NASCAR & Auto Racing

Driving flat-out not the way to go today

Today's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway offers a real opportunity to examine some basic philosophical questions about NASCAR and its competitors.

By acclamation from the drivers in today's event, this race is going to be a challenge. The cars are going very fast and the track is going to be warm and slick. But while Goodyear has done everything a reasonable person could expect to bring a tire that's both competitive and safe, it doesn't appear that it has been totally successful.

"We're going to have issues," Jeff Gordon said. "This weekend is really going to be about survival. I don't want this to be taken the wrong way. ... I believe that this track ... is --possibly the most difficult track in the world to build a tire for. So I certainly credit Goodyear for their efforts, but it's almost beyond what they can do or any tire manufacturer.

"We all knew going into this car it was going to be tough on tires, and we have our hands full. It is really going to be a white-knuckle, hold-on-tight survival type of race."

OK, let's accept that the search for the "perfect" tire for this 1.54-mile track is a Grail-like quest, doomed to almost certain failure by the very nature of the challenge itself.

Let's accept that no driver will have as much grip on this worn and weathered surface as he would like, or even that he needs to run his car at the maximum power available to him through his motor and handling characteristics that might exist in ideal conditions.

The philosophical question is this: Is there anything wrong with that?

One year ago here, Goodyear brought a rock-hard tire that provided little or no traction. It was durable, to an extreme, but the drivers said they simply couldn't "race" on it. Goodyear countered by saying that its primary purpose is to provide a safe tire, and it's hard to argue with that.

It is not, however, as though Goodyear refused with bull-headed resolve to make no changes. The company conducted tests here, most recently one with Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed helping pick the new combination. All four tires this weekend have a different construction, and the left-side tires have a softer compound than that used last year.

As long as the tire provided is safe, and as long as it's the same for everyone, doesn't it simply now become a question of adaptive abilities?

Today's winning team will be the one that best understands today's conditions and races accordingly, and some of the drivers are -- at least going into this afternoon's events -- fine with that.

It's not much different from a major golf tournament. If the greens are "too fast" or the fairways are "too narrow," the people who're complaining quite often are those who don't like to hit irons off the tee to keep the ball in play or pay attention to which side of the green to favor so they won't be faced with downhill putts that can't easily be controlled.

This is racing's major leagues. It's not supposed to be easy.

Mark Martin starts from the pole today, which means that for about 30 seconds Friday night he figured out better than anybody else how to play the cards he was dealt.

"The only way it is going to be comfortable is if you are able to run it at 90 percent, so we are going to have to find the greatest speed that we can so that we can do this thing and keep it under us," Martin said.

Racing, in theory, is about going fast.

Winning, though, is often about going as fast as you can.

Nothing wrong with that.