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Larry McReynolds on Tires, Earnhardt Jr. and Texas
“The greatest thing that ever happened to Goodyear in NASCAR was what happened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008.  It was a huge black eye for the company and the sport but it was a wake-up call.” Larry McReynolds

Tire issues were the talk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage last Friday at Martinsville Speedway, but when the post-race dust settled Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged the headliner with his second-place run.  Below, SPEED analyst Larry McReynolds discusses recent tire issues, whether or not Earnhardt Jr. is “back” and this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. 

SPEED has the first look at the weekend’s storylines Thursday beginning at 5 p.m. ET with live coverage of NASCAR Sprint Cup practice from Texas Motor Speedway.  For further technical analysis by McReynolds and crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Bootie Barker, tune in to NASCAR Performance on SPEED Friday at 12 a.m. ET.

We’ve seen potential tire issues at two of the six Cup races in 2011.  What’s going on and why has Goodyear made the changes they have?

McReynolds: “There are a plethora of reasons why Goodyear has to keep tweaking on the tire in a lot of cases.  The change they made at Bristol over what they ran last year was encouraged by the competitors.  The competitors thought last year’s tire put too much rubber down and made the track too slick, so Goodyear tried to take some of that away but accidentally jumped the fence and went too far.  But they were able to respond and I don’t recall us mentioning a tire problem during the race. 

“But at Martinsville, I still question, to some degree, why they changed the tire.  I know one change they made was to the fabric of the right-side tire to try to toughen up the bead area, which is the weak link of the tire at a place like Martinsville due to brake heat.  We still saw three or four cooked beads Sunday, but other than that, tires weren’t an issue and things turned out much better than we anticipated.  I kind of liked what we had, however, because it was reminiscent of old-school racing when the tires have a substantial amount of give-up on a stopwatch, a substantial amount of give-up on grip, the cars start sliding around and the cream rises to the top.  But the problem is you give these drivers so much grip each week and when you take it away, many of them don’t like it.  I probably wouldn’t either if I was a driver.  In my opinion, it may have been a wake-up call to Goodyear that we can take some stuff for granted.  They made that change in the tire and didn’t do a confirmation test at Martinsville, and I think that’s where they need to be careful.  They have so much technology and resources that 90-percent of the time they can build a tire for a particular track and never have to worry about it.  But 10-percent of the time, they probably need to take a couple of teams and go run for a day or two to make sure.  It almost bit them at Martinsville.

“The greatest thing that ever happened to Goodyear in NASCAR was what happened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008.  It was a huge black eye for the company and the sport but it was a wake-up call.  A lot of things being done today are an offspring of that huge debacle at Indy.  You’ve got to tip your hat to Goodyear.  They never rest on their laurels and try to make it better and tailor a tire to each track.  The biggest thing they have to contend with is how aggressive teams get with their setups.  I agree with Darrell Waltrip - Goodyear normally doesn’t make bad tires.  We just do bad things to them.” 
Do you anticipate any tire issues at Texas?

McReynolds: “Texas can be hard on a tire.  The loads, speed and grip level there can be terribly demanding on tires – especially the right-front tire.  But based on no issues at Auto Club Speedway or Las Vegas, I don’t really fear we’ll have any issues with tires this weekend at Texas.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to improve on his performance each week but said pit strategy got him a second-place finish at Martinsville.  How close do you think he is to breaking his winless streak?

McReynolds: “Probably the most aggravating question you can be asked in NASCAR nowadays is ‘who do you like this weekend’ or ‘when do you think someone will win?’  It’s hard to gauge that because the competition is so close.  It’s like playing roulette every single week.  Dale Jr. could win next week or could still be as competitive as hell but yet go another 99 races without winning.  No one knows.  But we’re headed to Texas, where he got his first Cup win as a rookie 11 years ago, and then we go to Talladega.  For the first time in a long time, I can say I am confident his winless streak will come to an end in the near future.”
Put Earnhardt Jr.’s improvement into perspective over the last couple of years:

McReynolds: “I base my assessment of Dale Jr. off of what I’ve seen all six races this year.  He has been pretty competitive in all six.  He was competitive in the Daytona 500 in a backup car, but got caught up in that wreck.  But if you look at the five races since then, he has five consecutive top-12 finishes.  Plus, they’ve overcome a lot.  They’ve overcome a loose wheel, a pit road speeding penalty and missing the pit box this year.  So, you have to put his finishes into perspective and that’s what he needs to do, too.  Look at where he and they were a year ago –he fell off hard after the Daytona 500 and wasn’t competitive enough to barely finish inside the top 15 and be in the conversation.  We know he and his fans wanted him to win at Martinsville, but to know he finished second and was competitive should be a huge boost for that team.”

What do you see as the biggest difference in Earnhardt Jr.’s performance this season?

“There are a couple of things that seem to have made the difference for Dale Jr. this year.  First of all, he and Steve Letarte and that No. 88 team are making their car better over the course of the race, which has eluded him for quite some time.  He and his team never could put the beginning, middle and end of a race together before.  They’re doing it now.  The other thing is, believe it or not, Dale Jr. has become a cheerleader for his team.  I think Steve has rubbed off on him.  There was a time Sunday when they had a bit of a pit stop issue but he was cheering on the team and giving them a pep talk.  I see a totally different Dale Jr. this year across the board.”

A lot has been made about Saturday’s night race at Texas.  But teams should have some notes to go on based on the past few years’ races that ended at night, correct?

“The night race at Texas is one of those deals you have to put into perspective.  It’s not really the first night race at Texas.  It’s the first Saturday night race.  The Fall race has started in daylight and ended at night under the lights for years.  The schedule is what will be so different because they practice late Thursday afternoon, practice again in the middle of the day Friday, when they will learn absolutely nothing because of the time.  Then they qualify early Friday evening and race Saturday. Their most important practice will be the one Thursday afternoon/early evening.  Teams will go back to their notes from when they transitioned from daylight to dark there and look back on the track’s tendencies.  It’s still 500 miles and one of the harder races on engines.  All the engine guys will be nail-biting.  They’ll be making a lot of horsepower and turning a lot of RPM for 500 miles.” 

What stands out to you the most over the first six races?

: “I like the fact we’ve had six races and five different winners.  We would love to have six different winners and came very close with Dale Jr., but we’ve had six exciting finishes. I don’t know if we’ve had a race yet where I looked out the window of the TV booth and didn’t see fans standing on their feet the last 10 or 15 laps of the race.  And I love what I’m hearing now from the drivers – they’re not talking about a good points day or a solid finish.  They’re happy when they win but are disappointed or ticked off when they run second or fifth.  They’re not just racing for a solid day and I’m tickled to death about that.”
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