- K. Lee Davis, Motorsports
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- It was my job once upon a time to call up Rusty Wallace every week to discuss the upcoming Sprint Cup race and get his thoughts on the keys to the event.
It was truly a pleasure, just as getting the opportunity to speak to him now every chance I get is. Rusty is a warm and caring man, a racing legend and one heck of a storyteller.
But there was always something during our talks that drove me nuts.
Reviewing some old files, I found the passage of one of our conversations, and the words that would almost always come from Rusty first regardless the conversation.
"I'll tell you what, the most important thing is going to be the tire Goodyear brings to the track," he said about a race at Pocono.
Of course, he said it about every track.
I would roll my eyes, dutifully jot it down and then move on to what he believed was the second most important thing for the upcoming race.
All these years later -- seven, to be exact -- we're at Texas Motor Speedway, and what do you suppose is the most important thing deciding the outcome of Sunday's Duck Commander 500?
You guessed it: It's the tires Goodyear brought to the track.
Drivers talked about it Friday and Saturday. Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear came in Friday with Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, and talked about it.
You can get tired of the tire talk, but it is important.
So, what's going on here?
Many drivers (and one would suppose many fans) don't want to see tires blowing out only halfway through a fuel run -- the distance a car can go between pit stops for fuel, and, at the same time, fresh tires. This is what happened two weeks ago in Fontana, Calif. With Texas being one of the fastest tracks in the series, the concern is it could happen here. Kurt Busch blew a left-rear tire in practice Friday after 19 laps before bouncing back to lead Saturday's Happy Hour practice and qualify 11th in a backup car. His teammate and team owner Tony Stewart rolled to the pole.
But some drivers were fine with the way the tires performed at Auto Club Speedway, and the split seems to be based on whether the teams and drivers adhered to something close to the air pressure in their tires that Goodyear recommended and those teams and drivers that chose to run much lower pressures on the left-side tires -- as much as 40 percent lower -- in search of more speed. NASCAR does regulate the pressures for right-side tires but has left left-side pressures open to the teams
Jeff Gordon, he of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, was one of those who chose to push the limits at Fontana, and, although he didn't blow a tire, he felt he was close enough to doing so that he backed off and potentially cost himself a victory when Kyle Busch passed him for the win.
This Saturday, Gordon sounded like a driver who hopes NASCAR will put in rules that will save the drivers and teams from themselves.
"I would be fine with just putting that [air pressure] number out there and saying, 'Don't go any lower than that,'" he said. "We do that with the right sides, so why wouldn't they do that with the left sides? That's up to them. And we'll try to manage it the same way that we did in California.
"But yeah, I would be more supportive of them having the regulation on those left sides if they're concerned about it."
But Goodyear and NASCAR don't seem to be that concerned about it.
"Really, I think, on the heels of the issues we saw at Fontana, people are asking the question, 'Is there a possibility we could see the same thing?'" Stucker said Friday. "There's always that possibility.
"People are always pushing the envelope, always trying to stress all parts of the race car. We understand that and support that. That's what makes racing great, right?"
Gordon's desire seems at odds with sentiment over the past decade when drivers and teams decried the box NASCAR rules put them in, where there was very little room for innovation, or "gray areas" in the rulebook.
Pemberton himself seemed amused by it Friday.
"Yeah, and I think it's a small group [of drivers and teams asking for NASCAR rules on air pressure]," Pemberton said. "We're early in the process this year in a lot of different areas. Sometimes that question will be raised.
"But long term, they would rather be in charge of their own destiny, I think."
It's the risks that come with that destiny that Gordon addressed head-on.
"Why not just put a minimum left-side tire pressure?" he said. "That doesn't make any sense to me because basically all they're doing is asking for us to exploit it and push it. If somebody goes out there and goes faster than us and we find out that they're a pound lower on the lefts, then we're going to go a pound lower because that's just speed. ...
"I think we're being more conservative than some others right now," he added. "And I know how it works. You start off conservative and then you don't see any problems and then you go a little lower and a little lower and a little lower and by the end of this race, the last run -- if you make it to that point -- is going to be the toughest run that we have because you're going to push the limits hoping there is more rubber on the track and hoping that the results you've seen so far that you've got a little more to give.
"But you've got to go faster at that point. So, it's a balancing act, especially if rain is coming, too. A green racetrack is going to create some real challenges for us. But we're going to try to do everything we can to have speed in the car and be a little bit more conservative than some of our competitors."
So it's a balancing act, probably one worthy of the center ring at a circus. And it doesn't look as if NASCAR or Goodyear is planning to give drivers and teams a net.
Turns out ol' Rusty was right all along.
Tony Stewart drove to his first pole since 2012 for Sunday's Duck Commander 500, but that isn't the talk in Texas. What is? It's all about the tires.