I had a feeling, and so did many others in NASCAR, that the results of the testing on tires confiscated in California would be eye opening, and they were quite eye opening. Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, the two hottest drivers in NASCAR, had tires that were confiscated by NASCAR officials after the race at Phoenix International Raceway. Then, after the race in California several more tires were confiscated. Harvick was again a suspect and his tires were confiscated, plus tires of his teammate Kurt Busch and those of Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman and Paul Menard. Shortly afterward, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell, said in an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the “audits” were routine.
At Martinsville during a press conference Alan Gustafson and Chad Knaus, crew chiefs of two of the most successful drivers at that track discussed the confiscation of tires.
“In my experience there is a lot of smoke around that,” Gustafson said of the tire confiscations. “There is a lot of talk, there is a lot of dialogue and there are a lot of rumors in the garage. Yeah, I think it is obvious that some people think something is going on and is NASCAR reacting to that? Or, do they feel uncomfortable with what is going on? I don’t know that answer. But I do think that it is something that is on the forefront of a lot of people minds. Obviously NASCAR is trying to make sure that we are all on a level playing field and if anybody is violating that they will pay the price, which they reminded us this morning is very stiff. That is all I know. Anything beyond that is speculation, besides the fact it is a hot topic.”
When asked if NASCAR had warned the crew chiefs he responded, “I don’t want to say warned. Warned may not be the right term, just reminded.”
The media pressed on and asked what he thought. His response was what I would expect from a crew chief at racing’s highest level.
“Do I think something is going on?” Gustafson said. “I mean I’m busy on Sunday’s. I don’t really watch what is going on. It’s hard for me to say. I don’t feel that I have enough information that would warrant a comment.”
Knaus added, “I don’t know if there is anything or not. I really don’t. Like Alan said, I’m busy on Sunday and I don’t have a lot of friends in the garage. So, I don’t talk too much. I don’t talk to anybody else either so it’s okay. My friends are outside of racing. So, I don’t know what is going on. I really don’t. I know I sent Richard Buck (Managing Director of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) a text and said ‘hey man could we poke holes in our tires is that okay?’ He sent me a text back and said ‘absolutely not’. So that is all I know.”
Jeff Gordon, driver for Gustafson, was very vocal at Martinsville about tires and managing them.
“I just found out about that this morning when I got here,” Gordon said of the confiscation of tires. “I didn’t know that it was going to the level that it’s gone to. I think a lot of us have speculated for years about different ways to bleed air from tires. I’ve been saying for years… and probably in here… that we need bleeder valves. We just do. I came from sprint cars where they’re built into the wheel. You set them. They may not be advanced enough for what we need in a Cup car and Cup tire, but it just makes sense. It’s crazy what we do with air pressures. These big heavy cars build the air pressures up so much that we’re always trying to start them real low, which causes issues for Goodyear and the teams. Then they just increase, increase, increase. So it makes sense to me that we should have bleeder valves. But because we don’t, it’s pushing the teams to do things.”
Gordon then mentioned the infamous tire accusations when he won 13 races in 1998. “I know you threw that out about 1998,” he said. “But I can tell you that we weren’t ever doing anything like that in 1998. I know that people were speculating what we were doing, or if we were doing it, Ray (Evernham) never told me. After all these years, I think I would have known about that. I’ve heard a lot of things with valve caps and poking holes in tires for years. But I’ve never seen it done. I’ve never had proof that it was done. So it’s very interesting to me that NASCAR is investigating this further. I look forward to seeing what comes out of it. To me, if they find a way to stop that, if it’s really going on, I get excited about our chances because I know we’re not doing it so it will close the gap for us to whoever may be doing it.”
Denny Hamlin, the eventual race winner at Martinsville had extremely strong words saying before the race, “My guess is that if they said stop then they’ve seen something. If it’s out there and they know about it, you should be gone forever. That’s a major, major thing and this isn’t like the old rodeo days of being able to go out there and run a big motor or soak the tires – this is a professional sport and people alter tires — that’s a big, big deal. Definitely no room for it in the sport, that’s for sure. Hope they clamp down on that if they do find it and if they find it multiple times with somebody, they should have a permanent vacation somewhere.”
So when it was announced on Tuesday that NASCAR was hammering the No 31 team of Richard Childress Racing I don’t believe that anyone was surprised. A staggering 75 point penalty was assessed to driver Ryan Newman (who fell to 26th in points from 6th) and the owner of the car. His crew chief, Luke Lambert, was fined $125,000 and suspended for six races. The team’s tire technician and an engineer were also suspended and fined.
In a prepared statement RCR said, “We understand the seriousness of the penalty. In fact, RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against ‘tire bleeding’ since the rumors began to surface last season. Once NASCAR provides us with the specific details of the infraction we will conduct a further internal investigation, and evaluate our options for an appeal.”
I’m not sure how I feel about all of this. It seems as if it’s been in practice for some time, the “bleeding” of tires. My understanding is that the teams were told to stop and one didn’t and they hammered them with the equivalent of almost two full races points. Of course, if the No 31 wins, it’s likely they still make the chase where new life is given. But, make no doubt, NASCAR has spoken loud and clear that it must end. I wonder who else will get the hammer before they all listen. Let’s wait to see if RCR appeals this.