By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
On a bright, sunny day at Phoenix International Raceway, brake heat altered the day for several drivers and teams.
Two drivers — Ryan Newman and Paul Menard — who are looking at returning to the playoffs after making the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015, took big hits to their 2016 post-season hopes Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. Both drivers, who are teammates at Richard Childress Racing, slammed into the outside wall hard in separate accidents in the Good Sam 500.
Newman, who entered the day 17th in the championship standings, was the first to encounter problems when his tire popped without warning at lap 52.
“I don’t know if something failed in the cooling department or what the deal was,” a disappointed Newman said. “I didn’t do anything any different than I’ve ever done here before. Just definitely blew a right-front tire out and that was the end of our day with the Grainger Chevrolet.”
53 laps later, Menard, who was 18th in the standings entering the day, had the exact same issue.
“Well I was told that it wasn’t a tire failure on the No. 31, but then I just heard again that it was. I’m not really sure. To me it didn’t feel like what happened to us was a tire failure, it felt like something broke. As soon as it happened I had no brakes either.”
As a result of the crashes, Newman and Menard have now fallen to 25th and 26th in the standings respectively after finishing 38th and 39th in this race.
Newman and Menard weren’t the only drivers that suffered from this issue on the day however, as several others would succumb to tire failures.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also pounded the wall very hard after melting a bead on lap 162.
“I definitely didn’t want to do that going into turn one. That is just a product of using too much brake and getting the tire too hot,” Stenhouse explained. “Bummer we didn’t quite have the setup like we wanted but we will go back and get ‘em next week at California.”
This incident was extremely unfortunate for Stenhouse, as he was starting to open eyes this season. Going into this event, Stenhouse held the 11th position in the point standings. Stenhouse’s bid for his first-career Chase berth is a bit more uphill as his 37th-place finish has knocked him back to 18th in the standings.
Brad Keselowski also suffered a blown right rear tire on lap 226 after a 61-lap green flag run. Keselowski who was running 10th at the time, was able to keep his car from slamming into the wall, but did lose five laps as he cut a brake line from the shreds of tire that flapped around underneath his racecar.
Keselowski would go on to finish 29th, but the damage to his season is minimal as a win in Las Vegas last week basically insures that Keselowski will compete in the Chase this season.
Kasey Kahne, who was 13th in the standings going into Phoenix, would receive the final tire issue of the day when his car slammed into the outside retaining wall with five laps remaining. Kahne explained that he had to utilize the brake much more in Sunday’s race than he did in Saturday’s practice.
“The longer the race went I felt like I got looser. I used a lot of brake during the entire the race, which I was surprised about,” Kahne said. “Yesterday in practice I didn’t have to use the brake hardly at all and today with different grips I used it so much.”
Kahne would lose only one lap, and would finish 22nd. Kahne fell to 14th in the points, but due to how late his incident occurred Kahne is still in Chase contention for now.
Goodyear officials confirmed that the issues with the No. 31, No. 27, No. 17, No. 2 and No. 5 cars stemmed from excessive brake heat that ultimately caused melted beads on their tires. Before drivers and teams naturally blame Goodyear for bringing bad tires, race-winning crew chief Rodney Childers thinks they should look at themselves first.
“In all honesty that’s been going on here for the last few years. I can remember all the way back maybe two, three years ago when Earnhardt Jr. had a right rear bead melt, so every time we come here we just try to keep a bunch of air blowing on that right rear as much as we can to take care of it,” Childers said. “But we took one set of tires off and I think the wheel was about 315 degrees when we took it off. Part of it’s the learning curve, I think. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s not Goodyear’s fault for sure. They brought a good tire. It’s just the teams have got to learn more about that stuff and using more brake and all that.”
NASCAR of course swapped to a new lower-downforce package for 2016, which means that drivers have to spend more time on the brakes in order to make it through the corners than they have in the last several seasons. Apparently teams underestimated how hot the brakes would heat up over a 50-55 lap run at the one-mile track in the desert.
Image: Chris Trotman/Getty Images