INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson celebrated his second victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a burnout.
Appropriately, one of his tires exploded.
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He was lucky he made it that long.
Tire troubles derailed one of NASCAR's crown jewel events Sunday when Goodyear's product wasn't durable to withstand more than 10 or so laps at a time. It created a chaotic and confusing caution-filled race that ended when Johnson outran Carl Edwards in a seven-lap sprint to the finish.
“Every lap. Every lap I was concerned about it. Every corner, for that matter,” Johnson said. “As a group, we all knew we couldn't push the envelope. I knew at the end, a seven-lap shootout, I could blast it off in there and I'd be OK.”
Johnson was indeed OK, earning the right to “kiss the bricks” for the second time in three years.
Goodyear and NASCAR were not OK, left to explain why the race became a debacle.
The tire issue cropped up early Saturday, when drivers learned during the first practice they could only last anywhere from three to 10 laps before the rubber wore down to the cords. NASCAR and Goodyear hoped the conditions would improve — as it has in years past — once enough rubber was laid down on the track.
But the first-time use of the Car of Tomorrow prevented any improvement because of the lack of downforce on the car, combined with its higher center of gravity, created conditions that made it very hard on the right side tires. No matter how much rubber was laid on Indy's notoriously abrasive surface, the tires still weren't strong enough to last more than about 10 laps.
“We came with the best tire we had for the conditions and we fell short. We'll try to get it right,” said Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear.
“I don't think anybody likes to race like this, us included. We'll do what we can to make it better.”
There were 11 total yellow flags, and NASCAR had to throw six competition cautions to force teams to pit and change their tires.
It meant the longest green-flag run was an embarrassing 12 laps, causing teams to fear both tire failures and a possible supply shortage. Goodyear shipped in 800 tires earmarked for use next week in Pocono before the race, but they ultimately weren't needed.
It was little consolation as drivers feared going full speed and crew chiefs were forced to gamble on tire strategy. No one was certain when NASCAR would call a caution, or if the sanctioning body would eventually decide to let the drivers go as long as they wanted.
“It was a pretty crazy day,” said winning crew chief Chad Knaus.
NASCAR never chanced it, calling cautions every 10 to 12 laps as vice president of competition Robin Pemberton spent the race on pit road, examining tires and talking to frustrated crew chiefs.
After, he defended the job NASCAR did in staging a safe race.
“Not every race is a barnburner,” Pemberton said. “If you are a good fan, and you didn't get what you wanted, it's OK to be disappointed and we can be disappointed right along with you. We're here to put on the best races we can, and we do a damn good job of it most of the time.”
Johnson fretted the final two stops, unsure what the right strategy would be. He took two tires on his final stop to emerge from pit road as the leader, then held off Edwards and Denny Hamlin over the final seven laps.
Edwards, sympathetic to NASCAR's plight, said he raced at 100 percent over the final run but couldn't catch Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 12th, also defended NASCAR.
“The truth of the deal is, that was the best show we could put on today. NASCAR did everything right,” he said. “It's all we could do aside from loading up and going home and not running at all. Yeah, it wasn't quite the race everybody expected, but, shoot, it was better than some of the races you've probably seen here.”