New Hampshire takeaways: The end of PJ1? Race showed why the situation isn’t so sticky
LOUDON, New Hampshire – It’s been called PJ1, VHT and the sticky stuff, but it’s been most commonly known as traction compound.
A suggestion for streamlining future references: NASCAR should call it gone – and heed the advice of a rising chorus in its Cup garage.
After finishing third Sunday on New Hampshire Motor Speedway asphalt unsullied by the spray of traction compound (or “the glue” as it’s pejoratively known in some circles), Brad Keselowski responded “Absolutely,” when asked if NASCAR should stop applying PJ1 the rest of the season.
“I just wanted to put on a good show to make sure the racetrack and NASCAR knew that we don’t need that PJ1 stuff to put on a good race,” he said. “We don’t need that crap. I thought it was one of the best races of the year. I’m curious what the Jeff Gluck poll says. If it doesn’t win, then I don’t know. But maybe this will get them to stop putting that stuff down.”
The decision to skip the application of PJ1 at New Hampshire was made late last week. After initially deciding to wait on putting it down until after the Xfinity race because of how it would affect the Modified Series (on another tire), NASCAR decided to forego PJ1 altogether.
The result was one of the best races of the 2021 season with plenty of action despite passing remaining at a premium.
“It was racy; the grip really went away,” race winner Aric Almirola said. “It really caused you to have to drive the race car (with) more car control. You didn’t feel stuck. When you caught somebody, you could move around and pass them. When we had the PJ1, you had to work twice if not three times as hard to get by somebody because the PJ1, even if their car was not handling, it was the preferred groove. You could not get by them.”
Sunday’s race featured a memorable midrace battle for the lead between the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, who were able to race hard despite a slightly narrower groove and less adhesion for their 3,400-pound cars.
“I thought it put on a great show with no PJ1, just less grip,” Blaney said. “It felt like there was a little bit of a grip change, like the track was darker in the first and third lane. I just thought the track was pretty wide, so I think the place doesn’t need PJ1 at all.”
New Hampshire raises the question of whether any tracks still need traction compound, which has been in use at various tracks since 2016. Initially a hit at tracks such as New Hampshire and Bristol Motor Speedway, its efficacy has come into question as its use became more widespread (particularly at critical playoff tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway). As Kyle Busch recently noted in a delightfully blunt diatribe, the proposed 2022 reconfiguration of Atlanta actually is a move in the other direction
When Nashville Superspeedway made its Cup debut last month, NASCAR treated the surface with a resin that drew rave reviews (William Byron suggested using it in place of traction compound everywhere) in producing a wider racetrack. Eventually, the substance faded in the Cup and Xfinity races but was less intrusive than PJ1, which seems to have the potential for long-term repercussions.
Last weekend, NASCAR drivers said residue remained at New Hampshire that showed “maybe we’ve been putting it on way too much,” Kevin Harvick said. “Seems there’s a lot we don’t know about that particular substance.”
Texas is the biggest case against PJ1, which was last applied on the 1.5-mile oval two years ago (for a NASCAR race weekend).
In three races there over the past season, IndyCar drivers vociferously have complained that the areas formerly treated with traction compound (which still retain dark stains) are “no-go zones” with little grip – turning Texas (once known as IndyCar’s answer to Daytona or Talladega) into a one-lane nightmare. (The track never was treated with traction compound for IndyCar races.)
NASCAR fortunately has avoided any cases of PJ1 backfiring so badly, but its tracks also have arrived at a point of diminishing returns with the traction compound’s impact on racing.
Yet the tired and banal narrative remains (“You think that glue they spray will work this week?” isn’t exactly as alluring “Who will Dale wreck next?”), forcing Cup stars constantly to answer insipid questions about an arcane science project instead of cool stuff like why they’re afraid of lobsters (this week we learned Denny Hamlin is on the Wikipedia page for ostraconophobia).
No matter what it was called, traction compound had a well-intentioned run as a means for improving the racing, but it’s time to say goodbye to the glue.
This isn’t such a sticky situation after all. Just stop using it.
Nashville hopes and dreams
As a reserved champion mindful of the power of his words, Chase Elliott rarely speaks on big-picture issues. That’s why it was so notable the three-time most popular drive was so outspoken in lobbying Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway for a Cup Series race.
Though his sway is significant and his case was persuasive (as a short track in an urban location, Nashville’s addition could deliver many benefits of the much-hyped street race concept but on an oval), Elliott probably can’t make it happen alone – but the momentum is growing for fostering Cup’s grassroots connections.
Hamlin and Kyle Busch also were interested in racing SRX at Nashville, which reportedly drew its largest crowd in decades.
“That’s something you probably could have at most short tracks around the country,” Hamlin said. “When you go to a facility like that where they haven’t had anything big production of a race with some stars, you’re going to get big turnouts. Our Short Track Showdown would sell out every short track we went to, so people want to see the stars.”
After the SRX event at Slinger Speedway, Trackhouse Racing co-owner Justin Marks speculated on whether the path forward for NASCAR might be nationally televised events at throwback speedways without the traditional market draw once touted as essential for sponsors.
It’s raised the possibility that NASCAR’s premier series could work at tracks such as Bowman-Gray Stadium or South Boston Speedway (where NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton has advocated taking the All-Star Race).
Hamlin believes that “absolutely” could work a few times annually.
I wonder if Cup could get to a place where a few races a year exist as TV viewership valuation exclusively as opposed to big ticket/concession revenue and the sport could go to venues that will consistently deliver incredible content (watching SRX @ Slinger)— Justin Marks (@JustinMarksTH) July 11, 2021
“We went away from those places for a reason,” he said. “The reasons might be different now than then, but the infrastructure is one thing. We have corporate sponsors and where are they going to go? Are they going to sit in the infield on the back of a tailgate? No, they want to sit in a nice suite. So you have to have a balance there. I think there’s a balance to put on a big event but helps grass roots with what they’re doing.
“There are plenty of tracks that really don’t have suites. We just want people excited to go to the racetrack.”
It also might help if there was some thawing in the working relationship between NASCAR and SRX, whose co-founder Tony Stewart recently alluded to friction between the series.
Though Elliott said his participation was encouraged by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR executives, Kyle Busch told NBC Sports that “the message I got delivered was no” when he requested to race Nashville. Asked to clarify whether NASCAR or Joe Gibbs Racing turned him down, Busch said, “Yes” without further elaboration.
Hamlin said he missed Nashville because of conflicts and thinks NASCAR would be supportive of its drivers racing SRX (which just wrapped its inaugural season) because “we want to make everyone collectively more excited about motorsports in general. If you can open that audience up, broaden it, everyone’s going to be better.”
Crew chief ‘destroying’ Xfinity Series competition
Overlooked in the world-beating performance of the No. 54 Toyota in the Xfinity is crew chief Chris Gayle, who was demoted from the Cup Series after winning twice with Erik Jones from 2017-20. With Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs and now Christopher Bell at New Hampshire, Gayle has guided the car to seven victories in 19 starts
As noted by NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton in Saturday’s Xfinity broadcast, being moved down a rung on the NASCAR ladder was a blow to Gayle’s pride that left him motivated to “destroy” the Xfinity Series field to prove he still deserves to be a crew chief in Cup.
Gayle didn’t learn he would lose his Cup position until the last week of the 2020 season after meeting with Bell about becoming his crew chief (Adam Stevens moved over to the No. 20 after six seasons and two championships as Busch’s No. 18 crew chief in Cup). Without any practice or qualifying at New Hampshire, Bell won in his debut with Gayle as crew chief.
“It’s ironic; I thought the opportunity might present itself to drive for Gayle on the Cup side when he was with the 20 group last year,” Bell said. “I went to lunch with him, had a conversation with him, and it didn’t work out, so it didn’t prcoeed any further.
“I had all that faith that Gayle was going to give me the fastest race car, and he delivered today. I defintely was not aware of that motivation, but he’s proven himself time and time again. He’s a great crew chief and has done a really good job of bringing really great race cars to the track.”
Laughing about how he (wrongly) tried to get Gayle fired from his position as an engineer on the No. 18 during his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch also believes Gayle is worhty of Cup. “Chris is a smart guy,” he said. “We’ve come to respect one another a lot.”
Silly season update
Brad Keselowski will be announced officially Tuesday in his new driver-owner role at Roush Fenway Racing, and there could be more happening behind the scenes the next two weeks during NASCAR’s break for the Olympics. An update on the 2022 free agent market:
--Kurt Busch said his deal isn’t finalized because “things changed with the announcement of Ganassi selling the team,” but “we’re getting close” and isn’t worried about having a full-time ride. He intends to bring sponsor Monster with him whether he takes Trackhouse Racing’s second ride (as a teammate to Daniel Suarez) or joins 23XI Racing in a second car. “My relationship with Monster is important,” he said Sunday. “I’m trying to balance all that out to figure out what their needs are.”
After his victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the hundreds of congratulatory messages Busch received included “crew members wanting to learn information on where I’m going. I feel like I’m now part of a recruiting process. So there’s quite a bit to balance out now. A good problem to have.”
--Suarez has talked to Trackhouse owner Justin Marks about his prospective teammate, “but nothing that really tells me who it’s going to be. We know there are some options. (Marks is) not in a position yet to make the call. I think the final call is going to be his. And it has to be obviously somebody that brings good experience and wants to push this team in the right direction. Competition is great. I’d love to have somebody who is very, very strong to push together and get better together. I have been fortunate to learn a lot from experienced teammates.”
--Matt DiBenedetto said “nothing yet” when asked about his prospects at New Hampshire. “Our team being at the best spot ever, the feel is there,” he said. “You’ve seen it the last few weeks. We’ll run up front, go try and win, and I’ve got to trust the rest will work out.”
Man of the people
A few dozen fans were waiting outside the infield tunnel after Saturday night’s Xfinity race at New Hampshire. In the days of two- and three-day weekends, it would have been a prime spot to catch Cup stars leaving their motorhomes for dinners in nearby locales the night before the race. But the eradication of most practice and qualifying sessions the past two seasons means much later arrivals (such as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, both of whom flew Sunday morning to New Hampshire after racing in other states Saturday night).
These fans weren’t disappointed, though. New England native Joey Logano stopped by in a golf kart to sign autographs after walking the 1.058-mile oval.
“I was checking out the racetrack, and there were some fans yelling, so I went and said hello,” he said. “A friend of ours was parked out there, so I went and said hello, too. The nice part of being at your home track, you see everyone you know that you haven’t seen for a while.
“I did the same thing (walking the track and signing autographs) at Road America. It’s been my thing lately. I’ve been walking the tracks and saying hello to fans. I think I’ve missed them a lot. I like doing appearances again and seeing people in person. You won’t see me in my bus much. I hate being in there. I just sleep in there.”
Logano, 31, spent most of last week around his Middletown, Connecticut, hometown, celebrating the repaving and grand reopening of Silver City, the quarter-midget track where he started his career. He also brought his first race car out of storage after 25 years so that his 3-year-old son, Hudson, could go for a spin.
“We put a motor in it, bled the brakes and moved the steering wheel down and the pedals up for him,” said Logano, who posted photos of Logano quarter-midget racers across the generations in the same car. “Put some foam behind him, some new belts in and said, ‘There you go, bud!’ He drives some stuff around home, so he kind of had an idea what to do, but he was timid. He didn’t want to do it at first. He watched the other kids go. He was waving the flags for them during practice. He goes, ‘Oh, Dad, I want to try.’ I said, ‘I thought you would.’
“It’s really scary when your kid is racing by the way! It was cool. And then he was doing it, and I was l like, ‘Uh-oh. Did we make this thing go too fast?’ Dad was adjusting the throttle stop.”