Exploding tires put a dent in Chase contenders' chances

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Wrecked Chase contenders, two red flags, record lead changes and a Tony Stewart victory on a controversial finish.

The Amp Energy 500 was a show for the ages. Unfortunately, it also was a tire explosion waiting to happen.

Sound familiar?

Once again, tires were a major issue in a 2008 Sprint Cup race, and no one knows why.

Three times tires exploded off the wheel. It could have ruined a spectacular day, and did ruin the day for about a dozen drivers.

"I was worried all the way back when the 88 [Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.] blew a tire in practice," Jimmie Johnson said. "When you run over something, you cut a tire. These tires exploded. In my opinion, something was wrong. It was in the back of my mind all day."

Johnson escaped with a ninth-place finish and padded his points lead.

The wild ending Sunday -- Regan Smith illegally went below the yellow line to pass Stewart at the checkered flag -- was the story of the race.

Tires became an afterthought. Denny Hamlin, who spent the night in a Birmingham hospital, probably felt

Hamlin slammed the wall in Turn 2 when his tire disintegrated while he was leading midway through the race.

"That was scary," said J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing and Hamlin's boss. "Denny's going to be OK. He has a headache and his foot was hurt, but he'll be all right."

An earlier tire failure for Brian Vickers caused a nine-car pileup and brought out the first red flag. And Jeff Gordon's day was ruined when David Reutimann's tire burst into shredding rubber, causing Gordon to crash.

The first sign of trouble came Friday when Earnhardt had a tire explode during practice. At that time, everyone hoped it was an isolated incident. It wasn't.

"It was a little nerve-racking today with the tires blowing for no reason," Earnhardt said. "The Hoosier tires also blew in the ARCA race [Friday], so maybe it was something to do with the [track] surface. It's made me nervous, but you have to run.''

Earnhardt's backup car was a contender to win, but his race ended with 15 laps to go. Earnhardt was a victim of 10-car pileup caused by Carl Edwards' bump-drafting too aggressively with teammate Greg Biffle.

It proved the continuous danger of restrictor-plate racing at Talladega, a clear reason why the 2.66-mile oval is the worst place for tires to go off like a TNT charge.

That was scary. Denny's going to be OK. He has a headache and his foot was hurt, but he'll be all right.

-- J.D. Gibbs

Sunday could have been so perfect. It was Talladega at its best -- an incredible 64 lead changes among 28 drivers, a NASCAR record.

This was the edge-of-our-seat drama fans have come to expect at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's biggest bad boy. But tires shouldn't explode, not at this track.

In fairness, the only tire issue in the final 89 laps was a single-car spin by Jamie McMurray when he cut a tire.

And the race was a night-and-day difference from the travesty at Indianapolis at the Allstate 400 in July. That event was a series of competition cautions to keep the tires from coming apart on the track.

But as it was that day at Indy, drivers at Dega had to wonder if they would become the next victim of tire destruction.

Goodyear product manager Rick Heinrich didn't have a definitive answer for it.

"Our engineers still are looking at all the tires," Heinrich said during the race. "I can't say for sure in every case what happened. We don't know all the details. We will do some analysis back in Akron [Ohio]. What we do know is we have the exact same tire as we had here in the spring, a race-proven tire."

Heinrich said one of the tires that failed Sunday had evidence of a puncture.

"The teams are telling us there's a lot of car contact out there," Heinrich said. "That loosens things up and drops debris on the track."

That's true for every Talladega race.

"We didn't have any issues," said Paul Menard, who finished second. "The guys blowing tires maybe have a fender rub or aggressive camber."

The shape of the new car -- taller and boxier -- puts extra loading on the right-side tires.

Heinrich wouldn't place the blame on setups by the teams or the new car, which was racing at Talladega for the third time. Some crew chiefs thought a few teams were overinflating the right-side tires.

If so, NASCAR needs to get better control of what the teams are allowed to do with the tires.

It's one thing for a driver to lose points in the Chase because of a mistake in pack racing at Talladega. But no one wants to see a driver lose a chance to win the championship because a tire failure caused him to miss a race.

If an answer isn't found soon, wrecked cars, red flags and controversial finishes will become the least of NASCAR's problems.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.