Dale Jarrett (R) and Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Credibility has long been a fragile item for this sport.
Hype may be in great supply, but credibility, well, that's another story.
And NASCAR's ham-fisted handling of the Denny Hamlin situation takes the credibility issue to a new low.
Dale Jarrett -- NASCAR champion, three-time Daytona 500 winner, two-time Brickyard 400 winner, and one of this sport's greatest-ever drivers -- said here Friday that NASCAR's $25,000 fine on Hamlin seriously jeopardizes this sport's credibility. "If a driver says this new 2013 car is just great, who now is going to believe him?" Jarrett asks.
Jarrett also says NASCAR should have handled any issues with Hamlin differently, perhaps not so publicly.
Here is what Jarrett said: http://bit.ly/X5XOJf
In fact Hamlin's now controversial post-Phoenix complaints about the new 2013s were generally ignored, until NASCAR itself raised the issue to headline news across the country.
That the 2013s need some tweaking would seem obvious to anyone who watched the season's first two races.
Hamlin simply pointed that out.
NASCAR's sharp reaction -- four days later -- was more than surprising. In some team haulers here men are simply aghast, shaking their heads in amazement.
Drivers are also talking among themselves about these 2013s and how differently they drive from the old cars.
It might not be a stretch to say some drivers and crews are almost bamboozled by the new cars.
There is one school of thought that NASCAR might quietly loosen the rules to let teams try to figure out how to make these cars drive better.
And one key figure in this 2013 debate says bluntly that no one really understands why these new cars just aren't doing the job.
A great day for ducks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Cold, drenching rain washed out Friday's action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, putting Brad Keselowski, as the sport's current champion, on the pole for Sunday's 12 noon (PDT). In Thursday testing, teams on qualifying setups were running at near-record speed, and a track record performance had been expected. This is one of the fastest 1-1/2-mile tracks on the tour, and Goodyear brings its toughest tires here.
The story of the moment, and the reason for Hamlin's post-Phoenix complaints, is that the new 2013s haven't performed all that well so far.
For a project that kicked off in earnest in May 2010, these 2013s simply weren't ready for the Daytona 500 or Phoenix 500.
Daytona was a single-file snooze-fest; Phoenix wasn't much better, with 40 percent fewer passes for the lead under green than last year's race.
And NASCAR executives get very upset when someone points that stuff out. Last fall NASCAR put out the word it didn't want to hear gripes about the new car.
But now, two races in, there seems more than a small element of panic about why the new cars aren't making for exciting racing, as they've been hyped.
A cold, rainy Friday at the track. Is early March really the best time of year for a race in Las Vegas? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
From an engineering standpoint what could be done to create more passing during these races?
Well, one top engineer (who, for obvious reasons, prefers not to be named) says most problems with the 2013s could be solved with better tires -- tires that 'give up' speed over a 100-mile run. Goodyears the past several years have, in the eyes of some, been simply too good, almost never wearing out.
Goodyear's Stu Grant has been hearing that for several years now, and he's a bit defensive about it. Blaming all the 2013's problems on tires, Grant says, might be a bit disingenuous.
Here's the argument for softer tires: the new race car is 150 pounds light, it has better balance, it has more downforce (except at Daytona and Talladega), front-camber gives more grip, rear-camber gives more grip too, and the car has much more speed. All those points, the argument goes, say Goodyear could go with softer tires.
The current tires, it is argued, are so good that even with fresher tires a driver can't pass.
"Thirty percent of last year's races were gas-mileage snoozers," one engineer says. "This year we could see as many as 50 percent of the races as gas-mileage races."
NASCAR apparently plans more tests of the 2013s, though it is unclear where or when.
Grant and Greg Stucker, Goodyear's NASCAR tire director, hear the 'softer tire' debate far too often.
Paint them exasperated: "They want us to bring better tires? Just what do they want us to do? " Stucker asks.
"When you say 'softer tires,' well that grip comes with other attributes, like more heat or wear or durability. You have to manage all those other things. It's not as easy as just bringing something softer and going faster."
Goodyear's Greg Stucker (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One major issue with the 2013s is that the rules were in flux throughout last season and changed dramatically late in the year. In fact rules weren't firm until just last month. And parts and pieces have been in short supply, for some reason.
Another point here for Goodyear is that it has to bring 3500 to 4000 tires to the track each weekend, all hand-built tires, on a production schedule that typically starts in late September for the following spring's races.
Given all that, Goodyear has played it conservatively, waiting to see just how the new car develops before committing to radically new tires.
Thursdays' testing here showed no major surprises, Stucker says. "We didn't see temperatures way out of line. Everyone seemed comfortable. There was wear early on, until the track started to take rubber. Then everything seemed to be in line.
"The real question is what will happen when everyone is out there together in race configuration -- how do things change?"
The longest any driver ran a set of tires Thursday was 20 laps. A full gas stop segment Sunday should be about 60 laps.
Las Vegas is one of the stock car tour's toughest tracks on tires (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It would seem this whole 2013 car is just a simple physics problem: the tracks are the same, the drivers are the same, the engines are the same, everyone goes in the same circles. How hard can it be to build a race car that a driver can race?
At the moment it looks like everyone wants to blame someone else, to point the finger elsewhere.
And to the argument that this is a new car so we should all be patient....well, the Daytona 500 is this sport's biggest race, and everything should have been focused on bringing a competitive car, 43 competitive cars, to SpeedWeeks.
That didn't happen. The car at Daytona was simply not ready for prime time.
Do NFL fans look at new quarterbacks debuting in the Super Bowl and say 'Aw, just give them time to develop.'
"Let's go back to the focus of the car," Stucker says. "When we all started, the new car was going to have less downforce. Way less. Less aerodynamic dependency. And the question was what can we do to provide more mechanical grip, to replace the aero-grip.
"Well, as the car evolved, it now actually has more downforce.
"We can do something (new) with tires, but we've taken the approach 'Let's see where we are with the car before we start making adjustments. Let's understand what's different about the car and how it races.
"This is the first 1-1/2-mile, so let's see what the car needs, and go from there. Once we get through Fontana (in two weeks) we'll have a better understanding what the car likes and we can start building on that test program."
So this weekend's races will be run on last year's proven tires.
"The car may need something different from what we've raced in the past," Stucker says. "That's why we've done a couple of tests, and why we'll be testing at Indianapolis (April), Daytona (April), Chicago (May), Loudon, and back to Phoenix late summer or early fall. "
One issue at Phoenix was that when Goodyear ran its tire test there last August, the 2013 car was in a much different configuration than what was actually on the track last week.
"To be honest, the new Phoenix tires (used last week) didn't translate into as much grip as we anticipated," Stucker said.
One problem is that the new asphalt compounds used on NASCAR tracks may be very durable but they are also very slick, forcing Goodyear to use thin-gauge tires, to avoid heat build-up.
"We have to design a tire that can manage the heat," Grant says. "So we have to bring a thin-gauge tire with a relatively hard compound."
As the sport's defending champion, Brad Keselowski didn't even have to break a sweat to get the pole for Sunday's Las Vegas 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Another argument is that the front bumper-splitter (that weird piece of flat aluminum across the front of the car, that teams lower to seal air from under the car) is part of the problem. Eliminate the splitter and things would get better.
The problem with that argument is that that is just what NASCAR tried at Texas and Kansas in 2013 testing last fall. Drivers complained they couldn't drive the cars or get close to each other.
So NASCAR put the splitter back on the car.
Somewhat lost in all the Hamlin furor is that only 44 cars showed up here for the 43-car field. It looks like at least five teams that NASCAR had anticipated running full-time this season have been forced to cut back their Cup schedules considerably, because of financial problems (perhaps including the recent shakeup in purse money for the bottom finishers each Sunday).
And those blown front tires at Phoenix? Some indications are Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, who both had such issues, had less than adequate brake duct cooling. The other three who had blown tires were apparently from excessive front-end chassis setups, Goodyear says.
Danica Patrick, one of six drivers blowing tires at Phoenix because of melted sealing beads (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)