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Trial by Tire

by Cathy Elliott
Saturday, March 14, 2009

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Cathy Elliott
Tires have been in the news quite a bit the past week or so, starting with the now infamous incident that occurred during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In a nutshell, an errant tire from the No. 47 Toyota driven by Marcos Ambrose rolled out onto pit road during a pit stop.

That's bad, but we've all experienced something similar, at work, at play or at home. No matter how careful we are or how many safety measures are put into place -- and NASCAR has implemented a boatload of them -- still we sometimes fumble, falter, or just drop things and let them get away from us. (In my case, this generally happens in the kitchen and ultimately involves a fire extinguisher.) Stuff happens, and we react.

Unfortunately, in the case of the traveling tire, one guy's reaction was to attempt to chase it down. Across pit road. With moving cars headed in his direction.

OK, I concede the point that this will probably not go down in the record books as one of the more brilliant moves in NASCAR history, but it probably doesn't deserve the unimaginative nickname that some folks have applied to it: Tiregate. As I was heard to remark a couple of weeks ago when I wrecked my own car in my own driveway, it was a mistake. We're all human. Let it go.

The criticism, I mean, not the tire.

Just a couple of days later, Goodyear conducted a tire test at Darlington Raceway. Testing has been a hot topic during the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing season because NASCAR has changed the way tests are conducted. Or perhaps I should amend that to say the way tests are NOT conducted. Testing is expensive, so in the interest of fairness and economy, NASCAR has eliminated testing at all sanctioned racetracks.

Goodyear, however, is a company that knows firsthand how quickly you can go from hero to zero when drivers are dissatisfied with their tires. It is still necessary for them to conduct regular tests so they can develop proper tires for the Cup Series' various venues, which are radically different from one another. One driver from each auto manufacturer is randomly selected to participate in each test. Each manufacturer also has an engineer on site during the test, and information is shared equally with all the teams.

Drivers testing at Darlington were Elliott Sadler (Dodge), Denny Hamlin (Toyota), Bobby Labonte (Ford) and Kevin Harvick (Chevrolet). You can't help but wonder whether this sets the drivers who were not invited to twitching and muttering about unfair advantages, despite the fact that their turn will eventually roll around. It's the only occasion I can think of where guys are actually upset about not having to take a test.

Does participation in a tire test give a driver an advantage when he comes back to that track to race? If you ask these four guys, the answers are varied. What they are not, however, is straight. What can you learn from these comments?

Labonte: "I haven't had the opportunity to test at all, anywhere, with the new team so I'm happy to be here."
Hamlin: "The drivers in the Cup Series are so good, they'll run fast the very first lap on the racetrack."
Sadler: "The track's gonna be different when we come back."
Harvick: "It's a necessary evil."

Wow, there's a real wealth of information for you. The word coy comes to mind, like pretending not to remember where you got your sweet new loafers because you don't want the competition to show up in exactly the same pair.

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