less, should the event be a success.

Again, it’s early, but the indicators are positive so far, with Goodyear pushing the limits on performance and wear.

“I think absolutely there’s something to be learned here,” said Denny Hamlin, the 2015 All-Star winner. “We ran a tire that no way they would ever feel comfortable with us running, especially on a new paved track like this, and we ran over 40 laps and we didn’t see any cords or anything. So I’m very happy with what we saw, and certainly, hopefully they can take learn something from here to take to a Phoenix or something. The biggest thing I noticed is that we had left-side heat. That’s something that we have not had on our short-track cars in quite some time. And so with the left sides getting hot, that’s going to make new tires matter, it’s going to make passing easier. So I think as long as they stay as aggressive as they can on the left sides, this is a step in the right direction and then good job for Goodyear.”

Teams opened the session with split decisions on tire choice, and the red-lettered tires showed as-advertised speed and grip, but with a measure of fall-off. Other teams kept tabs on their own wear, but also on their neighbors’ tires along pit road. Drivers also reported that both tires lay rubber well on the fresh pavement, and that helped the middle grooves up off the bottom lane widen out more quickly.

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Sunday night’s All-Star main event is scheduled for 200 laps, with intermissions set for Lap 100 and Lap 150. Will running the first 100 laps without pitting be feasible, and when will option tires be the right call? Some uncertainty still remains.

“I don’t think the strategy is very clear yet,” said Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who won the All-Star Race in 2016. “We got 50 minutes of practice I went through a set on and ran as long as they felt comfortable out there, or as much time as they had to run that many laps, and looking at the data afterwards, it’s still not super clear what you would do. A lot of it depends on what place you’re running and all that, but it’s not as clear as you may think when it comes to when you’re going to put the softs on, or the option tire. I don’t know. There’s a lot of question to it.”

That unpredictability could make Sunday’s All-Star event a strategy grab bag, but the tiremaker’s renewed approach to being aggressive with the balance of grip, speed and durability also could pay dividends in the long term. Two months ago, Hamlin won a topsy-turvy Cup Series showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway when tire wear was unexpectedly high, forcing drivers into management mode with their race-ready rubber and receiving positive reviews on how the event played out.

Recapturing that intrigue to enhance short-track racing with NASCAR’s Next Gen racer has been a focus ever since, and the added wrinkle of multiple tire choices with varying characteristics could be, well … a prime option down the road.

“It just seemed like this is a good opportunity to see if maybe this is a solution, add something of that risk-and-reward element that’ll improve the overall racing,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “So if it’s successful or at least we get some direction, then obviously we’ll get our heads together with NASCAR, with the teams, and determine if this something we might want to pursue for the future.”