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NASCAR experimenting with soft tire in Charlotte

Sports Xchange - Friday 19th May, 2017

NASCAR will continue its pursuit of aggressive new rules to help spice up the racing during the Monster Energy All-Star race in Charlotte, N.C.

While it is admirable of the sanctioning body to pursue better racing for its fans, one hopes this experiment doesn't blow up in its face.

In last year's exhibition race held annually in Charlotte, a new set of rules designed to create more action resulted in almost half of the field going a lap down. Even worse, nobody understood why as the race wore on, generating a lot of unhappy drivers and fans. It was the final All-Star race for outgoing series sponsor Sprint, which was also embarrassing.

This year's new angle for the race, which has rivaled Hollywood actors when it comes to facelifts, will be the use of an option tire -- a Goodyear radial with softer tread that will generate speeds up to a half-a-second per lap faster. If all goes well in Charlotte, NASCAR is considering using option tires in points races.

NASCAR's most recent experiment, racing in stages, has generally been acknowledged to produce more energetic racing and more interest in the early stages of events, all of which run at least three hours. An option tire may not get fans to tune in for the duration, but softer rubber does inherently introduce the prospect of late-race drama.

There's every reason to believe an option tire can generate more excitement in points races. The world's other two major circuit series -- Formula 1 and IndyCar -- each have used tire options successfully for years.

One need only look at the most recent Grand Prix in Barcelona for evidence that a tire choice can generate a thrilling finish. Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes team opted for softer tires in his final stop, forcing the leading Ferrari of Sebastien Vettel to also pit. That set up some wheel-to-wheel contact and a fight to the finish won by Hamilton.

The softer tires have at least one fan among NASCAR drivers in the form of Kyle Larson. The current points leader would welcome the use of a soft option tire in regular points races.

"I'm excited about it," Larson said about Saturday's 70-lap exhibition race where teams will be given one set of the faster option tires. "I hope that the option tire is a good thing, because I think that would be a cool kind of added thing for regular season races in the future. I'm sure NASCAR and Goodyear are trying to probably use this All-Star event as a test to see if it's going to work. I hope it does. I hope the racing is really exciting."

Goodyear officials have confirmed the company can produce option tires for regular season races. The official NASCAR stance is wait and see.

Depending on the outcome in Charlotte being satisfactory, why not bring a dimension to NASCAR racing that works so well in other forms of motor racing?

There's reason to believe that the option tire rules will be easier to administer than last year's complicated pit stop mandates.

Each team invited into the All-Star race will start the event with seven sets of prime tires and two sets of the softer optional tires. One of those sets of soft tires is for practice and the other for the race. Teams that race their way into the All-Star race in the preliminary event -- possibly using an option tire -- will also be given a fresh set of option tires.

In a season when NASCAR has introduced stages to its points races, this year's All-Star event will borrow from an older format that calls for three 20-lap stages and the final 10-lap stage.

Only 10 cars will qualify for the final 10 laps -- the 20-lap stage winners plus the drivers with the best average finish in the opening stages. It's possible a team could "burn" its lone set of option tires in one of the preliminary stages to guarantee making it to the final.

If a team chooses to use the optional tires, it must mount all four. If the choice is made to use the softer tires in the final 10-lap sprint that carries a $1 million purse, then the driver must line up behind any drivers who stay on the prime tires for the segment's restart.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it works out," Larson said. "I don't think you will have every car on the option tire for that final segment, but I could be wrong. Because there are going to be some people, I think, that will probably use it in that last segment before the final one to try and better their average position to lock into that top 10 for the final stage."

As in other series, the markings on the faster option tire will be different. Instead of Goodyear's traditional yellow lettering, the option tire will feature bright-green branding.

Goodyear chose green after conducting dynamic testing with different colors in use at 195 mph and determined that green stood out best. Generally, fans must rely on radio and TV announcers to stay informed about which driver is on which set of tires.

There are two potential drawbacks.

If the option tires reduce lap times by half a second, cars and drivers will be circulating around the 1.5-mile Charlotte track at very high rates of speed -- faster than ever before.

Speed itself could pose a problem. Tire give-up is acceptable and typical of softer rubber, but blown tires at such high speeds could be more than problematic.

In the long run, fans would be hard-pressed to claim NASCAR is not working at making the racing more exciting. The naysayers will have the usual field day with any change -- because it's not like it used to be. But strategic choices have always been crucial to winning points races and adding one more late-race option, if it proves to be safe, would surely thicken the plot.

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