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Sprint Cup teams look into Fontana tyre failures

With Goodyear insisting that there was nothing amiss with the tyres Cup teams were provided at Fontana, teams are seeking other answers to a spate of failures.
While Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson finished Sunday's race in Fontana, California at the front, much of the post-race attention was diverted onto the question of just what had been responsible for the high number of flat tyres and blowouts during the Auto Club 400.

The most significant of these occurred just six laps form the end, when race leader Jimmie Johnson suddenly had to pull onto pit road with a tyre going down, denying him what had looked like a certain win and opening the door for Busch to claim victory instead.

Among other big names experiencing problems during the race and over the weekend were Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick. In the end, no one dared miss any opportunity to come in to pit road for fresh tyres, worried they too would fall foul of tyre issues.

However tyre suppliers Goodyear were adamant that the problem wasn't with the tyres themselves, pointing out that they were the same specification used here in 2013. They laid the blame instead on the teams running air pressures below Goodyear's recommendations in a bid to gain more downforce.

"Every left side tyre that we've seen gone down or had issues with is kind of the same characteristics as [Saturday practice]," said Goodyear's NASCAR racing manager Greg Stucker. "The common denominator being aggressive on air pressure ... I think they're just trying to be as aggressive as they can be and try to go out and win a race."

"The tyres weren't wearing: at some parts of the race [they] were abused a little bit, so I guess that's why the failures," added NASCAR's vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton. "The competitors have asked to bring more aggressive tyres, to bring tyres that they need to manage in how they use them and how they get the most out of them."

While the tyres haven't changed since last year, many of the crucial Sprint Cup technical regulations have. Kurt Busch, who finished in third place on Sunday behind his brother and Kyle Larson, felt this had played a part in what was seen in the race.

"We have faster cars, more downforce, and NASCAR is allowing us to put whatever cambers we want into the cars, and therefore it's up to the team's discretion if you're going to have a problem or not,” he said. “I've been in this game 15 years, and normally NASCAR mandates what certain air pressures you have to run and what cambers you have to run not to have a black eye for Goodyear.

“By no means is this a problem for Goodyear, it's actually a thumbs-up for NASCAR allowing the teams to get aggressive in all areas," he added - even though it had been his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, which had seemed to suffer a particularly disproportionate number of tyre issues at Fontana this weekend.

"We were lucky, we had our tyre problem with two minutes to go in practice [on Saturday] and that allowed us to go into a conservative approach overnight,” he pointed out. "I'm glad that we had that. Sometimes it's a blessing in disguise to blow a tyre and to not pay a penalty by spinning and wrecking your primary car."

Sure enough, Busch had no tyre problems in the #41 on race day as a result of his changes. However, the suggestion that the problems were all down to individual teams' set-up approaches was little consolation to those affected on Sunday.

“We did an awesome job as a race team and we did everything we could to win the race,” complained Jimmie Johnson, who dropped to 24th place after his forced late pit stop. "Unfortunately, something out of our control let us down."

"I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened," said Jeff Gordon, who had been running second to his Hendrick Motorsport team mate at the time, and who then suffered his own problem with a vibration that meant he ended up in 13th at the finish.

“This tyre didn't have any margin," said Penske's Brad Keselowski after finishing in 26th place having been forced to follow Johnson down pit road in the final minutes. "We have probably a half a dozen tyres remaining that have no margin, and I would expect similar issues through the season. [We had] no margin from last year, and we have increased the demand significantly. If you are going to fix it, you either have to change the margin on the tyre or put the cars back to their configuration last year where they were less harsh on the tyres."

But Dale Earnhardt Jr - a third Hendrick driver who had experienced his own tyre-related accident early in the race but who rallied to finish in 12th by the end - felt that the problem wasn't to do with the tyres themselves of the set-ups the teams were using, choosing instead to point the finger at the atypical track surface at Auto Club Speedway, which hasn't been repaved in decades.

"To be honest with you, the back straightaway is very rough and I think the tyre can't handle the load that it goes through on that back straightaway," he suggested. "It's just tearing the tyre up where the sidewall and tread are put together. There ain't another race track on the circuit besides Kentucky that has bumps like that. They're incredible huge, huge bumps.

"I don't think it's good to cycle a tyre through bumps like that," he continued. "I think that's why the tyre comes apart. I think that's why a left rear here and a left front there and it's not air pressure and things like that. We're moving air pressure around and it ain't saving the tyre. There's bumps on the back straightaway that get worse and worse.

"They don't need to pave the race track," he added. "Just pave the back straightaway. Not very cheap, but I'll bet you won't have any tyre problems anymore."

But NASCAR's Robin Pemberton was quick to support the Fontana venue: "I think the general consensus is this racetrack races fairly well. It's got a great raceable surface, it's wide, a lot of grip, guys like to move around the racetrack. You see good speeds. You can run on the top near the SAFER barrier and you can run on the apron and anywhere in between and pass cars. This is one of our best surfaces that we run on for the year.

"Each racetrack is fairly unique and generally have unique tyre setups. Sometimes there's some crossover with a right- or a left-side tyre," he continued. "I won't call it a tyre issue, [but] I will say that there's an issue of abuse of tyres as much as there is anything, so you can't put a blanket over any of these things or any racetrack or anything like that."

"Maybe there's a bigger picture there that needs to be investigated," summed up Jimmie Johnson of the divergent views about the situation that had been quick to emerge after the race. "These cars are much different this year, faster ... Maybe that means they're more abusive on the tyre and [that's] something that needs to be addressed there."

Whatever it is, teams will all be looking into it deeply over the coming weeks - as will NASCAR and Goodyear. Everyone will doubtless cast nervous glances at the similar precedent of the tyre situation in F1 in 2013 where Pirelli found itself under the spotlight for a number of high-profile blowouts during Grand Prix events.

Certainly the time when tyres were just unexciting, black round things piled up in pit lane that no one paid much attention to is long past: as Johnson found out at his home track in California this weekend, these days they can certainly make or break a driver's day - and possibly even a championship.



Related Pictures

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Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 23, 2014 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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