Denny Hamlin: back in the game again...but too soon? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
You want some more danger in this sport?
Okay, you've got it.
Some have complained that stock car racing has simply become too safe these past few years, with all NASCAR's safety innovations, wondering if that's become a drag on fan-appeal.
Well, let's crank things up for you:
How about 214 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
That may be too fast for good side-by-side racing, and Indy is well-known for single-file racing.
But this new element of danger may be part of the sport's marketing game plan.
-- Some crews here are shaking their heads about Denny Hamlin's decision to get back in Joe Gibbs' stocker here.
NASCAR officials finally signed off Hamlin's move Thursday evening, and Friday afternoon he was back at the wheel, six weeks after suffering a serious back injury, a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra.
Maybe Hamlin and some NASCAR executives should take another look at this video: Tony Stewart and the Big One
"This is how we make our living," Clint Bowyer says. "Any time a racer is okayed to get back in a car he's going to do it.
"It's the nature of the beast. Yes, at these plate tracks the level of intensity is more than at other tracks. The last 15 laps your odds of getting in a big crash are pretty good."
Brad Keselowski, suited up for battle at Talladega. If he gets caught up in a Big One, he'll be glad for every one of those safety devices (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Back injuries, of various sorts, are not uncommon in this sport, so it's easy to walk through the Talladega garage and find crewmen who know exactly what Hamlin is going through.
One theme, by a team owner who suffered a broken L1 himself a few years back and needed 10 weeks of therapy before getting back to normal, questioned Hamlin's decision and suggested he should wait till he's fully healthy: "Why is Denny rushing it? It's only a couple more weeks, and the championship is out of reach, and he wants to be able to play ball with his kids when he's 40, doesn't he?"
Hamlin plans to run till the first caution of Sunday's Talladega 500.
But first-lap, or early-race, crashes are always a possibility, as races at Texas, Michigan and Darlington over the years have shown.
However Hamlin has missed four of the year's nine races, and he's 28th in the standings, 126 points out of the top-10, and 198 points behind tour leader Jimmie Johnson. (Defining 198 points: Hamlin could win the next four Sprint Cup events, lead the most laps, while Johnson suns himself on the beach on vacation...and Johnson would still be points in front of Hamlin.)
NASCAR's decision could also be questioned in light of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation -- he suffered a 'secret' concussion in a Kansas crash last summer, and then suffered a second concussion here in the fall 500. Those two injuries sidelined him for two weeks and took him out of title contention.
Jimmy Makar (R), team manager for Joe Gibbs' three teams, and Denny Hamlin, pondering Talladega strategy. Will Hamlin go the full 500 miles, or get out at the first caution? He's playing it cagey right now. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That's not the only thing stock car crews here are shaking their heads about.
Danger is certainly a bigger element this season in NASCAR racing than the last few years. How else to explain all this: The new 2013s are lightning fast.
Kansas, scorching fast already on last fall's repave then at 204 mph into Turn One, was sporting T1 speeds at sizzling 209 mph two weeks ago.
Now Goodyear's two-day Indianapolis Motor Speedway test reaffirmed that, leaving teams just shaking their heads: Jeff Gordon, on fresh tires in the relative cool of the morning, was timed at 214 mph into T1. That's about seven mph quicker than last summer's speed at that point on the track. And Gordon's full lap at 187.5 mph (48.07) was remarkably faster than last year's pole winning speed at 182.763 mph. Even some of the slowest testing this week hit 186 mph.
Consider this -- the first turn at Indy is a sharp left-hander, with only nine degrees of banking. Compare that to turn one at Richmond, which is 14 degrees.
Speeds are up across the board in NASCAR this season, and credit Goodyear for keeping up with it all.
Still, there may have been some tight jaws at Indianapolis, according to teams testing there. Drivers running: Trevor Bayne, Kurt Busch, Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, and Tony Stewart.
Goodyear tested more than one tire setup, and it had drivers running last summer's Brickyard 400 tires as a baseline.
According to men at the test some of the new right-front tires were into the cords after just four laps when the track was green, and the longest drivers could run on the new setup, after the track got rubbered in, was only 17 laps -- 42 miles. On last year's Brickyard tire setup drivers were able to run 30 laps -- 75 miles.
Some teams said they anticipated Goodyear running another tire test at Indy (which will be busy for the rest of the month or so with Indy 500 preparations); however Goodyear's Greg Stucker said he felt comfortable that things could be decided by his engineers without another test. Finding testing time during a season is difficult at best, and Goodyear has already tested at Daytona and has testing planned next week at Chicago and the following week at New Hampshire.
One crew chief says he expects Goodyear to decide on running last summer's tire setup, though Stucker would not confirm that.
Indy, with its grooves, has very aggressive tire wear...which created some issues back in 2008.
The 2013s are not only faster than the 2012s but the balance of the new cars is different, with more left-side weight, cambered rear-ends, and a lot more downforce.
The weather this week at Indy was sunny and mid-80s.
"Yes, we did run some pretty high numbers," Stucker says. "But that may not be the race tire either.
"We tried a lot of different things, including some stuff that had a higher level of grip...but right now that doesn't look like it will work with this race package.
"We're comfortable where we ended up.
"We will go back and look through all the numbers and decide where we're going to go."
On last summer's tire setup the race pace about half a second a lap quicker than last year's race pace.
Greg Stucker, Goodyear's NASCAR track boss...and one of the coolest under pressure in this sport (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Speed? "Yes, speeds are faster," Len Wood says. "The speeds at Indy were up. We just looked it up, and speeds now at Indy are up six seconds a lap over what we ran there when we first show up in the mid-1990s. We're closing in on Daytona speeds at Indy."
And Michigan International Speedway isn't that far off. That track was just repaved last year and speeds were astounding, with last year's car: Greg Biffle hit 218 mph on the straight, and Marcos Ambrose set a track record at 203.241 mph -- nine mph quicker than the old record.
If this new 2013 stocker is a solid five mph quicker than last year's stocker, well, you can see the issues.
"But Michigan wound up being a good race," Woods adds.
"At what point do you have to do something about it? I don't know.
"That's part of what this racing is -- the speed.
"If it was not dangerous, there wouldn't be as much interest.
"This is not the safest sport...though it is safer these days for the drivers.
"Still, look at Denny Hamlin's accident at Fontana -- these drivers can still get hurt."
Hey, we're delivering.
Goodyear's hard-working tire busters are working overtime this month, with NASCAR testing nearly every week (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)