Bristol tire wear pushes NASCAR: 'It's supposed to be hard'

Everyone has tried to convince us that "Days of Thunder" was a farce, but every now and again a Sunday afternoon at the racetrack comes along to remind us that the story of Cole Trickle and crew chief Harry Hogge is more of a documentary than anyone seems willing to admit.

During this latest Sunday, throughout the 3-hour, 20-minute entirety of the Food City 500, as the collective voices of the drivers crackling over the radio were moving into higher octaves ... and stacks of shredded rubber were beginning to pile up in the Bristol Motor Speedway pits ... and Goodyear workers were scrambling to mount extra rings onto exhausted wheels ... it was impossible not to hear Robert Duvall's voice echoing off the walls of Thunder Valley.

"Tires is what wins a race," Hogge explains to Trickle. "If we can't figure out a way to run so you don't melt the damn tires, we can't finish a race."

"There's 40 other vultures out there who manage to finish the race on their tires," Hogge later asks his driver. "You see Darrell Waltrip using up his tires?"

That movie dropped nearly 34 years ago. That makes it old school. Its technical references are outdated. They have also crossed over into nostalgia. NASCAR fans and competitors alike point to the boxier, decidedly non-Next Gen cars, the tales of wild modifications made to those cars' bodies and frames that bent the pages of the rulebook, and yes, the Goodyear tires that wore down to the cords, and wonder aloud, "Why don't we see that anymore? Wouldn't that be fun?"

By the end of Sunday's second round of pit stops, barely a quarter of the way into the event, the mechanics in the trenches and atop the pit boxes were looking at the Eagles that had just been pulled off their race cars and saw something that has become a bit of stock car racing unicorn. Their tires looked like a unicorn had been gnawing the tread off of them. Then they looked at their NASCAR-mandated limit of ten sets of tires and realized, that, Oh damn, we aren't going to have enough to finish the race.

"You calibrate your entire world around a certain set of parameters for Bristol. It was pretty clear right after practice, again pretty clear after 80 laps into the race, all of that had to go out the window," confessed crew chief Chris Gabehart, who ultimately helped his driver Denny Hamlin navigate the day all the way to Victory Lane for the team's first win of the 2024 season. How? "Now, it's instincts. A lot of your prep work, tools and planning, for the most part, are invalid. It's still a race car. It's still got an engine, driver, four black things on it for a while 'til they turn gray. It's way different. You have to go off instinct every part of the race. That's everybody. That's the tire guy, the car chief, the mechanics helping."

On the racetrack, that plan wasn't met with warm, fuzzy feelings. As tire specialists collected data and used that info to lobby Goodyear to rustle an 11th set of tires -- which they ultimately did -- they also began communicating to their drivers in a very Hogge-to-Trickle manner.

"Run 50 laps any way you like. Then run 50 laps the way I want you to," Hogge says. "Give me an honest run. If you do, I'm going to beat you."

In other words, slow down. Don't wear those tires out at the beginning of a green flag run, but rather save as much rubber as you can for the end of that run with the goal of having the best conditions possible at the end of the day, when it matters. Run too hard and you'll run out rubber and lose control. Even worse, you'll run completely out of shoes for the marathon that is a 500-lap, close-quarters event on a high-banked, white concrete-covered cereal bowl that is Bristol.

Kyle Larson's crew chief, Cliff Daniels, told his driver they would need to average 50 laps per set of tires to make it to the end. "Good luck," Larson said. Daniels replied: "Good luck everyone."

Bubba Wallace wondered aloud if they might red flag the race so that Goodyear could have time to haul a truckload of extra tires up to East Tennessee from their Charlotte warehouse. Even eventual race winner Hamlin compared the situation to the all-time darkest moment for NASCAR tire wear, the 2008 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To be clear, this day was not that day. Not even close. On that surface-of-Mercury hot afternoon, teams barely made it ten laps before their tires came apart like a wet roll of toilet paper. It was such a living nightmare for NASCAR and Goodyear that it not only forced the sanctioning body to change the format of the race from the oval to the road course (it's finally switching back this year), it was also the day that from henceforth the concept of tire wear -- a longtime pillar of the sport -- was essentially shelved.

In the near decade and a half since, drivers and teams eventually moved on from their Brickyard nightmare, and after years of relief from worrying about excessive tire wear (except for the cheese grater of Darlington Raceway), they began to ask when it might return.

"We all come from some form of short track racing as we moved toward the Cup Series," Hamlin explained during the offseason when asked what could be done to add some spice into the very racy but very homogenized world of the NASCAR's current car model, the one-size-fits-all Next Gen machines that don't allow for much if any mechanical creativity considering they are no longer constructed by teams, but rather pieced together from NASCAR-selected parts suppliers. "The answer to put the races back in the drivers' hands and to reintroduce some more strategy for the crew chiefs and engineers is what we had at those short tracks. That's tire wear. It rubbers up the track. It makes the cars slide around. It makes us have to manage what we are doing while also going fast. It's stressful as hell, but it's also a helluva lot of fun."

On Sunday, that stress was very evident and very loud over those radios. So, those of us listening and watching braced for disaster.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to driving over a cliff like Wile E. Coyote. The whining certainly never completely stopped, especially from the younger, less experienced racers who spent time at the front early but could not hang onto their tires as the checkered flag grew closer, but it was silenced from the veterans. Drivers like Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, even Larson, who admitted after the race that he had no idea how he had finished fifth. They all hunkered down and went to work, leaning on their crew chiefs and finding just the right times to cruise, at least as much as Bristol ever allows anyone to cruise, and when to drop the hammer.

The result was a race with 54 lead changes, the most ever for a short track in NASCAR's bullring-packed 76-year history.

"Looking at the dash, here is the lap time. [Gabehart] would keep me updated, 'You're running a little quicker this time.' He did a good job of kind of reeling me back in," Hamlin explained after earning his 52nd career win and his second straight at Bristol. "It was a chess match. There was a time where me and Larson were up front. I was on the outside. He was leading. I could tell he was just really going slow. I told the spotter, 'Hey, if we want to run side by side, I'm good like that, block up both lanes, block the whole field.' I didn't realize till later the line I was running was just killing my tires. You learned on the fly. You just made adjustments. Each run we made, we just got a little better."

As the drivers climbed out of their cars, most seemed to have made the transition from their early-race panic to a postrace smile. Not all, though. As third-place finisher Alex Bowman said, "That was fun, but I don't know if I ever wanna do that again."

Chances are, he won't. Everyone seems to agree that the return of tire fall-off is plenty welcome. It had been missed. But 40 laps were too soon. The sweet spot would seem to be in the 80-lap range. When the series returns to Bristol for the night race in mid-September, cooler temperatures under the lights might just be the perfect addition to the mixture. NASCAR and the track operators will also likely change the way the surface is treated; it was covered with a resin this weekend that was a departure from the PJ1 mixture used here before.

No matter what happens then, or what happens anywhere else this season, everyone also seems to be in lockstep on the idea of being challenged. The exhausted smiles on the faces of the competitors as they rolled back down the mountain home toward Charlotte was the only proof anyone needed to know that.

"This is supposed to be a sport. It's supposed to be hard," explained Gabehart. "It's supposed to force these guys to make decisions in the car. 'Do I go now? Do I not?' The crew chiefs make decisions on how they treat the tire, what their setup is, how long do you want to run this stint. You can't just run the fuel tank out and the tire not blow. It might blow on you. Was that difficult? Yeah. But that's racing, man."