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Red-letter day: Tire options something to build on from All-Star Weekend

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — All up and down the gently sloping pit road at North Wilkesboro Speedway this weekend, the Goodyear tires for NASCAR All-Star Weekend had a new look to them, with sidewall lettering at the top of each stack in red, yellow and white. It was the latest curve to the ever-changing All-Star Race format, one that promised to jumble up the strategies and grip levels under the microscope of a non-points event.

If nothing else, the takeaway from a weekend of racing is that we have options.

Goodyear’s softer, red-lettered “option” tire was the winning ticket in Sunday’s All-Star main event, and Joey Logano rode them to victory in the 200-lap invitational, then promptly melted the rear ones with a professional-grade burnout in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford. The mix of option tires with the yellow-lettered and more durable “prime” tire was intended to add a new degree of pit-call intrigue, and the results were a mixed outcome. Thankfully, at least, the white-lettered wet-weather tires weren’t needed after apocalyptic rain Saturday blew through to leave race-day Sunday high and dry.

Friday afternoon’s lively practice session earned raves with a glimpse at varying performance, grip and wear with both tire options in play. Come Sunday in cooler, nighttime conditions, though, the fall-off wasn’t as dramatic, and teams and drivers could push the red-marked option tires more aggressively. Though the risk-reward nature of the option tires ended up being less risky and more rewarding, the kudos for taking on such an experiment to enhance short-track racing for the series was palpable.

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“First, hats off to Goodyear and NASCAR, trying to do something different,” said Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet and Kyle Larson. “I do think a very genuine, a very solid attempt was there to try to do something different, and unfortunately, kind of to everyone’s surprise, the tire didn’t have the fall-off, the degradation that we thought it would have — especially at the end of the one long run, the first segment, whatever you want to call it. I was expecting guys to have blisters, and maybe the tires come apart and fade, and it just didn’t happen. So Goodyear was still almost making too good of a tire. You know, it’s crazy, and there could be some margin there that we can take. I think steps like this are steps that we need to take anytime we can, to try to learn and we all know we want to help the short-track package and yeah, we’ll just keep learning.”

It’s not the first time Goodyear tire development has been in the spotlight at North Wilkesboro. It was here that the tiremaker notched its first victory with radial-tire technology with Dale Earnhardt in 1989. This weekend’s wrinkle to the race-ready rubber was a different development, but it could also prove to be a significant step forward.

Logano benefited the most from the red tire’s performance characteristics. He had track position at the outset from winning the pole position in Saturday qualifying, then kept it when No. 22 crew chief Paul Wolfe joined four other teams opting not to pit after an early caution flag. The rest of the field swapped to the yellow, prime tires for the rest of the opening 100-lap stint, but the front five largely kept their momentum without experiencing drastic wear. Logano kept the lead after a halfway pit stop for fresh reds; he stayed out during another break with 50 laps to go and held on for his second All-Star win.

The three versions of Goodyear tires for NASCAR All-Star Race Weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway -- prime (yellow sidewall lettering), option (red) and wet-weather (white).
The three versions of Goodyear tires for NASCAR All-Star Race Weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway -- prime (yellow sidewall lettering), option (red) and wet-weather (white).

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development, said that competition officials gathered feedback in informal post-race conversations with drivers and crew, but that further evaluation would take place in Tuesday’s competition meeting and subsequent talks.

“Did everything go exactly like we thought? No. I think we would have liked to see the tires fall off a little more, and credit to the 22 for doing something that honestly Friday in practice, and working with Goodyear, we didn’t think you could do,” Probst said. “We didn’t think we’d see somebody run it that long and that hard and have it hold up that well. So the good thing is, we’ve got some tire tests coming up here in the near future at Iowa and Martinsville, and we’ll just get more aggressive. We’ll keep stepping up on it. It’s always hard when we come to a track and you practice in the daylight, you race at night, the track temperature has a lot to do with how the tires perform. So we’re going to stay at it. By no means are we done. We’ll get more aggressive.”

Denny Hamlin placed second to Logano, and the veteran driver and his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, had a compelling debate about whether to pit their No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when the final competition break fell with 50 laps to go. Hamlin’s strategy suggestion was fresh reds, but Gabehart leaned toward staying out to preserve track position running P2. Hamlin eventually skipped pit road to keep his place in the running order, and that held up the rest of the way. “My guy likes offense,” Gabehart said of Hamlin’s initial hunch.

But Gabehart said he appreciated the effort in bringing tire alternates to a non-points race, even if Sunday’s conditions weren’t as ripe for the same sort of Friday fall-off from practice. Trying the same format in a longer event on one of the circuit’s shorter ovals, Gabehart said, could open up more strategy possibilities.

“Again, let’s be clear, you’re never going to finish four-wide at the finish line every week, and we’ve got to temper expectations and understand that the Game 7 walk-off home run scenario is not … if that’s what we want every week, you’re going to be disappointed,” Gabehart said. “Absolutely, it was a step in the right direction. No question about it, the industry learned a lot this weekend, And then, like I said earlier in the week, this option tire experiment, the way this weekend played out, there weren’t going to be a lot of opportunities to see diverging strategies. But if you only give me two (sets) of them of my eight sets of Loudon — I’m making it up — or Richmond or Phoenix, and I only get two of them, and it’s 400 laps, well now we can’t just figure out a way to use those two sets the whole race, right? We’ve got to pick and choose, and you’ve got stage points that matter, and playoff points that get paid at the end of them, and the end of the race obviously matters. So then you’ll start seeing a lot of comers and goers because you don’t have infinite supply the way you kind of did tonight.”

Special mention needs to be made for the quality of the repaving project at the 0.625-mile track, which now has fresh asphalt for the first time since 1981. The historic oval retained a measure of its character, but the new surface also took tire rubber readily, and the groove widened out far more quickly than with past repaves at other facilities.

The surface should only get better with more age and use, and Gabehart lauded both the overhaul and the nostalgic buzz that gave the second All-Star edition at the Wilkes County track that extra pop.

“First off, let me say fantastic atmosphere,” Gabehart said. “Fantastic job to Marcus Smith and his team here at North Wilkesboro. You don’t get a repave better than that. That’s as good as it gets. Multiple lanes, literally from the SAFER barrier to the bottom. You can’t get any better. The short track’s not what’s broke, and tonight is evident of that. The track’s fantastic.”