The tires going on Brad Keselowski's car Sunday at Kansas won't drastically change the race, but they could improve the sport.
If you're looking for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway to count as one of the most memorable events in series history, you'll likely be disappointed. The track surface is still so new that high speeds and single-file racing are the name of the game.
But if you're more of the type encouraged by reaching success over the long term, Sunday's race at a track not known for incredible action might be a bit more interesting.
That's because NASCAR is trotting out its second attempt at improving the on-track action with a new type of race tire that is borrowing technology developed for street tires. However, it might be the tires NASCAR teams are used to racing that make the most immediate difference in Sunday's race.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, provider of the tires used by teams in all three NASCAR national series, will fit each Sprint Cup team with right side tires that feature what the company calls a "multi-zone tread" in an effort to boost traction and grip while preserving endurance and, of course, safety. It's the second time this season that Goodyear has used the tire following its rollout at Atlanta Motor Speedway in early September.
That race and tire combination was heavily promoted by the sport's defending champion Brad Keselowski when he used words like "revolutionary" and called it the "future of the sport" in a lead up to the event. Those words then fell shallow when the Atlanta race didn't exactly light the world on fire.
Fortunately, the NASCAR hype machine about the tire—it features two separate compounds on each half of the tire to better blend the endurance and grip factors—has been rightfully turned to low for the Kansas weekend. Still, there's a good chance that the race cars this weekend may behave quite a bit differently than they did during the first race of 2013 at Kansas in April thanks to changes made on the left side of the car.
“I know tire wear was really low," Jimmie Johnson said of the April race. "Goodyear and NASCAR didn’t like the fact there wasn’t any tire wear and that is why they tested a couple of times … They are trying to create the right tire fall-off so we can have that side-by-side racing that is everybody’s goal.”
That low tire wear on Kansas' smooth surface contributed to higher speeds, cars that were more finicky to drive and less opportunities for pit strategy to play a difference in race strategy since many teams could make the tires last multiple fuel runs before a replacement was needed. Those concerns led NASCAR to a test in July with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman to find a new solution for the fall race.
The result was the selection of the new multi-zone tire for the right side of the cars and a new left side compound. The multi-zone tire for Kansas is only similar to the Atlanta tire because of the new construction method. They otherwise use wildly different individual compounds.
Consider Kyle Busch as a driver more looking forward to the impact of that left side tire.
"They changed the left-side tire compound, so we’re not on that treacherous left that everybody spins out and crashes on, including myself three times," Busch said.
Indeed, the left side compound may have the greatest impact on the race because drivers will have an improved feel for the race track. Look no further than Busch's incidents or Jeff Gordon's qualifying crash during the April race for evidence that control was often akin to walking the edge of a cliff: Just one step too far over the edge was all it took to plummet to the bottom. With a better feel for the left side tire—partially made possible by the added durability and grip of the innovative right tire—drivers should be able to race a bit more aggressively.
But just like Atlanta, it's too presumptive to think the updated tires in use at Kansas will make a substantial difference in the quality of the racing. Aerodynamic advantage issues still plague the sport and, for now, tend to override incremental differences in tire changes.
Still, Sunday's race and the sport's willingness to try new technology is a sensible and smart direction. Keselowski may have jumped the gun when he talked about how the tires could forever change and improve the sport before the Atlanta race. Instead, the new tires should be treated like baby steps in a long process.
Give NASCAR and Goodyear officials some time. Before we know it, these experiments may suddenly make a big difference.
Quotations obtained firsthand from NASCAR team transcripts and news releases.