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Looks like a great summer for sports 'dinosaurs' like Lance Armstrong, Tom Watson...and Mark Martin

  Mark Martin is winning more than anyone else in NASCAR this season, and he's fastest at Indy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Mark Martin?!
   Yessiree. The ageless star, the NASCAR tour's biggest winner so far this season, and fresh off victory at Chicago, is lining up for what would be his first chance to kiss the bricks in Sunday's Brickyard Allstate 400 – he was setting the pace in Friday's practice sessions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Rick Hendrick Chevy.
   With weather a possible issue, and with nightmares about last summer's tire wear problems, teams worked a lot on race setup, rather than pure qualifying setups for Saturday morning's pole runs (10 a.m.).
   So Martin (180.643 mph), though fastest of the 46 drivers making runs Friday (and just a tick quicker than Juan Pablo Montoya), wasn't really the big story of the day: it was Goodyear's tires.
   And Goodyear's NASCAR field boss Greg Stucker was all smiles after the final practice sessions.
   The most laps any driver put on a set of tires was 27 (by Kyle Busch). That's almost 70 miles – much better than the 10 laps teams could barely manage last summer here.
   This grooved surface tends to be very abrasive, which complicated Goodyear's engineering.
   In the end, after numerous tests here, with more than a dozen drivers, Goodyear's Stucker seems confident his men have solved the problem.
   "We were all disappointed when we left here last year, we knew we had to go to work, and we did, and it shows," Stucker says.
   "You still have a few butterflies Friday morning. But we felt we'd asked all the right questions and found all the right answers. We tried to be as thorough as we could be. And those last two tests here were dress-rehearsals for this.
   "We feel we're good….but we were still a little apprehensive Friday. But once we saw the track 'taking rubber,' we were confident.
   "We built on every test. We did a good job of identifying the problem last fall; and we had a couple of solutions…but we felt those tires were too hard and we felt we could do better. We knew how hard we could go. So we knew we had to go to work to give these guys some grip.
  "A lot of good engineering work went into this. We did our homework. We asked all the tough questions and made sure we had good answers. A lot of good analysis and research went into this.
   "This is what was needed. The solution here was compounding and materials – a different approach.
   "The great thing is this will help us build from here and use some of this at other tracks. We've already tested this tire at Bristol on Trucks and Nationwide; and we'll run this right-side there. That concrete surface tends to take a while to take rubber, so this tire is a good solution there.
    "We go back to test Dover (also concrete) in a few weeks, and something along these lines might work there too.
    "One year ago here, before the race, we knew wear was high, but we weren't expecting what happened during the race."
   That is the wear continued to be excessive; the track never 'took' rubber. The tire compound then appeared very dry, creating clouds of black dust. These new tires are much stickier.
   "Last year we were all just very disappointed," Stucker said. "We're all here to put our best foot forward…and last year we didn't do that.
   "But as disappointed as we were last year, I think at the end of Sunday we'll be just as proud for what we've accomplished.
   "I feel we've covered all the bases, so I feel very good going into the race."
   Even if there's Saturday night rain, to wash the track, Stucker says he feels comfortable with these tires. "We think we're good for a gas stop right off the bat, no matter the conditions," Stucker said. "When we tested in June it had rained considerably since the Indy 500, so we've already tested on a green track.
   "We've got a few teams we're still working with, checking tire temperatures and looking at their setups. But overall, from a wear perspective, everything looks good."
   Champagne time?
  Stucker grinned: "Let's wait till after Sunday."
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Brickyard 400 Friday practice


    Certainly drivers are offering no criticism. And all this praise appears to be genuine, not just hype. Checking the tires out myself things look good. And Goodyear engineers are positively ecstatic.
    Jeff Gordon is a believer:
   "They have created a great tire. It is absolutely.
    "If anybody has an issue with tires, it is not because they are wearing out.
    "They have done a great job. They have backed it up with testing, and they have now proven it here at the race track.
    "What I think is most crucial is the practice we just had -- and I think I could have probably run all day long on one set of tires if I wanted to.
    "We had about 20 laps (50 miles) on a set of tires, and there was so much left in them.
    "Now you only have so much time (in practice), and you want to make adjustments…..but we could have run all day on one set of tires if we wanted to, the wear is that good.
    "The wear is only going to get better as we put rubber down on the track, which this tire does. That (more rubber) is going to change the grip level and the balance, but the wear is only going to get better."
   So, considering this track and this race is so much about track position, does Gordon look for some interesting tire strategies in the 400?
   "Yes," Gordon says. "There seems to be some pretty good grip in new tires…but they do go away fast, as far as the grip.
    "But I think the wear is good enough to where definitely guys could take some risks -- track position being more key than fresher tires."
    Gordon has been such a cheerleader for these tires the past month or so, it's curious. But Gordon is not a man to let an issue just fade away if he's worried. And he seems confident.
    "During the (June) test I knew we were in great shape," Gordon said, referring to the test on a green track, after days of rain. "You always wonder if it rains and the rubber gets washed away, then what is going to happen.
    "But the first run out (in June), we ran 10 laps that first run out….I could feel the grip going away, so it was certainly in the back of my mind that I wondered what the wear was like -- because the first run out is always the heaviest wear at any track we go to but especially here.
    "We came in, and they looked brand-new. That confirmed everything."
    Still it was Friday's practice sessions that appeared to seal the deal for Gordon and his fellow drivers.
    "You can do all the testing in the world, and say all the positive things you want…but until you get here, with this group of media, and all the competitors out on the track, and see how everybody’s cars are reacting to it, that is when it really counts," Gordon said.
   "And from what I hear -- across the board, all the way up and down the garage -- everybody felt good about it."

Jeff Gordon says Goodyear's new Indy tires will make for a heck of a show.....but let's wait and watch some of those double-file shootout restarts....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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