Friday 5: Stewart-Haas Racing searches for answers at Kansas

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Rarely does a race in early May seem so significant, but Sunday’s event at Kansas Speedway is pivotal for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car organization has struggled this season and is on track to have one driver make the playoffs. Three years ago, all four of its drivers were in the final eight of the playoffs.

Crew chief Rodney Childers acknowledged what’s at stake this week in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“If we can’t go there and run good,” he said of Kansas, “then we’ve definitely got big issues.”

SHR’s challenge has been the lack of balance with its cars. Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this season that a change in how officials inspect the rear wheel well area “knocked 70 counts of downforce off the car, and when you knock that amount of downforce off, especially when it mainly comes off the rear, it just completely messes up your aero balance.”

That’s slowed the cars.

No SHR car has ranked higher than eighth in green flag speed at the three 1.5-mile races this season. Three Stewart-Haas Racing cars each ranked outside the top 20 in that category at all three races.

“Until you get a car that you can run wide open for at least four or five laps at a 550-horsepower track (such as Kansas), then you don’t have enough downforce,” Childers said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Lord, we haven’t been able to run a single lap wide open.”

The result is that Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year — the most victories by a driver in a season since 2008 — is winless this year. He also has not scored any playoff points.

Two years ago, he had two playoff points after the first 10 races of the season and still made it to the championship race. But in that season, he had a 5.3 average finish in the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks. His average finish through the first three races on such tracks this year is 11.7.

“You have to get every single point you can get every single weekend just to make sure you don’t put yourself in a hole that you can’t get out of,” Harvick said in a team release this week. “The one weekend I kick myself in the butt for is Las Vegas because we should’ve finished eighth or ninth there and I wound up knocking both front fenders off (and finishing 20th).

“We’ve all been in this position before. Our season is so long that you really have to focus on making sure you’re in the right spot when you get to the end of race No. 26. We’ve been on both sides of this fence — we’ve been slow starters, we’ve been fast starters, we’ve run good all season — we’ve experienced it all. We definitely have to be in this particular mindset until we 100 percent get it fixed. I think everybody’s doing a great job of just making sure that we’re doing that right now. Getting the most out of each weekend is very important.”

NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500Cole Custer (left) and Chase Briscoe (right) each scored their season-best finish last weekend at Talladega. Custer was 10th; Briscoe 11th. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Teammates Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe have struggled to do that. They’ve yet to score a top-15 finish in the three races on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

With restarts key at such tracks, the struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing are magnified.

“We’ve got to be more competitive,” Almirola said. “I’ve got to be more on offense and less on defense. I feel like our mile-and-a-half program has been off, and because of that, every restart you’re just playing major defense. It’s hard to play offense because the car’s not driving good — don’t have a lot of speed in the car and it’s a handful — and not as fast as the cars around you.

“So you’re just playing a lot of defense, and when we’ve been at our best, that’s not the case. You fire off on every restart and you’re on offense. You’re picking and choosing lanes and putting your car in places where you need it to go to make passes, not to try and block a run or try and play defense.”

What makes Sunday’s race at Kansas key for Stewart-Haas Racing is that it is the first race on a 1.5-mile track in six weeks and can gauge the progress the team has made. Should Kansas — a playoff track — not provide the performance SHR seeks, the team will have only three more races on 1.5-mile tracks (including the All-Star Race at Texas) before the playoffs.

While NASCAR’s schedule is focused more on road courses this season — five of 11 Cup points races will be contested on such tracks beginning May 23 — the 1.5-mile tracks still matter in the playoffs.

It’s not unreasonable to say that the championship race in Phoenix and the season’s penultimate race at Martinsville (which sets the championship field) are the only playoff races more important than the race at Las Vegas to open the second round.

That round includes Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. The Las Vegas race is critical because of the uncertainty that can happen at both Talladega and the Roval. A bad race at Las Vegas and then getting swept in a crash at Talladega could end a driver’s titles hopes.

Get through those obstacles and the third round opens with races at Texas and Kansas, both 1.5-mile tracks.

“Hopefully, we can just keep striving and working hard and making changes and not be scared of what the consequences are and go out there and start winning some races,” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week.

With work to do, Harvick said he’s not focused on how others view his organization.

“I respect the fact people outside our team have a job to do, but that doesn’t mean I have to pay attention to it or put any stock into what is said and what is not said,” Harvick said in a team release. “And, honestly, I don’t have time to worry about that stuff.

“It really doesn’t make any difference in the communication I have with my team, because that’s the most important thing right now — to make sure you pick out those details of every single weekend, to make sure you’re part of the process of putting the right pieces back in place.

“A lot of people have a tough time doing that, but I have no problem. It makes some people mad with the way we go about those types of things, but it’s the best thing for the team to be as low key as possible in these types of situations. We keep our heads down and work on fixing our problems, and that’s important.”

2. Matt Kaulig’s vision

When Kaulig Racing debuted in the Xfinity Series in 2016, the team finished 16th in car owner points.

Five years later, nearly half the cars that finished ahead of Matt Kaulig’s team no longer exist. Gone are cars from Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kaulig’s operation, meanwhile, expanded to three full-time Xfinity teams and will run a full-time Cup team next year.

The growth is unparalleled in the series in that time. That’s how Kaulig does business.

“There’s a quote that I have that I really live by, and I do this in business and even in the business of racing: ‘Either you continue to grow or you begin to die,’” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That’s up on the wall for everybody to see in the race shop.

“You want to keep getting better, and you want to keep growing. I do not want to be one of those statistics (of teams no longer in the series since 2016).”

The former Akron Zips quarterback built LeafFilter North, Inc., from his home into a business that has 112 locations in the U.S. and Canada and says will do $1.5 billion in sales this year.

He seeks to be as impactful in racing.

“We want to be one of the bigger teams in NASCAR,” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That is our goal. We do want to dominate. We do want to win races. We look at the other organizations out there like Gibbs, Penske and Hendrick. We want to be like those organizations.

“We’re young. I’m 48 years old. Our president, Chris Rice, is 47 years old. So we’ve got a lot of years left. We’ve got a lot of energy. We want to accomplish a lot of things.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300AJ Allmendinger (No. 16) and Jeb Burton (No. 10) each has won a race in the Xfinity Series this season for Kaulig Racing. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kaulig’s organization will be the fourth new full-time Cup team since this season, a move influenced by the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022. Trackhouse Racing, 23XI Racing and Live Fast Motorsports each debuted this season. The Next Gen car is intended to reduce costs over time because many of the its parts will come from vendors instead of teams needing to make those items.

The influx of new teams is something NASCAR President Steve Phelps hinted at in September 2020.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said then. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

While the path to Cup has come relatively quickly, Kaulig also has taken a measured approach. The team will run at least 10 races this season.

Kaz Grala finished sixth in last weekend’s Cup race at Talladega. Allmendinger placed seventh for the team at the Daytona road course in February. Grala was 28th in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“We wanted to do a few things,” Kaulig said. “We wanted to be in the (Cup) garage … They do things different. Inspections are different. It’s, seriously, just learning all of that stuff for 10 or 11 races.”

As the organization moves ahead on its Cup plans, it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting the team’s Xfinity Series program.

Kaulig Racing has won two of the first eight Xfinity races this season. AJ Allmendinger won at Las VegasJeb Burton won last weekend’s race at Talladega. Justin Haley has six top-10 finishes in the first eight races of the season.

The team celebrated Burton’s win Monday with lunch. It was another sign of how far the organization has come since its debut.

“We used to have top-10 lunches,” Kaulig said. “Then it went to top-five lunches.”

Now, the lunches are for wins.

3. In the spotlight

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win has raised his profile and has him on pace for his first playoff appearance. The win also got him his first national TV commercial

With a raised profile come more media sessions and questions. In light of NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last weekend that the series seeks to have more drivers engage with the public about vaccinations, I asked McDowell how he balances discussing such a topic with any desire to keep his status personal.

“I appreciate the question,” he said. “With so much that’s gone on over the last couple of years, and with social media being somewhat polarizing and this election being polarizing and just all the events with the pandemic and racial injustice and all the things that have gone on over the last two years, it’s very easy to get mixed up in it — and mixed up in it good or bad — however you want to look at it.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win was the first in his Cup career and the third series win for Front Row Motorsports. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“At the beginning of this year, I sat down with my team, and I sat down with Bob Jenkins, our owner, and we just agreed that we’re a race team. That’s what we do. We race. This is not a political platform for us. This is not for us to have agendas or trying to encourage people to do things how we do it or vice versa. 

“We’re a race team. We’re gonna talk about racing. So that’s how I’ve kept it. When it comes to those things, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what I am, a race car driver. In my house and in my family, we have these conversations, and we talk about it, and the thing about it for me is that it shouldn’t be so divisive, and I don’t want to be a part of being divisive. That’s not what I’m about. 

“I’m a race car driver, so you’ve got people that are anti this and pro this, and it’s not that I’m trying to avoid the question, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what we do. I feel a lot of times athletes, they feel like they have this platform to have a voice, and there’s too many voices out there. There’s just too many voices. I mean, you guys see it every day. Everybody’s got an opinion.”

McDowell has used his platform to discuss his faith. I asked him how he felt that was different from what he had mentioned.

“For me, who I am is a follower of Christ,” McDowell said. “That’s who I am. I am not a pro-vaccinator. I am not an anti-vaccinator. I’m a follower of Christ. So the reason I use my platform to share that is because that’s who I am. That’s what is important to me.

“Whether you’re vaccinated or not is not important to me currently because I’m not a doctor or a scientist or a biologist. There are a lot of people that are telling you lots of different things, but, for me, sharing my faith is important because that’s who I am. I’m not a doctor or scientist, so that part of it isn’t important to me.”

4. Unique fan interaction

As part of Dr Pepper’s sponsorship of Bubba Wallace this weekend at Kansas Speedway, the company has a program where Wallace will surprise two families in the Kanas City area by delivering lunch.

It is among early examples of drivers and fans socializing in person instead of through Zoom. Such interactions are what teams and the sport have looked forward to reviving. NASCAR will allow a limited number of guests and media who are fully vaccinated into the garage next weekend at Darlington Raceway. It marks the first time since the garage has been open to those beyond teams and competitors since the series resumed last May.

As for the interaction with fans, Wallace said he is looking forward to it.

Bubba Wallace Netflix
Bubba Wallace is 33 points out of the final playoff spot. (Photo by Sean Gardner/23XI Racing via Getty Images )

“It means we’re getting over the hump, I would say, from COVID,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Excited about the activation that Dr Pepper has put together for us to be able and go out and mingle with some fans and share some appreciation. … It is good that we are taking the right steps to make sure we can do this safely with everything that is still going on. I’ve started my first round of vaccinations. It will be good.”

As more fans are permitted to races — Dover International Speedway revealed Thursday that it will be allowed to host up to 20,000 fans for its NASCAR weekend in May — Wallace said the interaction is key.

“We say it’s all about the fans,” Wallace said. “There are so many new fans coming to our sport now. … They’re excited to be there. When they are excited to be there, that makes you want to put on an even  better race and just put on a great show for all the fans that are there.”

Wallace enters Kansas 20th in the standings. He’s 33 points behind Chris Buescher, who holds what would be the final playoff spot. Wallace and 23XI Racing seek their first top-10 finish this season.

“Our debrief meetings are really in-depth of how we are going to perform better,” Wallace said. “It’s giving good insight for me. It’s giving good insight for the team. It’s building that data base. Just finished up a good test session on the (Toyota Racing Development) sim (Wednesday).

“You’ve got to treat those like you’re showing up at the track and practicing and that’s how you’re building your notes. We were at Kansas, Darlington and COTA (on the sim Wednesday) and you’re building your notes for when you get there. You have to make those moments count because you don’t have practice (at most tracks).

“So doing as much sim work as you can, watching as much film as you can, study (data), all those things are translating over to our performances and understanding how to look more in-depth at things. It’s only going to propel us further.”

5. 10 for 10?

The last nine races on a 1.5-mile speedway have been won by nine different drivers. Will the streak go to 10 in a row?

Here are the drivers who have won the last nine races at those tracks:

2021 Atlanta — Ryan Blaney

2021 Las Vegas — Kyle Larson

2021 Miami — William Byron

2020 Texas (playoffs) — Kyle Busch

2020 Kansas (playoffs) — Joey Logano

2020 Las Vegas (playoffs) — Kurt Busch

2020 Kansas — Denny Hamlin

2020 Texas — Austin Dillon

2020 Kentucky — Cole Custer

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Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”