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Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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Goodyear tire info for Texas

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The Cup Series and Xfinity Series return to action this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway for the middle race in their respective Round of 8 playoffs.

The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off this weekend. Its Round of 6 playoff wraps up next week at Phoenix.

Both Cup and Xfinity cars will carry the same size and types of tires this weekend at the 1.5-mile high-speed oval. There will be one distinction – the left side tires will be different than the left side rubber that was raced at Texas back in late March.

Texas underwent a repave before the 2017 season. As a result, tire wear “poses several challenges,” according to Goodyear:

* Fresh asphalt has a lot of grip, which generates a lot of speed and heat in the tires.

* A new surface is relatively smooth and doesn’t allow tires to shed rubber, which could also cause heat problems.

* Because little rubber gets worked into the track, it is harder to create multiple racing grooves.

* The left-side tires feature a construction update similar to what has already been used at several tracks this season including Kansas, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Michigan.

As a result, Goodyear has designed right-side tires to wear more and run cooler. In addition, because the bottom lane is the preferred groove, the traction compound PJ1 will be applied above the bottom lane to create a viable second lane/groove.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Texas:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (9 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: 7 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4954; Right-side – D-4796.

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,225 mm (87.60 in.); Right-side – 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 22 psi; Left Rear — 22 psi; Right Front — 52 psi; Right Rear — 50 psi

Notes: As on all NASCAR ovals greater than 1 mile in length, teams are required to run liners in all four tire positions at Texas. … Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Weather: According to wunderground.com, the forecast for Saturday night’s Xfinity race calls for a temperature of 52 degrees with a 0% chance of rain at the scheduled 8:30 p.m. ET start time (on NBCSN), and a temperature of 59 degrees with a 0% chance of rain at the scheduled 3 p.m. ET start time for Sunday’s Cup race on NBCSN.

Goodyear tire info for Dover

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The NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs move into high gear this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

The Cup Series moves into its second round, the Round of 12, after last Sunday’s elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval.

The Xfinity Series, meanwhile, wraps up its first round of its own playoffs this Saturday.

As for the Goodyear tires that will be used this weekend, here’s the main storyline:

Before the current Cup season, two tracks posed the greatest concern for Goodyear from a tire perspective: Bristol Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway. The main reason is NASCAR’s new, higher downforce aero package, coupled with 750 horsepower engines used on those tracks that have steep banking, create higher loads – most notably on the right-front tire.

That’s why Goodyear will work with teams this weekend to emphasize the importance of set-ups, particularly air pressures in the right-front tires.

Right-front durability at Dover is always on our radar because of the speeds and loads generated by these cars in the high-banked corners,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Our recommended air pressure on the right-front is 49 psi, and we will be talking to teams on the lead-up to this race and all weekend to impress upon them the importance of that.

We certainly understand that in the teams’ efforts to gain as much grip as possible, being aggressive on air pressures is one of the tools they use. To that end, we performed some additional simulation work based upon estimates of car performance now versus earlier in the year, and how that impacts both tire performance and durability. Our goal is to provide as much information as possible to make key set-up decisions, and tire pressures are an important part of those decisions.”

NOTES: Teams in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will run the same tire set-up at Dover this weekend. This is the same combination of left- and right-side tires that these teams ran at this track in May. … Goodyear held a test (April 9) at Dover before the spring race. … Dover is unique among NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, in that inner liners are required on all four tire positions. … Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here is the information for this weekend’s tires at Dover:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (9 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: 6 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side -- D-4868; Right-side – D-4872

Tire Circumference: Left-side -- 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side -- 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front -- 19 psi; Left Rear -- 19 psi; Right Front -- 49 psi; Right Rear -- 45 psi

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Goodyear tire info for Bristol

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Vehicles in all three of NASCAR’s national series will carry the same tire sizes and compounds for this week’s three races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

One of the key storylines is the use of PJ1 traction compound, which is applied to a particular lane of a racetrack to give drivers an additional racing groove that is, in theory, equal to the preferred groove(s). At Bristol, the bottom lane is considered the preferred lane early in each race before the top lane becomes the preferred lane later on.

As a result, Bristol track officials will apply PJ1 to the bottom lane to give drivers an “equal” opportunity to move up or down to pass their competitors, according to this week’s Goodyear Racing media release.

“We have been working very closely with NASCAR and the tracks as the use of PJ1 has become more common on the circuit,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.  “We generally all come up with a plan, and then watch how things unfold over the weekend, also considering feedback from the drivers.

“After each day of the event, we run a friction trailer on all the lanes of the track to measure the traction level and how that changed since the beginning of that day. Then we determine if the PJ1 needs to be re-applied, whether the application patch should change at all and what the concentration level should be.

“The goal in all of this is to keep the grip level consistent throughout the weekend so teams know what racing conditions to expect. We, as an industry, are putting a lot of science behind this effort, with an end goal of improving the quality of racing for our fans.”

Here’s the tire info for all three races:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials.

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and nine sets for the race (eight race sets plus one set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: six sets for the event; Truck: five sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4860; Right-side — D-4862

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,223 mm (87.52 in.); Right-side – 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 20 psi; Left Rear — 18 psi; Right Front — 43 psi; Right Rear — 40 psi.

Notes: NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series teams ran this same combination of left- and right-side tires at Bristol in April. … This is the first time NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series teams have run either of these two tire codes. … Compared to what the Trucks ran at Bristol last August, this tire set-up features construction updates on both sides of the car and a compound change on the left-side. … This is the only track at which NASCAR teams will run either of these two tire codes in 2019. … Unlike on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, on which teams generally do not run inner liners in their tires, teams are required to run liners in their right-side tires only at Bristol. Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

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