Daytona drivers poking at tires

'Softer' product returns emphasis to handling, leaving many unhappy Auto Racing

February 14, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A day ago, driver Jimmie Johnson stepped from his No. 48 Chevrolet with a mystified look. He's 28 and in his third full season, and though that doesn't make him an old-timer, it does make him knowledgeable.

It also makes him pretty sure he knows what's going on most of the time when it comes to Nextel Cup racing.

But after Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race for tomorrow's Daytona 500, Johnson was one of many drivers and crew chiefs at Daytona International Speedway having a difficult time connecting the dots.

The puzzle continued yesterday.

Johnson drives stock cars. He is at Daytona, a restrictor-plate racetrack, a place where a piece of metal is attached to each race car's carburetor to limit the airflow to reduce speeds.

In Johnson's mind, and in the minds of many others, that means big-pack racing, putting the pedal to the metal and never lifting your right foot until you have to make a pit stop.

It means tires that won't wear out and racing that is decided by the shape of a car's body and how much fuel mileage a technician can squeeze out of about 13 gallons of gas.

It also means drivers complaining about being unable to pass other cars without help from competitors.

Imagine Johnson's confusion, then, when he finished his 125-miler. There were no big packs of cars. A driver was able to pass another without help - though no one was able to pass a car and take the lead in the race. A driver had to lift his foot from time to time to make it through the 2.5-mile track's corners.

And, a driver had to make decisions about when to decelerate and when to accelerate, about what to do about tire wear, about how to drive when his car wouldn't turn through the corners.

"It's all about the way the car handles," said Johnson, who finished second in the Cup points standings last season. "It was like those old races from the 1980s that I've seen on television, stuff I've never been a part of. You're going to see guys going down a lap just because of handling. It's about handling, not drafting."

The reason for all this confusion is that NASCAR added a half-inch to the rear spoiler that creates downward force along the back end of the car and asked Goodyear to provide a tire that would address the tire-wear and grip issues that the spoiler change could create.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race car sales and marketing, said the company responded by bringing tires of a slightly different construction that have provided drivers with a little more feel and sensitivity for more responsiveness.

And he said, the tire is also harder on the right side, where the most stress occurs, to address the wear issues on the crushed seashell-based surface.

The harder-tire concept is something of a surprise to the teams working in the garage. Thursday, almost every team complained about "the softer tires" and yesterday several crew chiefs, including Tony Eury Sr., who directs the Dale Earnhardt Jr. team, continued to insist the tires are softer and that that is the reason they've been wearing out sooner.

"The balance is the whole problem with the car and the way to solve that is to take off the rear spoiler," he said. "But the tire wear is from the softer tire. People are wearing out the right rear as well as the right front.

"They've taken the weight off the front end and people are in the garage beating and cutting the fenders and pushing the noses out to try to get balance."

"What's causing the wear," said Goodyear's Stucker, "is that some teams haven't found the right balance. We've seen significant wear, yes, but some cars are perfectly fine."

Some teams aren't complaining. Drivers Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Sterling Marlin were among those who seem delighted with the current rules, tires and setups.

"My car doesn't have the horsepower some of these other cars have," said Stewart, who drives the No. 20 Chevrolet that will start fifth tomorrow alongside Johnson. "But we've worked hard on the chassis. We actually have to drive these cars instead of pushing them around like they've been doing in the recent past."

"It's fun to have to work on your setup and have to hit your marks right in the corner to be able to get around the racetrack," said Kenseth, another of the vocal minority.

And veteran Marlin, who has won the 500 twice, was positively tickled by the idea that cars will probably become difficult to handle on long, green-flag runs.

"Cars are going to be wiggling and drivers are going to have to react," he said. "I'd love a green-flag race all the way."

Robby Gordon, on the other hand, thinks the tires are so bad he called them "junk." And Earnhardt, while noting the tires have done exactly what drivers have been asking NASCAR to do - put the driving back in the hands of the drivers - said, "Even Michael Schumacher couldn't get my car to turn while I was running second behind some other car."

After listening to a lot of discussion, Johnson was still pondering what he might be facing tomorrow.

"I don't know," he said. "There's a lot of learning going on for me."

NOTE: Maryland driver Donnie Neuenberger had a difficult qualifying run yesterday, but made the field for today's Hershey's Kisses 300 Busch Series race by using a provisional, based on owner points from last season.

Daytona 500

Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Tomorrow, 1:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Pole winner: Greg Biffle

Last year's champion: Michael Waltrip

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