How NASCAR drivers turned Bristol tyre debacle into show for the ages

Denny Hamlin won a controversial tyre race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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The 2024 Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was on the verge of becoming Goodyear‘s worst nightmare since the 2008 Brickyard 400, but they were likely thanking their lucky stars by the end.

Goodyear tyres struggled at an abnormal pace during the race, many starting to come apart less than thirty laps into the day. Things got so bad that NASCAR allocated an extra set of tyres to the teams, adding to the ten that they usually receive. This forced teams to quickly adopt a tyre conservation strategy, preventing them from going all out for the rest of the 500-lap event.

The tyre supplier pointed to the fact that Bristol laid down resin along the inside groove and not the traditional PJ1 TrackBite Traction Compound. Both are black substances used by tracks to improve tyre grip when a car goes over it, and Bristol has notoriously applied PJ1 liberally since 2016 to allow for the creation of another racing line. PJ1 proved to be controversial among drivers, prompting NASCAR to switch to resin following Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race.

Gary Stucker, Goodyear’s racing director, pointed out that although it was important for the tyres to wear down quickly and thus introduce more strategic driving, the resin ultimately did too much damage to the tyres.

Much like a cheese grater, the substance ended up shredding tyres down to their cords, and the loose rubber—known as “marbles”—resulted in a slippery racing surface.

Zane Smith, the race’s only retirement, was among the victims of this on Lap 31 when his car accumulated too many marbles along the low groove, causing his brakes to lock up and send him into the sideways car of Tyler Reddick.

“This is a request from NASCAR and the teams,” Stucker commented. “Now we’re trying to understand what’s different, why is the race track behaving differently this weekend than what it did a year ago.

“It’s the same package, it’s the same tyre combination. Obviously, the difference is resin was placed on the lower groove instead of PJ1, yet I still think the race track should be taking rubber as it did last fall.”

Drivers save the day

When fans and drivers picked up on the tyre failures, a collective groan erupted from the speedway. Some drew comparisons to the Cup race at Indianapolis nearly sixteen years ago, where tyre attrition was so severe that competition cautions had to be called every ten laps. Others feared it would spoil what was supposed to be a triumphant return to concrete after Bristol converted the Food City 500 into a dirt race for three years.

Despite the fears and a very bizarre two stages as drivers worked to save their tyres, fans still got quite a show. The race saw 54 lead changes between 16 drivers, the former the most at a short track in Cup Series history. T

yre strategy also led to bizarre sequences that included a full cycle of green-flag pit stops, a rarity at Bristol, and an unusually long, 121-lap stretch without a caution to end the race.

By the end, Denny Hamlin lapped nearly the entire field: only the top five managed to stay on the lead lap, the fewest at the Cup level since the 2004 MBNA America 400 “A Salute to Heroes” at Dover.

While this might sound like the hallmark of a bad race, drivers would disagree with that notion as many expressed pleasant surprise at what they had to do. Hamlin, ever an outspoken individual, went as far as to proclaim the race was “the first time the driver played a huge role in a long, long time. It’s a different philosophy from what we’re used to, which is everyone is just kind of on the gas all the time running the bottom, the shortest way around.”

The effort comes on the heels of his Joe Gibbs Racing team dominating at Phoenix, which also used the short track package like Bristol. While tyre wear was not a concern along the flat banking in Phoenix, JGR has all the momentum to start the 2024 season.

“I think if you change nothing, if you change absolutely nothing with the tyre, nothing with the resin, we came back next week, many teams would make big adjustments for their cars to help with tyre wear, and drivers would make adjustments,” Hamlin opined. “It would automatically get better no matter what.

“Do we want them wearing out in forty, fifty laps? No, that’s probably a little bit on the low end, but certainly this is what happens when you get tyre wear. There’s comers and goers. I guarantee you, surely you guys at NASCAR have sent out a stat pack of all the passes that happened today. There were times where I was leading, Ty (Gibbs) is just pressuring me, I’m like, ‘No, it’s not time. Go ahead.’ That’s how it used to be. It really used to be that way.”

Denny Hamlin won the first race at Bristol Motor Speedway of 2024 | NASCAR
Denny Hamlin won the first race at Bristol Motor Speedway of 2024 | NASCAR

Gibbs ultimately finished ninth, perhaps a letdown after having his finest outing as a Cup driver to date. He scored his first career stage win at the top level, then added another by claiming the second segment, and led the second most laps of the day with 137 behind Hamlin’s 163.

Incidentally, it was a right-rear tyre failure that prevented him from being a contender in the closing run, dropping him four laps down and forcing him to make up lost ground.

Alex Bowman, on the other hand, was one of the four who managed to avoid getting lapped by Hamlin. He was the highest finishing Chevrolet driver ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports colleague Kyle Larson.

“In the East Series and ARCA, you don’t have a lot of sets of tyres. That was something I excelled at and I feel like I was able to apply that today,” recalled Bowman, who finished fourth. “In the Cup Series, we run hard every single lap all race these days. Kind of fun to go back to that. Maybe too far back to that. But glad we ended up on the right end of it.”

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