Messing with tires is one of the most serious offenses in NASCAR, something the sanctioning body will not tolerate. NASCAR officials met with Sprint Cup Series crew chiefs Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway to remind teams not to play around where the rubber meets the roads.
While rumors of teams altering tires are nothing new — the topic came up during Jeff Gordon’s dominant days in 1998 and as recently as 2006 — NASCAR wants to make sure teams are playing by the rules.
Following last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR took the Goodyears from the cars of Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch as part of a tire audit. Tires were also taken after the race at Phoenix International Raceway two weeks ago and during some races last year, as well.
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Some of those tires were sent by NASCAR to an independent third party for further investigation. The Phoenix tires all came back clean, while results are not back yet for last week’s tires.
All tires run in the Sprint Cup Series are provided from Goodyear Racing each weekend. The penalties for altering tires are stiff, all the way up to a P5 penalty if warranted, according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. A P5 infraction carries with it a 50-point fine, cash fines of $75,000-$125,000, and a six-race suspension.
The consensus in the garage is that some teams are using small drill bits to put holes in the sidewalls of the tires prior to the race.
When teams change tires, the air pressures are low, increasing as the tires heat up. Small holes in the tires would bleed some of that air pressure off, allowing tire pressures to be more consistent through the life of a tire run.
Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Alan Gustafson said the issue surrounding tires is certainly on the forefront of everyone’s mind in the garage, enough so that NASCAR "reminded them" not to mess with them Friday at Martinsville.
"Obviously NASCAR is trying to make sure that we are all on level playing field and if anybody is violating that they will pay the price, which they reminded us this morning is very stiff," said Gustafson. "That is all I know. Anything beyond that is speculation besides the fact it is a hot topic."
Gustafson’s fellow Hendrick Motorsports crew chief, Chad Knaus, said he does not know of anyone tampering with tires in the garage, primarily because he does not "have a lot of friends in the garage."
"My friends are outside of racing," said Knaus. "So, I don’t know what is going on. I really don’t. I know I sent Richard Buck (managing director of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) a text and said, ‘Hey man, could we poke holes in our tires? Is that OK?’ He sent me a text back and said, ‘Absolutely not.’ So that is all I know."
The typical response among crew members in the Sprint Cup garage Friday in Martinsville was that some teams are altering tires, but each one denied their team took part in the practice.
"It doesn’t happen on the 22 team, I know that," said Team Penske crew chief Todd Gordon.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on Matt Kenseth’s car, said the biggest question is why this issue is coming back up all of a sudden.
"Honestly, nobody’s getting caught doing anything, there’s been no penalties served," said Ratcliff. "Typically when they dig into something like that it’s because they feel like there is a problem there. My question is, ‘Why do they think there’s a problem there?’ We’ll just keep our eyes open and watch what people are doing. We’ve never messed with that and never will. That’s just one of those areas you stay away from."
Veteran Gordon said the fact NASCAR is meeting with crew chiefs and bringing it up regularly means that something is certainly going on.
"That tells me it’s definitely being done," he said. "It’s just not clear on how it’s being done."