As if racing in a thicket of traffic at nearly 200 mph weren't stressful enough, NASCAR drivers at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Saturday night had to race fraught with fear of blowing a tire with no warning other than the "BAM!" of the explosion, followed by a hard crash into a concrete wall.
If drivers wondered beforehand about the limits of Goodyear's toughest racing radials, they learned all too well shortly after the UAW-GM 500 got under way.
The combination of track-record speeds, 3,400-pound stock cars, and the punishment of the superspeedway's revamped asphalt surface proved disastrous for nearly every interested party: the 160,000 fans in the stands, the TV audience and, most significantly, the drivers, who took turns slamming into the wall as a succession of cars suddenly careened out of control when right-front tires failed.
Jimmie Johnson won the race of attrition despite alternator problems and tire woes of his own. It was his fourth victory of the year and fourth consecutive at Lowe's, and it moved him into a tie with Tony Stewart for first in the standings for the 2005 NASCAR championship.
Roush Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle finished second and third, respectively.
While Johnson had ample reason to celebrate in Victory Lane, track president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler braced for an earful from drivers who blamed him for having ruined one of NASCAR's more competitive speedways by grinding sections of its quirky surface in an effort to engineer more passing and excitement. The changes to the track, made prior to NASCAR's 600-mile race at the track in May, turned that event into a crash-fest instead.
Wheeler assured drivers he had done everything possible to correct the damage by re-grinding the surface in a more consistent fashion, then coating it with rubber to keep cars from spinning out. But it was clear early on Saturday that the remedy created other ills. Chief among them: Cars gripped the track so well it enabled drivers to race at record speeds, which generated more heat and abuse than the tires could withstand -- particularly if they weren't inflated to recommended air pressure. Instead of lasting the customary 60 laps or so, tires started blistering and blowing out at fewer than 30 laps (roughly every 45 miles).
One after another, drivers who slammed the wall after tire failures climbed out of their cars and groused to anyone within earshot that they hadn't even been pushing their cars to the limit, they were so fearful about a blowout.
"This is the biggest joke in racing that I've ever seen with tires going down," said Kevin Harvick, who hit the wall on Lap 171. "It's just terrible. . . . Everybody is out there just knowing that at any moment the tire could pop. It's pretty disgusting and terrible for our sport."
Asked what NASCAR could do, Harvick sniped, "Throw the checkered flag and get the hell out of here."
Goodyear officials declined to blame the track.
"We've got a situation where everything is increased: The speeds are higher, the forces are greater," said Phil Holmer, Goodyear's stock-car racing tire manager. "Just about everything is increased. I'm not going to blame Humpy. He tried to do something that was right."
NASCAR intervened multiple times. Twice during the race NASCAR officials threw the caution flag expressly so teams could check tire wear. On advice from Goodyear, they ordered crew chiefs midway through the event to pump tires with no less than 50 pounds of air pressure. And after points leader Tony Stewart punctured a tire when he ran over debris from a wreck, they halted the race for nearly 10 minutes, throwing the red flag on Lap 255 of the 334-lap event, to sweep up errant cars parts and sheet metal left by so many collisions with the wall. Stewart ended up 25th.
While it was a frustrating night for drivers, it was a miserable show for fans.
Mindful of the likelihood of tire failures, NASCAR officials urged drivers to show patience and "be around at the finish." Competitors took the words to heart, particularly after some of the sport's best crashed, including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. So they lengthened the distance between their bumpers, treating other cars as if they were lepers, and circled the track single-file, favoring the high side of the banked oval to minimize the distance they'd careen if their car suddenly shot toward the wall. The procession was a far cry from what NASCAR fans pay to see. Instead of side-by-side action, daring passes and occasional paint-swapping, fans were served up a parade that had to be halted for a wreck every 20 or 30 laps.
"They had a good race track, and they messed with it, and messed it up and ruined it tonight for everybody," said Sterling Marlin, among the casualties.
"The whole night it was somewhat like playing Russian Roulette," Jamie McMurray said. "You would just wait for a tire to blow out and hope it wasn't yours."