NASCAR Fontana 2014 recap: Tire failures create adversity, tension

An abundance of exploding tires created an interesting dynamic Sunday and returned an element to NASCAR that had long been missing.

Once again there was Kyle Busch standing in Auto Club Speedway's Victory Lane celebrating a win for the second straight year.

Just as he did 12 months prior, Busch won his first race of the season Sunday with deft driving and patience behind the wheel. And in a similar experience to last year, he was the deserved winner who had also become a forgotten man.

But the story Sunday was not Busch winning.

"It's sort of like playing with fire. If you pour too much gas on it or let too much air out of it, the thing is going to go boom."-Kyle Busch's tire management philosophy

No, the story was tires that continually shredded and came apart like wrapping paper on a young child's present. There were at least a dozen known incidents of tire failures, and countless others that went unreported.

But while the instances were abundant, what wasn't as clear was the direct reasoning for the rash of tires bursting like piñatas. Some drivers blamed Goodyear. A few other blamed Auto Club Speedway's aged and well-worn surface.

Most of the fingers, however, including those of Goodyear and NASCAR, pointed at the teams themselves. The reasoning centering on crew chiefs, as they are wont to do, pushing beyond the limits with their chassis setups.

This in turn put far more pressure on the left-side tires than Goodyear intended and the consequences were, well, predictable. Sunday's Auto Club 400 became NASCAR's version of high-stakes gambling.

Teams tried to dance gingerly around the concept that the weekend's tire had a shelf life of roughly 20-25 laps, and then after that, there were no guarantees. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all fell victim to tires that gave out prematurely.

In an ironic twist, drivers have long spoke of having a tire with more give and drop-off over longer runs. They -- along with many fans -- had grown weary of a compound that while fast, was also hard and didn't lend itself to good racing due to its lack of grip.

No, what Goodyear needed to do was build a softer tire, drivers said. A compound which put the ability to manage wear back in their hands and gave crew chiefs the opportunity adjust chassis setups accordingly.

Those who pushed too hard for too long would suffer the wrath of a flat tire. While those who exercised guile and patience would be rewarded -- just as Busch was as he accepted the giant surfboard for winning on the Southern California track.

"It's up to the team's discretion if you're going to have a problem or not," said third-place finisher Kurt Busch. "By no means is this a problem for Goodyear, it's actually a thumbs-up for NASCAR allowing the teams to get aggressive in all areas."

But Goodyear had long gone away from soft tires for an obvious reason: safety. A softer compound is more prone to exploding and with speeds approaching 200 mph; it was a risk the tire manufacture didn't want to take, understandably.

So what happens from here? Does Goodyear stay the course and put the onus on teams to strike a balance between speed and reliability, or will it roll out a harder compound having proved that softer tires are from a bygone era?

The answer isn't complex.

Although opinions are varied, the consensus seems that Sunday's failures were a result of teams not following protocol and stepping outside the 20 to 22 lbs of air pressure Goodyear recommended. According to NASCAR officials, some teams were running as low as 14 lbs of pressure.

"(Teams) have a lot of tools to use if they choose to do so," said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "But the tires weren't wearing. At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that's why the failures."

It also can't be ignored that of the many failures Sunday, many of the drivers involved were from the same organizations. Three of four Hendrick Motorsports teams had known troubles, as did both Team Penske cars. The evidence suggests this was more than a coincidence.

And while Sunday may have had a crapshoot feel to it at times, motor sports in almost all forms has always been about a test of man and machine. Attrition and the ability to withstand the rigors of a 400-mile plus race used to be paramount to winning in NASCAR. But as reliability improved significantly, the challenge of endurance evolved into the routine.

That changed Sunday. There were no guarantees and the element of "What's going to happen next?" became enthralling as first Johnson, then Gordon tried to coax their cars to the finish.

Neither was successful.

"Our team believes it's too low of air pressure and that's what those were doing to get them to wear funny and essentially blow out during the run," Kyle Busch said. "... Overall the performance of the tires I felt like were fine.

"It's sort of like playing with fire. If you pour too much gas on it or let too much air out of it, the thing is going to go boom."

Instead, the driver who persevered best was the same driver who withstood similar zaniness a year ago to win. And that, too, is no coincidence even if he's again the forgotten man.

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