Johnson survives tire debacle at Indianapolis

Published 7:17 am Monday, July 28, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s one of the biggest events of the year at a venue intended to help NASCAR showcase its racing.

Instead, Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway left everyone apologizing to the fans for what could only be called a fiasco.

Hopefully NASCAR can bounce back better than Goodyear’s tires did over the course of a chaotic caution-filled race that ended with Jimmie Johnson winning his second Brickyard in three years.

Tire troubles derailed one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events when Goodyear’s product wasn’t durable to withstand more than 10 or so laps at a time.

“Every lap. Every lap I was concerned about it. Every corner, for that matter,” said Johnson, who beat Carl Edwards to the finish in a seven-lap sprint to the checkered flag.

“As a group, we all knew we couldn’t push the envelope. I knew at the end, a seven-lap shootout, I could blast it off in there and I’d be OK.”

Johnson was indeed OK. Goodyear and NASCAR were not OK, left to explain why the race became a debacle.

The tire issue cropped up early Saturday, when drivers learned during the first practice they could only last anywhere from three to 10 laps before the rubber wore down to the cords. NASCAR and Goodyear hoped the conditions would improve — as it has in years past — once enough rubber was laid down on the track.

But the first-time use of the Car of Tomorrow prevented any improvement because of the lack of downforce on the car, combined with its higher center of gravity, created conditions that made it very hard on the right side tires. No matter how much rubber was laid on Indy’s notoriously abrasive surface, the tires still weren’t strong enough to last more than about 10 laps.

“We came with the best tire we had for the conditions and we fell short. We’ll try to get it right,” said Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear.

“I don’t think anybody likes to race like this, us included. We’ll do what we can to make it better.”

There were 11 total yellow flags, and NASCAR had to throw six competition cautions to force teams to pit and change their tires.

It meant the longest green-flag run was an embarrassing 12 laps, causing teams to fear both tire failures and a possible supply shortage. Goodyear shipped in 800 tires earmarked for use next week in Pocono before the race, but they ultimately weren’t needed.

It was little consolation as drivers feared going full speed and crew chiefs were forced to gamble on tire strategy. No one was certain when NASCAR would call a caution, or if the sanctioning body would eventually decide to let the drivers go as long as they wanted.

“It was a pretty crazy day,” winning crew chief Chad Knaus said.

NASCAR never chanced it, calling cautions every 10-to-12 laps as vice president of competition Robin Pemberton spent the race on pit road, examining tires and talking to frustrated crew chiefs.

After, he defended the job NASCAR did in staging a safe race.

“Not every race is a barnburner,” Pemberton said. “If you are a good fan, and you didn’t get what you wanted, it’s OK to be disappointed and we can be disappointed right along with you. We’re here to put on the best races we can, and we do a damn good job of it most of the time. Everybody inside these walls works real hard to do that.”

Johnson fretted the final two stops, unsure what the right strategy would be. He took two tires on his final stop to emerge from pit road as the leader, then held off Edwards and Denny Hamlin over a final seven-lap green flag run to the finish line.

“I was worried the stop before that maybe we had to go two less to win this thing,” Johnson said.

Edwards, sympathetic to NASCAR’s plight, said he raced at 100 percent over the final run but couldn’t catch Johnson.

“That’s a long day. I know everybody’s trying to do their best,” Edwards said. “I just, personally, (want) to say to the fans, everybody’s doing their best to make that race, at least we got to run at the end.”

Hamlin, who led late but gave the lead up during the frenzied final sequences of pit stops, said he never got a feel for how good his car was because of the tire concerns.

“I don’t think anyone could push their car as hard as they would have liked to, today,” said Hamlin. “I was patient as I ever was in any other race. When I wanted to run hard, I could look like I was 20 mph better than anyone else, but I knew I was going to pay for it in the end.”

NASCAR started the day with a scheduled competition caution to check tire wear after 10 laps, but it didn’t even get that far as Michael Waltrip spun on the fourth lap to bring out the first yellow. Some of the teams decided to pit then, including 12th-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I liked it, because it was less work,” Earnhardt said. “It was kind of fun, little 10-lap sprints, little heat races, getting new tires every 10 laps, it was great.”

NASCAR pushed back the lap 10 caution to 14, but again the field didn’t make it. Kurt Busch wrecked into Kevin Harvick on that lap to bring out another yellow. Because Earnhardt had already pitted, he stayed out and assumed the lead with the intention of trying to run to the next planned caution on lap 30.

But his tire started to fade four laps short of the stop, dropping him off the pace and a lap down when he had to pit under green.

Still, Earnhardt defended NASCAR.

“The truth of the deal is that was the best show we could put on today, NASCAR did everything right,” he said. “It’s all we could do aside from loading up and going home and not running at all. Yeah, it wasn’t quite the race everybody expected, but shoot it was better than some of the races you’ve probably seen here.”

Juan Pablo Montoya soon lost a tire, as did Matt Kenseth, who spun through the grass when his failed.

“It’s a really, really, really disappointing situation,” said Kenseth, who finished 38th. “This is one of the two biggest races of the year … I feel bad for the fans — we’re running three-quarters speed because we’re worried about the tires blowing out. They got blown out every eight laps.”