NASCAR’s Pemberton: Fontana tire failures not a Goodyear problem

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After today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway was marked by a string of tire failures, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told reporters afterwards that the blame for the failures should not be put at Goodyear’s feet.

With seven laps to go, race leader Jimmie Johnson lost his chance to win when the left-front tire went down on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Three more tire failures ensued in the next five laps to set up the green-white-checkered finish of the race, which was won by Kyle Busch.

Multiple other drivers including Kevin Harvick (who lost two left rear tires alone), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Danica Patrick also suffered tire failures at some point during today’s race.

But Pemberton believes that aggressive setups on the part of the teams were at the root of those problems.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been on a path to add mechanical grip, give more options to the teams,” he explained. “We’ve opened up camber rules for grip in both the front and the rear of the car. They have a lot of tools to use if they choose to do so.

“But the tires weren’t wearing. At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that’s why the failures.”

Pemberton also said the teams asked for “aggressive tires” from Goodyear that they would need to manage and figure out how to get the most out of. Additionally, he said that some teams were running Goodyear tires with as low as 14 pounds of air, well below their recommended cold tire reading of 22 pounds.

Nonetheless, some of the drivers had different emotions on the subject following the race at Fontana.

Jeff Gordon was able to inherit the lead from Johnson after his tire failure, but had fallen farther behind Johnson prior to the incident because of a tire issue on his own car.

“I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened,” said Gordon, who wound up finishing 13th after losing out badly on the G-W-C restart. “They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off.

“When I saw the No. 48 had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end and I was just going as slow as I possibly could trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me.”

But neither his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or third-place finisher Kurt Busch would pin the blame on Goodyear.

Earnhardt, who finished, 12th, felt that ACS’ bumpy layout – particularly its backstretch – had more than a little to do with the failures.

“To be honest with you, the back straightaway is very rough and I think the tire can’t handle the load that it goes through on that back straightaway,” he said. “And it’s just tearing the tire up where the sidewall and tread are put together.

“…I feel bad for Goodyear. I think the tire is fine. I like the tire. It’s just those bumps. If you watch the cars go through there in slow motion, it shouldn’t be like that.”

Kurt Busch also noted NASCAR’s decision to give the teams more leeway in determining their mechanical set-ups.

“By no means is this a problem for Goodyear,” he said of the situation. “It’s just a thumbs-up for NASCAR for allowing teams to get aggressive in all areas.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.