The idea of option tires in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was a worthy one. In a race that’s struggled to produce entertaining racing, it was worth a shot to see if different tire combinations would incite passing, especially in the race’s final 10-lap sprint to the finish.
As we noted after the race, the idea was a much better one in theory than it was in practice. The option tires were just fractionally faster than the regular tires, making passing far from plentiful. Once again, NASCAR was left with an All-Star Race that provided far more in hype than substance.
It’s admittedly too early to write off option tires as a failure. One 70-lap race broken into four stages at a track not known for its passing proficiency isn’t enough of a sample size to make a sweeping judgment. But NASCAR and Goodyear shouldn’t spend time finding ways to make option tires work in the Cup Series’ near future. The efforts should be focused elsewhere, like combating the scourge of clean air.
If clean air is a gaping wound in need of stitches or staples, option tires would be a first-aid kit filled with a few random bandages and some antibiotic ointment.
Clean air — the less turbulent air that cars at the front of the field encounter because of a lack of traffic — was a big reason why the option tires didn’t work on Saturday night. The boost of increased aerodynamic grip was far more beneficial than the boost of increased mechanical grip with softer tires.
“It’s interesting how the tire strategy worked out where no one had the greens at the end because track position was so important,” Jamie McMurray said after finishing fifth. If a driver took option tires in the race’s final stage he had to start at the back of the field. No one did.
NASCAR’s move to cut downforce from Cup cars before the 2017 was a step to cutting the benefits of clean air. But it’s clear that more steps need to be taken, starting with dramatically reducing the front downforce on the cars.
The splitter has to go. We’ve made this argument countless times, but it’s worth revisiting yet again after Erik Jones’ attempt to go three-wide on Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez in the open.
The move immediately made click chasers and binary thinkers hark back to Dale Earnhardt’s pass in the grass in the 1987 All-Star Race. That’s an easy and lazy callback. Earnhardt’s pass worked because the front of his car wasn’t sealed to the track.
A better comparison involves Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his ill-fated clip of the grass at Texas in 2014. Both Junior and Jones suffered terminal damage to their cars because of the splitter, which is a primary source of aerodynamic grip for the current iteration of Cup cars.
The splitter’s pretty damn unpopular too. Every time a splitter digging into the grass tears up a car, you can find an observing NASCAR driver or three to tweet “#teamvalence” in a nod to the days when Cup cars didn’t have a bottom lip that stuck out like a bulldozer.
Getting rid of the splitter would not only make passes like Earnhardt’s possible again, but it would also cut significant downforce away from the cars. That lack of downforce can make passing in the corners easier — clean air won’t be as vital — and also cut corner speeds. Which tend to have an inverse relationship with the ability to pass.
Less downforce would also lessen the need for multiple tire compounds.
While Formula 1 and IndyCar regularly give teams the choice of softer tires that are faster and less durable and tires that have less grip but last longer, NASCAR would be the first series to provide the option on ovals. Formula 1 strictly races street and road courses while IndyCar only offers red and white tires on its road and street courses. Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 will see teams use just one tire compound throughout the entire race.
The differing types of tires is designed to help teams make passes and have varying race strategies. And for series that rely heavily on courses with both left and right turns like F1 and IndyCar, they make sense. For a series with 34 of 36 races on ovals, option tires don’t make much.
What’s the appeal of option tires if every team simply saves them for a restart with less than 20 laps to go? Those types of restarts happen far more often in NASCAR than in F1 or IndyCar, where pitting during a late caution at a road course is typically not the best idea.
Cars with far less downforce would also provide Goodyear with the chance to engineer softer primary tires that would provide similar performance to what an option tire would look like on the current cars.
As Cup teams have spent more and more on engineering in recent years, Goodyear has walked a line to find tires that provide significant fall-off during a tire run and are also durable enough to handle the downforce and speeds that cars are capable of producing. Very often, for self-preservation reasons, Goodyear has erred on the side of durability, making two and no-tire pit stops a common sight at grippier tracks.
Track position races are no fun for fans, and that’s why NASCAR and Goodyear took the step they did in the All-Star Race. If the two want to bring back option tires for the 2018 race (which is staying at Charlotte) with some further research and development, a second shot isn’t uncalled for. But there shouldn’t be any plans to phase in option tires at points races. There are far more significant and far-reaching issues for NASCAR and Goodyear to collaborate on than a band-aid solution.
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