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.”

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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