Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway produced a massive number of tire failures, as Goodyear Eagles exploded with shocking regularity from the opening 20 laps until the end of the race.
Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer were among the top drivers who saw their races go out the window because of tire failures.
But afterward, most of the drivers weren’t pointing the finger at Goodyear as the source of the problem.
Instead, they pointed to changes with the cars and how they are set up for 2014. Last year, NASCAR loosened rules on how much air pressure the teams must run in their tires and how much camber they can run. This year, NASCAR added downforce with a new, larger rear spoiler.
Some teams got very aggressive by running extremely low air pressures on left-side tires — 11 pounds per square inch in some cases, vs. the Goodyear recommendation of 22 psi — and equally aggressive camber, which is defined as how much the tire slants away from vertical when viewing it from the front or back.
Lower air pressures combined with aggressive camber make for extremely fast speeds, but it greatly increases the risk of catastrophic tire failure, which is what happened again and again and again on Sunday.
"Here’s what we have," said Kurt Busch, who finished third behind brother Kyle and Kyle Larson. "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. 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."
"Last year we opened up the rules on camber for the rear end," added Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. "I would say that a year ago at this time we were early in the process, and teams were probably not as aggressive as they wound up being as the season unfolded, as they got the mechanics better in their cars and the opportunity to be able to make parts and pieces live longer. Now, I think they’re probably a little bit better prepared for that. So if they had too much camber — they’ve got a lot of choices, so if they had too much and it abused the tire, that’s what happens."
Asked by FOXSports.com if he thought the tire failures were a Goodyear problem, Pemberton was clear.
"No," Pemberton said. "We’ve talked to Goodyear. We have asked, the competitors have asked to bring more aggressive tires, to bring tires that they need to manage and want to — how they use them and how they get the most out of them. At this point in time, I think Goodyear, it’s the same tire that we’ve run on in the past. Just the car is a little bit different."
Of course, where a driver finished might have influenced his opinion.
Jeff Gordon was leading the race with three laps to go when a caution came out for a flat tire on Clint Bowyer’s car. On the subsequent green-white-checkered restart, Gordon had a horrendous go of it, dropping all the way to 13th.
"I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened," said Gordon. "They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off. When I saw the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end and I was just going as slow as I possibly could, trying to maintain the lead, and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me. It’s unfortunate that was happening."
Team Penske had at least half a dozen tire failures over the weekend and team driver Brad Keselowski was understandably unhappy with his 26th-place finish.
"As a driver you are left between the choice of driving your car to the limit and blowing a tire out or being a wuss and saving it," said Keselowski. "I saved it as best as I could and probably arguably was not following the 100-percent rule until the last run. That is what you had to do. It was the box we were all forced into today. I pushed it hard on the last run and I was one of at least three guys that blew a tire. It was really unfortunate. If I didn’t push the car hard, I wasn’t going to have a good day. It was a matter of who blew it first."