The war at the front of Watkins Glen between Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch was the stuff of legend a couple of weeks ago. They battled each other, as well as an oily track, on the final lap of the 2.66-mile road course in a race fans will be talking about for years.
But the race -- and Ambrose's victory -- almost didn’t happen.
With scattered showers in the area, NASCAR dodged a bullet as the weather skirted the racetrack, but it highlighted one area where the Sprint Cup Series needs to join the 21st century: rain tires.
Every major road racing series has some form of treaded wet weather rubber, as does the NASCAR Nationwide Series. They are available only on the few road race weekends (the specialized tires can’t sustain the forces the oval tracks generate), but they have proved effective at defeating a wet racetrack.
So why is it available only for the second series? Last year, the race at Watkins Glen did get rained out on Sunday, and the same question was posed to NASCAR VP of competition Robin Pemberton.
"We feel, at this level, it really throws a wild card in there," he said. "We're a series that doesn't have experience on rain tires. It's a lot to put on them. Nowadays, the championships are so close and making the Chase is so close, it's a lot of pressure to put on one race at this stage of the season.”
If that’s the case, why does NASCAR ever race on restrictor-plate tracks? Those are twice as chaotic, and they happen four times a year, including one race in the Chase.
NASCAR has shown that it works in Nationwide, albeit with kid gloves. On two occasions, it has thrown a caution in the race at Montreal and mandated that the teams put on the wet weather tires, as well as a windshield wiper and a rain light. Other series, such as Formula One, Grand Am and Le Mans, leave that decision up to the teams as part of the strategy. Ask the fans: They love it when it rains.
Thumbing their nose at Mother Nature, the Nationwide cars even tested the wet weather tires last Friday before the Sprint Cup race at the Glen. After showers washed out the first Cup practice of the day, the Nationwide cars took to the track for two hours -- albeit squeamishly at first. But nothing dries a track faster than race cars at speed, and soon the teams started opting for the slick tires as the grip levels improved.
Embarrassingly, the practice was cut 15 minutes short so NASCAR could get its jet dryers on the circuit to make sure it was bone-dry for NASCAR’s top series.
Seriously? These guys are good: It’s time to let them play in the rain.