Top 5, Bristol: Tire management race provided greatness; can it be replicated?

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway …

1. Taking Stock

To understand why many NASCAR fans found Sunday’s tire management race at Bristol so compelling, let’s take a quick step back and ask: Why are sports worth watching in the first place?

Two reasons: First, the outcome is unpredictable; we never can be sure who will win on a given day. Second, we get to watch extraordinarily talented people competing against others of similar stature to determine who is the best.

The latter part is what was highlighted in such a major way at Bristol, and why the race felt so different than the typical NASCAR Cup Series race.

While the dream for many NASCAR fans is to watch a product where success has to do more with the drivers than the cars, we know that’s not close to reality. Auto racing is typically about who has the most resources behind them. Money buys speed, because money buys engineering and technology and the best pit crews, which in turn give drivers the fastest cars and more favorable track position — particularly in this parity-filled, hard-to-pass era of NASCAR.

On Sunday, thanks to Goodyear’s happy accident, we saw the opposite. Drivers couldn’t even use the maximum capability of their cars, which made it more like a sprint car race: Fast cars still go fast, but where they finish is much more dependent on the drivers’ decision-making and skill level.

Just listen to some of the drivers after Sunday’s race and try to read between the lines.

Justin Haley: “It was fun because you had to manage it. You weren’t all-out the whole time, so it was fun to have a major part in how the car ran.”

Ryan Preece: “I’d rather (have severe tire wear) than getting beat by somebody with a faster car that day.”

Denny Hamlin: “Way more proud (to win than usual). I know I had such a huge role in the result.”

Based on those comments, Haley doesn’t typically feel he has a major part in how the car runs. Preece doesn’t feel the drivers beating him are better; they’re just in a faster car. Hamlin doesn’t always feel a major sense of pride when he wins, because often his car is simply that good.

That made Bristol oh-so-refreshing compared to the recent storylines at Phoenix and Vegas. If you recall, the talk at Phoenix concerned adding more horsepower and tweaking short-track aerodynamic rules packages. At Las Vegas, it was about the importance of track position and air blocking.

To everyone’s surprise, a tire management race that came out of nowhere on Sunday reminded everyone exactly how much this major element of auto racing truly matters.

In other words: It’s the tires, stupid. A tire that wears out is the catalyst for more elements of good racing than perhaps any other factor — even the cars and racetracks themselves.

The Phoenix discussion — horsepower and aero packages — didn’t matter at all in Bristol. Drivers weren’t even using all the horsepower they had and could drive through the field at will, except it would mean a penalty later in the run when their tires burned off. The thing was, it was up to the drivers to decide.

The Las Vegas storylines — track position and air blocking — were equally irrelevant Sunday. Hamlin passed for the lead a whopping 13 different times — and even had a flat tire at one point. The fifth-place finisher, Kyle Larson, had a penalty with 125 laps to go and still made it back to the front.

It’s doubtful we’ll see a race like this again anytime soon — the 54 lead changes were the most on a short track in NASCAR’s 76-year history, after all — but at least Bristol can now be used as the best example of this generation’s NASCAR racing for why the tires must be an area of focus.

Denny Hamlin

“Way more proud (to win than usual),” Denny Hamlin said of Sunday’s victory at Bristol. “I know I had such a huge role in the result.” (Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

2. Fastest Car Tracker

This space almost had a “Not Applicable” for Bristol, because the fastest car didn’t really matter. As documented above, no one was running full throttle and it was up to the drivers to manage their tires.

Still, it seems Hamlin actually may have had the fastest car. Not only did he lead the most laps, but he led two of the key categories in NASCAR’s Loop Data: the number of fastest laps run and his overall green-flag speed.

While we’re not absolutely positive Hamlin was fastest, we do know this: The winner wasn’t a fluke. There wasn’t some late restart that caused chaos and the 15th-place driver suddenly won the race out of nowhere.

In that sense, it’s good enough to put Hamlin as P1 and allow the fastest cars to tie up the score in our yearlong tracker. Interestingly enough, six different drivers have had the fastest car in the first six races.

Fastest Car Score: Other Cars 3, Fastest Car 3

Fastest Cars by Driver: Hamlin 1, Christopher Bell 1, Kyle Larson 1, Todd Gilliland 1, Joey Logano 1, Ty Gibbs 1

3. Q&A

Each week in this space, we’ll pose one question and attempt to answer one from the past.

Q: Can NASCAR and Goodyear replicate this?

Given it was unintentional and there was no immediate explanation for why Bristol unfolded the way it did (these were the same tires as last year, after all), it seems unlikely another race like Sunday could happen very easily.

And to be fair, the tires did wear too quickly. This wasn’t an ideal situation on the surface, but it just so happened that the unintended side effect was a beautiful thing.

“What you don’t want it to be is an accident,” said Chris Gabehart, Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. “Goodyear will tell you they didn’t expect this. So you want to learn from it in the sense of ‘How did we do this?’ and ‘How can we monitor that and change it and make it something a little less extreme?’ Then apply it to other racetracks.

“There’s a lot to be learned in it.”

Given the tires were the same as last September’s night race and did lay rubber on the track then, there are seemingly only two culprits for why there was a difference this time: The resin (which was laid on the bottom lane instead of the PJ1 compound for the first time at Bristol) and the cooler temperatures. Given the resin was only in one lane and the track didn’t take rubber anywhere else, it stands to reason the temperatures might have played a role.

But where does that leave Goodyear? It’s one thing to do a tire test; it’s another to come up with a compound three months in advance of a race in which that day’s temperature is a total guess. Are the tires that temperature-sensitive?

We’re not tire experts here, so we don’t have the answer. Hopefully, though, NASCAR and Goodyear can go all-in on trying to come up with the science behind it — because discovering the exact causes could unlock a new world of the tire wear everyone seeks.

A: What is an acceptable level of on-track payback?

This question was posed here after last year’s Bristol Dirt Race for two reasons. First, it came on the heels of Hamlin’s points penalty for wrecking Ross Chastain and the subsequent denial of his appeal. Second, because we wondered if Ryan Preece would get a penalty for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson in the Bristol race. (Preece wasn’t, which only made things more confusing.)

So what do we know a year later about what is acceptable for on-track retaliation? Pretty much nothing. Chase Elliott was suspended for right-rearing Hamlin in Charlotte, Carson Hocevar was given a two-lap penalty for hooking another driver in the Martinsville Truck Series race, and Corey Heim got an irrelevant 25-point penalty for intentional wrecking in the Truck Series championship race at Phoenix. But Corey LaJoie was not penalized for admitting on his podcast he intentionally hit Kyle Busch at Martinsville (the same thing Hamlin did), nor have a handful of other incidents with seemingly obvious contact been penalized.

At this point, the policy seems just as murky as a year ago and it’s still unclear which instances NASCAR will step in — and when officials will take more of a “Boys, have at it” approach.



Strategy-heavy Bristol Cup race injected new life into NASCAR short-track racing

4. NASquirks

It’s entirely possible we may never see another NASCAR short track race like Sunday. Check out some of the numbers below.

  • By now, you’ve seen the stat of Bristol’s 54 lead changes being the most in the history of NASCAR short-track racing. Trey Ryan went a step further: It was also the most on a track one mile or less, which constitutes 1,385 Cup Series races.
  • The number of lead changes not only smashed the Bristol track record (40, set in 1991), but they were nearly as many as the last four Bristol races combined (59).
  • As Stephen Stumpf noted, the five lead-lap cars were the fewest in nearly 20 years (Dover, June 2004). Ryan noted for Bristol specifically, it was the fewest lead-lap cars in 30 years.
  • Jonathan Fjeld noted the 54 lead changes were the most for a non-superspeedway since Michigan in 1981. It had only happened four other times in NASCAR history.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the race smashed the Bristol record regarding green-flag passes in NASCAR’s Loop Data. Joe Srigley found the previous best races with Loop Data (2005-present).

5. Five at No. 5

Our mini power rankings after Race No. 6/38 (including exhibitions):

1. Kyle Larson (last week: 1): Got a top-five finish and didn’t even know how he did it. Either way, it moved him into a tie for the points lead with a favorable schedule ahead for the No. 5 team over the next month.

2. Denny Hamlin (last week: not ranked): We’ve been avoiding putting Hamlin back into the mix after we got burned by having him too high earlier in the season, but Sunday’s performance was a pretty impressive display of veteran savvy and skill.

3. Ryan Blaney (last week: 3): Hard to penalize Blaney for an unusual race on Sunday, especially after his team brought the fastest car in practice. He continues to lead the series in top-five finishes despite losing the points lead.

4. Ty Gibbs (last week: not ranked): The sophomore driver has four straight top-10 finishes and now leads the series in that category. His 137 laps led on Sunday were impressive, too.

5. Martin Truex Jr. (last week: not ranked): It’s time to start paying attention to Truex again. He has three straight finishes of seventh or better, hasn’t finished worse than 15th this season, is tied for the points lead and is heading to a road course (COTA) where he could easily win.

Dropped out: Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, William Byron.

(Top photo of Ryan Preece’s crew working on his crew during Sunday’s race: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire)

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