Tires Add Another Story in the Fr’istol Legacy as Hamlin Vaults to the Top of the Racing Lead Change Charts.

It was Fr’istol, Baby and I’m back on the lead lap!

Everything is pointing in the right direction.  We are finally back home.  The NETFLIX effect is popping.  The dirt’s gone, the concrete is back.  We’re not racing on Easter.  New aero package to improve racing on short tracks is in play… no wait a minute, this is a short track but we’re not using the new short track package here so scratch that.  Got the latest and greatest concrete tire used last season here.  Forecast should be good.

This should be awesome!

Thunder Valley, the high banked half mile tucked into the mountains outside of Bristol was set to put on a show.  It’s produced a ton of memories over the years.  Let’s just say this race added another chapter to it.

By now you know the story of the race.  How unforeseen tire wear issues stuck the proverbial stick in the spokes nearly derailing the entire deal.   Tires that last year had run through green flag pit cycles with no problems couldn’t be pushed without wearing out in 30-40 laps.  Depending on which tire wore first, once worn, basically parked the car on track, forcing drivers to drop multiple seconds off the normal pace, just to keep from blowing.  The tire allotment had been reduced from the fall, because they had no wear issues then, had tires left over after the race, so to bring the same number would be unnecessary.  However, within 25 laps after the start of the race, the wear issue raised its head and concerns over whether we’d have enough to finish the race begin to surface.

Bristol tire wear pushes NASCAR: ‘It’s supposed to be hard’ Photo found at MSN

Drivers were told to stay out of the resin applied to the lower groove to save the tires, only to find upper lanes marbled up, preventing their tires from maintaining grip.  During cautions, the hot tires would pick up the marbles and when drivers tried to stop on pit road found themselves skating through it, barely maintaining control.

Later in the race, the cars had picked up so much rubber that when the cars pitted the brake rotors and wheel well would ignite.  Tire changers were trying to beat the clock while fighting the flames.  The tires they removed were often more white than black as the tires had worn off all the rubber and the drivers were driving around on cords, hoping to make it into the pits before blowing out or going flat.

Some made it.  Some didn’t.

It was Comers and Goers was to the Max.  Drivers who pushed it like normal found themselves blasting to the front… for a while until they used up their tires, only to slide back through the field as the tortoises came to the front.

By mid-race, Goodyear tire busters had started to mount the last set of tires they had to release to the teams in hopes it would be enough to finish the race.  Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s Director of Race Tire Sales found himself central of an impromptu mid-race press conference trying to shed light on what was happening and doing a bit of damage control.

Race Control had drastically changed their approach to the race going from the first caution for a piece of vehicle wrap on the track to holding the caution while cars were half-spinning down the straight or lapping at far less than minimum speed, knowing that each caution thrown would be another set of tires used and we couldn’t have the teams run out of tires before the end of the race.

Cautions became longer as cleanup to get the marbles and cords off the track for at least a few laps on the restart.  A few extra laps each time helped stretch the tires to try and get things back in their favor.

Fans sat watching the up and back, slipping and sliding, taking it all in as white strings or cords from the tires drifted down, reminiscent of the “Snowman” Xfinity Race of not that long ago.    

Ford’s Ryan Blaney and Josh Berry led the field to the Green, with Blaney taking the first two laps before Berry took the point for the next 17 laps.  Denny Hamlin then took the point before the Cautions begin to fall for everything from a piece of car wrap to the “Big One”, a 12-car accident on the frontstretch.

Ty Gibbs showed strong, moving to the front for Stage One and Stage Two wins before having issues and fading to 9th at the finish. Kyle Busch’s misfortunes continued as he was spinning on track and sliding through his box on pit road.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. 

As the race wound down, the three oldest drivers in the series – Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. and Brad Keselowski took their cars on managed tires to the front to put on the final exclamation point of the day.  Hamlin and Truex, Jr. went back and forth for the lead as they sliced and diced through the lesser-tired field, using slow cars as picks to set up their passes.  Kez finished the race behind the two having run 493 of the 500 laps in the Top 15 and leaving with the most points for the day.

When the Checkered Flag fell on what has been called the “Greatest Race Ever” (at least on short-tracks or Bristol specifically) it was Hamlin, Truex, Jr. and Keselowski taking the Podium Finishes – with Hamlin leading the most times for the most laps.  

Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson were the top Chevy’s and rounded out the Top Five, followed by impressive performances byJohn Hunter NemechekChris BuescherChase ElliottTy Gibbs, and last week’s race winner Christopher Bell.

On his way to his win, his 52, which ranks him 13th on the All-time Win list, Denny recorded a massive 8 Racing Lead Changes, bringing his total to 11 RLCs for the season and tying him with Kyle Busch for that lead.  Ty Gibbs blasted onto the Charts with an impressive 6 RLCs for the race.

Hamlin also punched his ticket into the 2024 Playoffs, joining William Byron, Daniel Suarez, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bellas Kyle Larson moves to the top of the Points Leader Board.  

All in all, the 2024 version of the Food City 500 was nothing like we’d ever seen before.  The fans loved it.  Some drivers found it fun. NASCAR and Goodyear are trying to make chicken droppings into chicken salad, spinning it that what was accidently given (they still haven’t reported the cause for the tire’s excessive wear), though excessive, is exactly what the drivers and fans have been clamoring for.  Good or bad, the required/excessive tire management bordered on race survival and reintroduced an element that has been missing from racing for a long time-attrition or the chance thereof.  It made for another interesting Chapter.

It truly was Fr’istol, Baby!

Race Breakdown

Here is a statistical breakdown of the passing and lead changes we saw at Phoenix:

Total Lead Changes 54-a new short track record

Green Flag Lead Changes (P1)  39

– Leader Pit – 4

– Start/Restart – 9

– Racing Lead Changes – 26   

Denny Hamlin-8

Ty Gibbs-6

Kyle Larson-3

Ryan Blaney-2

Kyle Busch-1

Chase Elliott-1

Joey Logano-1

Bubba Wallace-1

Quality Passes less P1 (P2-P15) – 1499

Non-QP Passes (P16-P37) – 2064

Overall Passes  – 42% of the 3589 Green Flag Passes took place in the front 42% of the field, so passing was evenly distributed throughout the field, but shaded slightly to the front.  This is the first time this has happened since Atlanta.

Total Green Flag Passes – 3589 for 8.9/Green Flag Lap.  This was a new record at this track.

Margin of Victory – Hamlin’s 1.083 second win 

Winning Pass- Hamlin’s winning pass was on Lap 484 when he passed leader Martin Truex, Jr.

Winning Run-Hamlin led the final 17 laps of the race.   

Most Green Flag Passes – 152 Kaz Grala 

Most Quality Passes– 105 Josh Berry

Racing Lead Changes (after five races)

Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace broke into the Racing Lead Change Race with their Bristol performances.  Here is the overall breakdown up to this point:

11 – Kyle Busch (+1)

11- Denny Hamlin (+8)

 9 – Ryan Blaney (+2)

 9 – Kyle Larson (+3)

 7 – Martin Truex, Jr. (+3)

 6 – Joey Logano (+1), Ty Gibbs (+6)

 4 – Michael McDowell, Todd Gilliland

 3 – Austin Cindric,

 2 – Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott (+1)

 1 – Christopher BellRoss Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Corey LaJoie, Chris Buescher, AJ Allmendinger, Bubba Wallace (+1) 

Final Thoughts

54 Lead Changes for Bristol is just crazy.  No other way to describe it.

The 3589 Green  Flag Passes was a new track record.  This is the third week in a row this record has been broken at the respective tracks but again, like Las Vegas, was never mentioned.  Phoenix got the attention, but not the other two.  Kinda makes you wonder just how valuable this metric really is.

This race was different though in that the passing was evenly distributed throughout the field with the front (P1-P15) getting a tick more action.  The other two had the passing weighted to the back, P16 and above.  Getting the passing back up front is a positive sign.

The finish only had 5 cars on the lead lap.  I’m still digging but I believe this is a record low in the GEN 7 era.  On one hand it’s hard to believe since there were 22 cars on the lead lap at the end of Stage 2 and Stage 3 did have two cautions.  But I guess the tire wear coupled with differing strategies and looong green flag runs were just too much to overcome.  Under the current narrative that uses On Lead Lap as an indicator of how good the race was, this would have been a stinker and should be grouped in with those old races from back in the day that today we’re told are no good.  Somehow, the record-low OLL number is barely getting a mention in this newest “Greatest Race”. 

The old veterans used their experience to show how it’s done as their adaptation to the changing conditions a little quicker and a little better than their younger counterparts paid big dividends.

Ty Gibbs had another impressive run picking up two Stage Wins.  When he puts it all together he’ll be in Victory Lane.

Ty Gibbs, #54, and Kyle Larson, #5, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 17, 2024 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

Ryan Blaney’s 16th Place Finish (one behind Ross Chastain as a little friction is developing there) dropped him to fourth place in the Points Standings.  Needless to say, the 2023 Cup Champion was non-plussed with the tires and how they were forced to race.

It was interesting to see teams scream to the front with little regard for their tires to see them try to catch an inevitable Caution, hoping that they weren’t the trigger, only to see them drop like a rock when their tires got used up.  You can add seeing Kaz Gralahaving the most Green Flag passes for position is not an every race occurrence.  It was good to see it today though, no matter what the conditions.  Congratulations.

Shout out to the Goodyear tire busters who mounted up the final set of tires for the teams unexpectedly and on short notice.  Their work helped change the complexion of the race from questionable to doable to almost enjoyable.

The adaptability of the drivers, crews, spotters, Race Control, Goodyear and FOX should also be commended.  That race was nothing anyone wanted but everyone did what they could to take what they had and were given and make it workable with results far more favorable than it looked to be.

Many races are determined good or bad by the finish.  The race between Hamlin and Truex, Jr. was a throwback to an earlier time with better cars driving through traffic, using back markers for picks to complete passes.  Traffic rarely plays a part in today’s races, but it had no choice but to do so today.  The result brought a small smile to my face as parts resembled the races I was brought up with and a few memories flickered.

The timeline on when the tire wear issues first showed up. I’ve heard it was in practice but everyone anticipated it would go away after the tire begin to take rubber and rubber up – which never happened.  I’m wondering if longer practices would have confirmed the track was not going to respond as anticipated and teams could have adjusted to try and help their situation.  Would longer practices helped minimize or eliminate the excessive tire wear problem?   

Last week Horsepower was the word.  This week it’s Tire Management and Tire Dropoff or Fall Off.  None are easy subjects, but I suspect those at the top of NASCAR are somewhat relieved and thankful that something shifted the discussion from the mounting push for more HP to something else and someone else’s issue… if just for this week.

I found NASCAR and Goodyear  post-race comments to be a little confusing.  They’ve said that drivers and fans been asking for more tire falloff from the tires for some time and this was their attempt to give the fans what they wanted but it went too far.  Well, I agree with “the went too far” part as in no way was what we saw Sunday is what drivers or fans want, nor is it acceptable.  Where I’m having trouble is understanding, if this was an attempt to create tire fall off, why would you bring back the same tire back from the Fall, where tire performance was so good that they reduced the number of sets of tires the teams for this race?  Seems to me if you anticipate tire wear going up the teams would be given more tires not less.  Coupled with the fact there were no issues in last Fall, why would there be an anticipation of fall off?  Resin used on the track versus PJ1?  Again, if that was the case, wouldn’t you give the teams more tires not less?  Just not adding up for me… but then again, maybe it’s not supposed to.

Finally, I’m still sorting my feelings out about how I feel about this race.  Tire Management (see there it is again) and Tire Fall Off has been a part of racing for years.  It was more common in earlier times and for some reason has been elusive of late-until Sunday.  Here’s my dilemma.

I’ve been watching racing for a long time.  I’ve also listened to SiriusXM for a while.  One of the constant narratives is that racing today is good-just look at all the cars On the Lead Lap.   The racing has only gotten good since we got a car that “leveled the playing field”.  Racing back in the day was not good.  Only had one car on the lead lap and may have a multiple lap margin of victory.  Now, if you don’t agree with or like the racing today, then you need to go back to 14 lap margins of victories from BITD.

Its an either/or situation.  Only two choices.  Nothing in between.  Today good/Yesterday bad.

Sunday, we had a race that for whatever reason, did not look anything like today’s good races.  Instead, it resembled races from BITD, those bad races that no one is supposed to like except us old folks who don’t accept change.

Corey Heim, #11, drives during practice for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225 at Circuit of The Americas on March 22, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

But somehow, a race that if run in 1985 would last week been sold to the fans as a bad race, this week is sold as the “Greatest Race Ever!”.

So, which is it?  I’m confused. 

Enough about a dirt-free Bristol.  On to some left and right racing… clap… clap…clap… deep in the Heart of Texas.  We’ll see some additional players trying their hand at the F1 built track and get another look at the new aero package.  So, tune in next week to see how the Racing Lead Change Challenge is working out.   Till then…

Thunder On… and Stay Safe!

David Nance

Photo Credit (cover):  Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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