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No rain tires, no racing at Watkins Glen

8/15/2011 - NASCAR

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- I was standing on pit road under an umbrella with Jimmie Johnson early during Sunday's rain delay at Watkins Glen International when Jamie McMurray approached.

"If you want a story, ask why we aren't using rain tires," the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver said. "They do it in Nationwide. Why can't we?"

Johnson interrupted. He knew the answer.

So did I, having asked Goodyear officials earlier in the delay.

It's NASCAR.

President Mike Helton, as he once told Johnson, believes it's too much to ask Sprint Cup teams that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing for a race, millions preparing for a season, to risk having everything washed away by a potential demolition derby in the rain.

The five-time defending Sprint Cup champion understands that. So does McMurray. But if you ask them if they want to race on rain tires, they'll tell you "yes" in a heartbeat, as long as it's not a torrential downpour as it was in the Nationwide Series race two years ago at the road course in Montreal.

And even then they really wouldn't object.

Hey, they call themselves the greatest drivers in motorsports. Prove it.

It would make for great TV, as we saw in Montreal in 2009. Many fans here certainly would love it, even some of those soaked in the stands. They're already wet. Might as well watch a race.

They'll get another chance on Monday. The race is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET (ESPN), but the forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of rain.

NASCAR spokesman Kristi King said Sunday that rain tires are "not something we think we should be looking at" in the Cup series.

"We want to make sure there's a level playing field for all the competition," said King, who maintains it's more cost-effective for Nationwide teams to run on scheduled days and easier to reschedule Cup races. "At this point, it's too close to the Chase. We want to put on the best show for the fans. At this point, we think the best show is a dry racetrack."

Many fans disagree. Eighty-four percent of the participants on our ESPN.com live race chat voted in favor of rain tires.

Many drivers -- though not all -- seem to relish the thought of "boys, have at it" in the rain.

"Imagine how much stuff we'd probably tear up," McMurray said with a laugh.

That's Helton's point. He doesn't want to see teams lose that investment just to get the race in on the day it is scheduled. He especially doesn't want to see a driver competing for a Chase spot have his season go down the drain.

Imagine if Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved in a first-lap crash because he was blinded by rain, finished last, fell out of the top 10 in points and ultimately missed the Chase.

Imagine the uproar.

You may say there won't be one, but there would. It's the way Junior Nation works.

Still, it would be nice to see rain tires added for road courses. They do it in almost every other form of motorsports. If the Grand-Am race had been held on Sunday they would have gone to rain tires immediately.

"Yeah, I'd love it," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "Absolutely. I love it."

Knaus doesn't buy into NASCAR's theory that it would be too costly for teams because of the demolition derby factor.

"I'd quit running Talladega then," Knaus said.

My thoughts exactly.

"What's it matter?" Knaus continued. "We're racers. Yeah, I love it. It's a good idea. I don't see any big reasons why we don't."

Not only does Knaus want rain tires for road courses, he wants teams to have the option of when to put rain tires on and when to use slicks. He says NASCAR made a mistake in Montreal when it threw a red flag to let all teams change tires at the same time.

"They just do it wrong," Knaus said. "I'll get in trouble for this, probably. It's just wrong. I mean, show up, buy so many rain tires and go out there and race. Don't tell us when to put them on, don't tell us when the caution is going to come out. We start the race, if we start on wets we start on wets. If you want to put on dries, put on dries.

"They don't need to be telling us when to put the rain tires on. … Let's go."

What's it matter? We're racers. Yeah, I love it. It's a good idea. I don't see any big reasons why we don't.

-- Chad Knaus on rain tires in Sprint Cup

Jeff Gordon isn't a proponent of using rain tires. He tried it at Watkins Glen about a decade ago and "could barely make a lap."

But the four-time Cup champion agrees with Knaus that NASCAR made a mistake throwing the red to change tires at Montreal.

"That's the whole beauty of it, somebody risking going to slicks early and taking that risk," Gordon said. "That's what I love about Formula One racing. If they did it that way it would be very interesting and exciting."

Had NASCAR used rain tires they probably could have gotten at least half of Sunday's race in under misty conditions and teams would have saved an extra night of lodging and meals.

"It would help us right now," Gordon said as jet dryers went by during a brief break in the rain. "In these kinds of conditions, maybe we could [use them]. The conditions would have to be perfect, and even then you'd still have defogging situations.

"I don't know. I still see a lot of negatives that would have to be addressed."

One is the cars are heavy with little downforce and a lot of power.

"I don't know how many cars would stay on the track," Gordon said.

There also is concern about getting too much temperature in the tires. Then there is the mayhem factor. Remember what Brad Keselowski said at Montreal two years ago?

"We've officially made the transition from race car drivers to daredevils today," he said at the time. "When you're running well and you pass a car, it's fun. But when you get wrecked, you think it's the dumbest thing ever.

"I thought it was fun because I passed cars today."

It would be fun. And McMurray is right. If they can race on rain tires in the Nationwide Series, they should be able to do it in Cup. Even Gordon admits it has potential.

"More than anything else, for the fans," he said. "It sure would be nice to get racing going."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.