For the fifth Sprint Cup Series race this year, the tires used on NASCAR's newest generation race car were identical to the racing slicks used in events on last year's now defunct model. And for at least the third race-and probably the fourth depending how you liked Las Vegas-the overall on-track product wasn't the type of stuff that the preseason hype around the "Gen-6" car wanted so badly to create.
No, fans in the modestly full grandstands of Kansas Speedway weren't calling the 1.5-mile track for refunds Monday. Sunday's STP 400 was a decent show with just enough cautions to keep things mostly interesting.
But 'mostly interesting' and 'just enough' isn't what the Gen-6 was supposed to deliver. For that, it's time NASCAR and tire supplier Goodyear get together to develop program that offers more opportunities to fine-tune cars and tires to each individual race tracks.
My suggestion? Let's establish an independent testing team as a collaboration between NASCAR and Goodyear. It has to be better than what we have now, a period of which Goodyear has completed tire tests at just two of eight tracks (Daytona and Phoenix) to host races so far in 2013. Tires were also tested at Darlington Raceway in February for next month's race.
Such a testing team would hire a handful of drivers in the vein of the car setup aces from the IROC days. They wouldn't be active competitors, and would have to agree to information confidentiality and some sort of waiting period to be eligible again for competition. They could spend the year hitting as many current Sprint Cup tracks as possible to develop ideal race compounds with freedom from the hectic week in and week out schedule current drivers and teams face. With NASCAR's rulebook now so lacking in gray areas (just ask Penske Racing), the independent test team could also sport vehicles incredibly similar to the current machines.
The test team could also serve a public relations role for the sport at tracks where testing isn't traditionally conducted.
A solution is needed because NASCAR's current system just doesn't cut it - especially in a season with a brand new car in Sprint Cup competition.
It's not due to a lack of effort, but more an issue caused by the standard in which NASCAR and Goodyear have gone about tire testing for many, many years. Choosing and improving tire compounds for individual tracks is a slow and deliberate process with several constraints like tire production time and available track testing time between races using competing teams. Factor in 2013's new car that didn't have a full set of rules until January, and the physics equation headache for Goodyear's engineers grows exponentially.
A lot of that is due to NASCAR and its tire supplier being rightfully concerned that events like Kansas get completed without inhibiting or dangerous tire problems. A conservative approach leads to tires with less grip and less ability to change over the course of a run, producing racing like we saw at Texas Motor Speedway last week with handling and tire management playing critical roles in increased passing. At Kansas, the story was about track position and changing right side tires as fast as possible - and less about picking up spots during the course of a run.
By the time the series rolls back to Kansas in the fall, both NASCAR and Goodyear will have come together to debrief and decide if the tire combinations need adjustment. It's a solid process, but it's also slow and tougher to get aggressive with.
An independent testing entity wouldn't be strapped by race weekend schedules, team schedules and other factors that can either prevent tire testing completely or force it to be completed during weather drastically different from an official race weekend. They could simply do more than what NASCAR and Goodyear are capable of now.
This idea is certainly not original in major auto racing. Tire supplier Pirelli tests several times per year to identify correct Formula 1 race compounds with a completely independent team of engineers and driver. But even that project has run into trouble because of Pirelli's inability to convince the series to let them use current-year models. As of last season, Pirelli was using a 2010 model that may as well have been 10 years behind in F1 technological achievement.
Similarly, IndyCar used a series-funded group in 2011 unaffiliated with any race teams and the then-unemployed Dan Wheldon to get it's current DW12 car design off the drawing board and into usable construction.
For NASCAR, there has never been a better time to find a way to get more data to better match tire compounds to the needs of its new car. The sanctioning body has essentially gone all-in on the new car, and needs it pay off big in the form of renewed and growing fan interest.
Cost is certainly a big issue for such an endeavor, but it's not something the sport would be just tossing money at without a payoff. If an independent tire testing effort could make races like Kansas, on new pavement, seem a little bit more like Texas, on old pavement, the program could ultimately pay for itself. At the least, it'd calm the angst fans have over NASCAR's decade-long transition to a schedule heavy on 1.5-mile tracks.
Impressive racing in NASCAR's new markets and tracks with new pavement shouldn't be something we have to wait for like a fine wine. Technological limits at those places certainly exist, but a broader tire testing initiative could sure draw the gap to those limits smaller. Why not?
A brisk weekend in Kansas left plenty of room to play judge and jury:
HOT: There's no doubt now: Matt Kenseth made an incredibly wise jump to Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason. Two wins in eight races for Kenseth could have easily been three or four when considering how both Bristol (he led 85 laps) and Daytona (86 laps) ended in a crash and engine failure, respectively.
Kenseth has failed to lead just two races this year. More importantly, he's as strong as anyone on every track type so far: short, intermediate and restrictor plate tracks. Finally? Consider this: Kenseth, who won three races last year, has already led two laps more this season than he did in all of 2012.
NOT: Tony Stewart's slump is getting worse. Since an 11th at Las Vegas, he's been no better than 17th. Late in the final practice Saturday, Stewart complained that adjustments the team had made weren't making any difference in the areas he needed. You've got to worry if that team will find a fix, or will just continue grasping at straws in a method taking Stewart further and further from his comfort zone.
NOT: Kyle Busch, fresh off a hot streak of five consecutive top-5's, came back to Earth in an ugly way at Kansas. He hit the wall early Friday, forcing the No. 18 to a backup. Saturday, he crashed out of the Camping World Truck Series race. Finally, on Sunday he crashed twice and wound up with his second DNF of the year.
HOT: Jimmie Johnson is sly. Really sly. During his Friday morning press conference at Kansas, he was asked directly if his team tattled to NASCAR about the accused Penske Racing suspension improprieties at Texas. Not only did he deny it, but he also dropped in a very subtle dig at his rival - one that even while sitting there I missed.
""We have been very impressed with the No. 2 car's staff and their ability to have somebody just stand and watch other teams," Johnson said.
That's a clever dig, Johnson. Clever.
NOT: Do not, under any condition, try the chewing gum brand that was on Elliott Sadler's No. 81 Toyota Sunday. Just trust me on this.
HOT: Did you have Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Aric Almirola all at 13th or above after eight Cup races this year? They each scored a top-10 Sunday, and are quietly rounding in as some longshot Chase competitors this season.
NEUTRAL: Walking pit road during Saturday's truck race was a glaring example of the tough times many teams are facing. Some teams didn't have the maximum allotment of tires, some barely had a pit box and at least one started the race with little more than toolbox of wrenches and two pit crew members.
Mind you, some of those were teams involved in a start-and-park operation. But it's still jarring to see a NASCAR national series race vehicle get loaded into trailer being hitch-towed by a Ford F-250 pickup truck. Should we be concerned?
HOT: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looked pretty good when his car got out front Sunday. More on that later.
NOT: Yeah, it was cold Friday in Kansas. But Saturday and Sunday? This mid-westerner couldn't help but laugh at the industry types bundled up with hats and gloves. Most shed them by Sunday, when the weather warmed to a very comfortable temperature.
That said, the racing at Kansas would likely improve with a hot, slick track found in the summer months.
HOT: This weekend was my first trek to Kansas Speedway, and the facility deserves accolades. Fan access is easy, the layout is simple and it feels like a modern sporting venue. I think what caught me most is that despite the criticism that I and others often lay on 1.5-mile tracks, it's markedly better to watch that type of NASCAR competition in person.
The Stenica Showdown Cup!
We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple does against one another. This is a best-of-36 race, with the highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earning a point. Other points may be earned for various and completely inane reasons along the way (suggestions accepted), and the game ends if the couple uncouples.
1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 7 points (11th at Kansas)
2nd - Danica Patrick., 4 points (25th at Kansas)
Danica's streak of "wins" ends as Stenhouse nearly delivers a knockout blow after leading late. He gets an extra point for leading laps, and for somehow sitting next to Patrick in the drivers meeting away from the rest of the Roush-Fenway Racing team.
Next up: Richmond! Join us Saturday on the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR Live Chat at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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