HAMPTON, Ga. – Another Cup race, another Goodyear tire controversy.
You'd think that after 54 years of partnership with NASCAR, the engineers at Goodyear could go through an entire season without a controversy.
Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 is expected to be another long afternoon filled with failed tires and torn up race cars.
The chorus of displeasure about the tires Goodyear has brought to Atlanta for this weekend's race has been loud enough to be heard all the way back to Ohio, home to Goodyear's corporate offices.
"There's no grip and no tires," said points leader Kyle Busch, who was dominating Saturday's Nationwide race, until he fell victim to a failed tire that sent him into the wall.
Cup teams tested with the new car at Atlanta last fall, and even though teams liked the tires and the grip they afforded on the rough Atlanta surface, Goodyear engineers apparently didn't like the way the tires performed.
"I was not pleased at our open house test last fall, and that's why we came back in December," said Justin Fantozzi, a marketing manager for the tire company.
"Now what we have is a right-side tire that's harder for better durability and a left side that has better grip in it."
Fantozzi was offered as the sacrificial lamb to the media on Saturday afternoon in an attempt to answer to the rash of complaints about the tires coming from drivers. One has to wonder as to Goodyear's choice of sending a marketing manager to talk to the media rather than a tire engineer. Were they interested in delivering straight talk or spin?
"These new tires are nothing like we tested with," said Elliott Sadler. "We're having a hard time getting hold of the race track on these tires. They have thrown us for a loop; (they're) nothing like we tested with. We wasted two days of testing here in the fall."
Tony Stewart has easily been among the most vocal critic of Goodyear over the years and he told the Associated Press this weekend, "After 10 years in the Cup series, you learn to be highly disappointed with everything Goodyear does."
Michael Waltrip agreed that the lack of grip made driving the new car a handful, but he saw that as a positive.
"That’s what racing is all about," said Waltrip. "Before, whatever you could give that car, it could take. Now a driver can give it more than it can take, and you have to finesse it. So, yeah, you're sideways and slipping all over the place, but it should make for some fun racing."
Fun racing or boring racing?
A spate of failed tires generally leads to a similar succession of caution flags and a multitude of commercial breaks for the viewer at home and eventually a change of channels.
Jeff Burton, who finished third in Saturday's Nationwide race, admitted that there's always been tire issues at Atlanta.
"Short of slowing down, there's nothing we can do to keep from having tire problems," said Burton. "It's not a good feeling piling into these corners at 185, 190 mph knowing people have been having tire problems."
Still, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is planning on having fun regardless of the harder tire and the track's abrasive surface.
Earnhardt starts on the front row alongside teammate Jeff Gordon, who captured the pole.
"The tire makes it harder to get a hold of," said Earnhardt. "You can't enter the corner nowhere near as hard as you used to. And you really have to be patient with the CoT in the first place, no matter where you are driving it.
"With the change in the tire you have to really roll down into the corner easy. But it's still fun."
Time to make a move
With just three races in the books in 2008, the smart teams are already focusing on what they need to do to climb back in the chase for the Chase. The importance of getting a fast start on the season is essential especially for a trio of drivers – Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth – all of whom were in the Chase last season and have gotten off to slow starts this year.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, Hendrick teammates Johnson (14th) and Gordon (23rd) have to be a bit concerned that they both are off to a sluggish start to the season.
Gordon has four wins and 19 top 10s at Atlanta and finished seventh here in the fall.
The four-time Cup champion brushes off his team's slow start this season.
"We know what we are capable of doing and we're three races in," said Gordon. "I think it's kind of silly to even think about that. When there is a lot of hype and expectations, those things happen. And other than the Roush cars outrunning us, I feel like we've been the best car. I think if we keep running the way we're running and if we can get to the finish line, we're going to get our share of wins."
Johnson has three wins, including the 2007 fall race and nine top 10s at AMS. A win here would be the first of the season for Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports and would bolt Johnson well into the top 12.
He expects a breakthrough on Sunday.
"We knew that this year we were going to have challenges with the Car of Tomorrow on larger tracks and we're not where we want to be but were working very, very hard to get on top of things," said Johnson. "I wouldn't expect us to have a poor performance much longer."
With one win under his belt from Saturday's Nationwide race, Kenseth is primed and ready to rebound from his disappointing finish last weekend in Las Vegas.
Kenseth was running second behind teammate Carl Edwards in Las Vegas when Gordon took Kenseth out of the running five laps from the checkered flag.
The Roush Fenway driver sits in 16th place in driver points and says he has shaken off last weekend.
He expects tire management to be the key to victory on Sunday.
"Atlanta is a great track mainly because you're not only racing your competitors, you're also racing the track," said Kenseth after his Nationwide victory. "These tires at this track really presented a challenge this weekend."
All three face a near must-win situation on Sunday. Anything less would be disastrous for their season, especially with a wild-card race like Bristol on tap for next weekend.
- Jeff Gordon