Dale Earnhardt Jr., on a bright, sunny, hot Kansas afternoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
This Kansas 400 is shaping up as more of a wild card event in the playoffs than had been expected.
Is this newly repaved track now the toughest track in NASCAR?
Maybe so, considering the work Goodyear engineers have been doing.
This asphalt is barely a year old, and it's still extremely smooth and slick...which drivers do not like. Drivers prefer well-aged asphalt, which wears tires over an 80-mile fuel run -- like Atlanta.
This smooth surface doesn't wear tires, and at these speeds that generates a lot of heat.
Last fall's 400 here was a brutal affair, too many blown right-fronts.
The spring 400 also had some tire issues, with some drivers, like Kyle Busch, calling them too hard.
So for Sunday's Kansas 400, Round Four of the championship chase, drivers will have new tires all around.
The right-sides are the latest version of Goodyear's new hybrids. The outer nine inches of the 12-inch tread is the same compound used here in the spring, and at Michigan in both races this season; the inner three inches is a new, even harder compound. It has never been raced.
With the right-sides thus harder, Goodyear felt comfortable enough to soften the left-sides, which are a new tire, never run either.
Goodyear's test of the new setup was in mid-July with Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman, all very hard drivers.
Kyle Busch, here in the spring 400, couldn't get much grip....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So far driver reaction is either mixed or muted.
A wary Jimmie Johnson, after a hastily arranged special test session Thursday, says "After working through the new tire, we had the car more comfortable and got some speed out of it. But I think there is a lot of learning to do.
"...a lot of evolving for all the teams, through today's practice and tomorrow's practice.
"The tire acts different.
"I think it's achieving what Goodyear wants to. So directionally it's a good move.
"But it's just different.
"It's going to take us time to get all the speed out of it we want... and to understand the tire exactly like we need to."
Jamie McMurray, looking forward to a NASCAR play-day test session at Charlotte later this month (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jamie McMurray, who tested the new Atlanta hybrids, says he feels "a little less grip with this tire."
However he says the new setup doesn't seem to be as sensitive to camber -- the angle at which the tire sits on the track. "Most of the time at these fast tracks, the more camber you run, the faster you go. At the same time, the more you run, the bigger threat of blowing the tire out.
"There's a fine line of speed versus risk.
"This tire doesn't seem to be sensitive."
McMurray says "that's good, in that it's a safer tire.
"All around, I don't see any issue with it. It's a little bit slower, but it's the same for everybody."
NASCAR itself has a major 2014 test planned for Charlotte Motor Speedway Monday Oct. 14th, when the track should be well rubbered in after that weekend's 500.
McMurray says part of that test will include putting aerodynamic 'wickers' on the cars, and larger rear spoilers.
"After the test I would probably have a much better idea of what I think they should implement and what would make the racing better," McMurray says.
"I don't really think the racing is that bad right now. Certainly track position is key; it has always been important. I don't think they're ever going to get any type of a race car that to be in the back is going to benefit you.
"I like the idea that they’re trying. And they're trying some off-the-wall ideas -- stuff you would think would never happen in NASCAR.
"So it will be interesting to see how that works out."
Jimmie: Goodyear's new tires here at Kansas will demand more work by the crews (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)