If you bought a ticket for Indy, you probably left the track on Sunday wondering if you had actually witnessed a Sprint Cup race. Actually, you saw a race but the only problem was that it was forced to be held in 10-12 lap segments.
Early on Friday during the first practice sessions, teams began seeing tires wear out after less than 10 laps of racing. Teams are usually given six sets of tires for practice and qualifying each weekend, but because of the tire wear the teams were experiencing, NASCAR gave Goodyear the go ahead to give each team an additional two extra sets to help them get through to race day.
Racing at Indy has always been hard on tires as the track’s huge flat two-and-a-half-mile layout is just not suited for the heavy stock cars that only compete on the surface once a year. The track was last repaved in 2004 and was diamond ground the following year to smooth the surface. The grinding did the job of removing small bumps but in the process actually left small cracks in the surface that must be “rubbered in” each time the Cup series comes to town.
Rubbering-in the track involves practice laps which allow rubber from the tires that wears off to fill in these tiny cracks and to make for a smoother surface by race day. For whatever reason and there are many, this year the track never did rubber-in and the result was a track surface that was grinding tires down to the cord before a driver could put double digit laps on a set.
Both Goodyear and NASCAR recognized the problem and dealt with it by bringing in backup tires on Saturday night. Goodyear trucked in 400 sets of tires that were set to be used next weekend at Pocono as that track comes closest to Indy’s unique flat layout. Goodyear had unloaded 3,150 tires at the track before the first practice lap had been turned but there were fears that — at the rate tires were being chewed up — they might not have enough to finish the race.
NASCAR allotted each team an extra set of tires for the race bringing the total number of sets to 10. The sanctioning body also told the drivers and crew chiefs before the race that it would throw a competition caution within the first 20 laps of the race to check tire wear. As it turned out that was the first of six competition cautions on the day, which broke up racing so much that the longest green flag run was a whopping 12 laps.
The green flag laps between the caution flags saw little racing as no driver could really push his car as the sight of several drivers suffering flat tires was a reminder of what awaited them if they didn’t take care of their tires. The lack of racing on the track shifted the outcome of the race to the crews and those crew chiefs calling the shots during each caution flag. The choice was simple; it was either two or four tires with two giving your driver the best chance of acquiring track position.
As it turned out, the last caution of the day set up a great finish among Jimmy Johnson, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. It was only a seven-lap sprint to the finish, but in reality it was the only true racing of the day as all three drivers put away any fears of tire failure and raced to the checkered flag. Johnson came across the famed finish line of bricks first and won his second Indy race, but more importantly continues to build momentum as the series heads to the Chase for the Championship.
While the racing wasn’t close to what every fan and driver was anticipating, NASCAR deserves a lot of credit for just getting the race in. By managing the racing with the use of the cautions, the sanctioning body kept the number of blown tires down and also was able to finish every lap of the race. It was definitely not what everybody was looking forward to, but at the end of the day, NASCAR can say it did what was in the best interest of its 43 drivers.
Pit notes: Ryan Newman is now in control of what takes place with many of the vacant driver seats for next season. He is definitely on every owner’s short list of drivers but the ride he is most connected to continues to be the second car at Stewart Haas Racing. If and when Tony Stewart announces his driver for that ride, look for the rest of the seats to be filled quickly.
Race Preview — Event: Pennsylvania 500. Track: Pocono Raceway (2.5 mile triangle, turn-1 banked 14 degrees, 2-banked 8, 3-banked 6). Date: Aug. 3, 2 p.m. TV: ESPN. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kurt Busch.