Home » Why This One NASCAR Track Is So Hard On Tires, And How This Completely Changes A Driver’s Strategy

Why This One NASCAR Track Is So Hard On Tires, And How This Completely Changes A Driver’s Strategy

Tired Barr Visuals
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Richmond Raceway is a D-shaped 3/4 mile (1.21 km) slightly banked short track nestled just outside of Richmond, VA. This racetrack has been derided by fans in recent years, but I think that it has simply fallen under the curse of outdated expectations. Formerly known as The Action Track, Richmond Raceway used to be a place where drivers came to throw everything from fenders to fists from the late 1990s until the early 2010s. Fans who tune in to watch a Richmond race thinking that it’s still 2005 are likely in for a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a great racetrack, it’s just different.

[Ed note: As an experiment, we’ve been watching this season’s NASCAR Xfinity Series races together in our Discord. We had Bozi around the first week and Alanis another week. During the conversation, a new name appeared: Aeden McHugh.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

He’s not just one of Alanis’s many friends, he’s also the engineer for the #1 JR Motorsports car driven by Sam Mayer. Not only did Aeden provide race updates, he provided them from his pit box as the race was happening! Now he’s providing us with weekly track guides when he can. Join our Discord and come back tomorrow afternoon to talk about the race!]

The Action Track clearly began in 1997 and fizzled out gradually to an endpoint that’s more subjective and on a case-by-case basis with individual fans. Richmond Raceway was paved in 1988 and by the 1997 season, the track was beginning to show its age. Prior to the September 1997 Exide Select Batteries 400, the track was treated with an asphalt sealer compound produced in collaboration with Goodyear and local business Slurry Pavers. The sealer not only helped hold the aging asphalt together but it added grip to the racing surface. Fortunately for Slurry Pavers and race fans alike, the sealer compound quickly wore out over the course of a race weekend. This caused the racing line to migrate further and further up the racetrack as drivers chased the fresh sealer which led to some phenomenal side-by-side racing.

After the 2003 season, Richmond Raceway was finally repaved, so there was no more need for the sealer compound. The fresh asphalt provided grip in multiple lanes and allowed drivers to run hard side by side lap after lap. When NASCAR announced the “Chase for the Nextel Cup” championship format, Richmond Raceway was the perfect place to cap off the regular season with a wild night of short track racing, a spot the track held through 2017. While there were several classic racing moments and disagreements from this era, none is perhaps more infamous than the ending of the 2008 Crown Royal 400. With three laps to go, Kyle Busch, running the low lane, and Dale Earnhardt Jr, running the high lane, came together entering Turn 3 and saw Earnhardt Jr get sent spinning into the outside wall.

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For more on that race, check out an Oral History of the 2008 Richmond Spring Race, an excellent piece from Jeff Gluck.

Tracsurface
Photo: author

Richmond Raceway now has the second-oldest track surface on the schedule. As the surface has evolved, so has the racing product. As an asphalt racing surface ages, the surface tends to become more abrasive. The asphalt becomes more porous and gives the tire’s contact patch nooks and crannies to adhere to, which increases grip.

Without getting too technical, you can look at the diagram below and see how the contact patch of the tire molds itself to these road surface irregularities.

Surface Diagram

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As in life, there are no free lunches in racing. While a more abrasive surface provides increased grip, it also wears the tires at an incredibly high rate. Much like coarse-grit sandpaper will remove material more quickly than finer grit, coarser asphalt will tear apart the tire’s tread more aggressively. You can see the “marbling” caused by this effect in the photo below, which shows chunks of rubber lying outside the groove at Darlington Raceway.

Picture3
Trent Strunk

One interesting long-term trend of racing surfaces is that the cars will eventually wear themselves in a groove. The repeated pounding of racing cars lap after lap on the same area of the track – the racing line – wears the track similar to how a piece of wood dulls down a piece of sand paper. Paul Haney discusses this phenomenon as it relates to rain racing on page 50 of his 2003 book The Racing and High-Performance Tire:

“This discussion of the effects or road asperity shape on texture on rubber friction has some immediate application for racers. We’ve probably all seen experienced drivers steer their cars off the normal line when cornering on wet pavement. The usual explanation is the normal line is slower in the wet because of oil and old rubber.
If there actually is more grip offline it’s because the road surface features are higher and more pointy than the worn features on the normal line, providing higher deformation friction.
In talking to several racing drivers about this phenomenon, several of them pointed out that offline in the wet worked on dedicated racetracks and not on street courses. The reason for this is that there is no “line” on a street course; the aggregate is worn everywhere by daily street traffic. On a dedicated road course, 99% of the cars on course are working the racing line and wearing the aggregate in the process. Off line aggregate is less used and therefore more coarse and pointed.”

Keep that quote in mind, we’ll be coming back to it later.

For a place that used to be all about classic hard-nosed, elbows-out short-track racing, Richmond Raceway has aged into a much more refined racetrack that requires utmost precision from the drivers. This evolution is most evident when you plot out the frequency of natural cautions over the last 20 years since the repave. For this examination, we’ll look at the Spring races. When the Fall Richmond date served as the regular season finale, it had a tendency to get a bit argy bargy, cough cough –  I’m looking at you, Michael Waltrip Racing. Anyway, the Spring race has always played out as standard fare, and the trend depicted below by the chart is also evident when looking at the Xfinity Series races. Let’s take a look:

Cup Natural Chart

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Simply put, on a surface this old, tire management became king, and side-by-side battling faded away as drivers were forced to take a more strategic approach to the racetrack, and Richmond is where we see some of the highest lap time falloff of any oval track. Within 20 laps, lap times will fall off by about one second, and at a track where both series can run over 100 laps on fuel, a one-second lap-time increase is absolutely massive. Instead of beating and banging side by side, drivers would rather fall in line and try to conserve their tires so that they could pick off competitors one by one later in a run as the tires fade.

So how does a driver save tires?

The simple answer is just “drive slower,” but it’s much more technical than that. On high-wear tracks like Richmond Raceway, it’s important to separate the three phases of the corner: deceleration, cornering, and acceleration.

  • Deceleration: Drivers will be reminded multiple times this weekend to “back up your entry.” Put simply, the crew is asking them to lift out of the throttle earlier and coast more into the corner. Let’s compare two approaches taken between Driver A who is backing up their entry and Driver B who is not. In this hypothetical, Drivers A and B both have the same apex speed in the middle of the corner. In the short run, Driver B will run a quicker lap time as they reach a higher top speed before braking and decelerating. However, zooming out to a more macro perspective of the fuel run, Driver B will be at a significant disadvantage by the middle to later stages of the run. Why is that? Braking creates heat and heat builds tire pressure. With enough heat, Driver B’s front tires will lose later capacity (cornering ability). This means they will have to slow down more and more (i.e. brake more) to make the corner and suddenly they’ve found themselves in a negative feedback loop with their tires until they can hit pit road. In the 2022 Xfinity Series race, Noah Gragson suffered a brake failure on Lap 31 and still managed to drive his way to second place in the stage by Lap 75.

Ng Brakes

  • Cornering: To create lateral force, aka cornering force, a tire must operate under a degree of slip. The “slip angle” is the difference between the direction the tire is pointing in and the direction in which it is traveling. Generically speaking, a tire will produce more cornering force with an increase in slip angle, up to a certain point. As the graph below shows, once past the peak of the curve lateral force stops increasing as the slip angle increases. This means the tire is starting to lose grip and slide. It is the driver’s job to take the tire right up to this peak without ever going over it. If the driver is operating past the peak of this curve, or “has too much wheel in it,” they are literally sanding the tire across the asphalt without getting around the corner any faster.

Slip Chart Copy

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  • Acceleration: You may have heard the saying “Drive it like you have an egg under the gas pedal,” and that is exactly what drivers must do on a high tire-wear racetrack. Any amount of tire slip will tear away rubber from the tire’s surface and generate excessive heat. Just like overheating the front tires will create understeer, overheating the rear tires will cause a loss of grip and thus oversteer. This loss in overall grip will also make it harder to accelerate without slipping the tires and creating more heat, creating another negative feedback loop. You will hear a lot of talk at Richmond Raceway about “focusing on the exits,” wherein the driver takes a very late apex to the corner. This is also referred to as “outwrapping” the other drivers by imagining the white line wrapping further around the corner in order to visualize a later apex. This promotes both a low and mostly straight launch up off of the corner. Going back to what Paul Haney said about the asphalt surface in the racing line, taking a low exit below the worn-in groove will give a driver more traction and therefore less slip when exiting the corner. Sometimes you will even see drivers run down the middle of the front straightaway at the end of a long run as they search for rear traction while trying to accelerate. This is especially apparent on restarts as you will see the whole field shading much lower down the track as they try to get the best possible launch towards Turn 1.

Look at the positioning of the field below on the initial start of the race and note how everyone is completely below the top seam and out of the traditional racing groove:

Xfinity Action Cc2023 Xfinity Series race start

Watch below and you can see John Hunter Nemechek work over Ty Gibbs for the lead with 35 laps to go in the 2022 Xfinity Series race. In this clip, the drivers have about 70 green flag laps on their tires and you can clearly see a lot of the things we just discussed. Gibbs’ is braking later for the corner than Nemechek. As a result, his car won’t hold the yellow line in the middle of the corner and you can see how he’s forced to over-slip the tires in an effort to yank the car back down mid-corner. Nemchek is also doing a good job of focusing on his exits. Because he has backed up his entry and not over-slipped the tires in the middle of the corner, he can exit lower and straighter than Gibbs. This, combined with running lower on the straightaway gives Nemechek a better launch up off the corner. That is exactly how a proper pass is made late in the run at Richmond Raceway.

Jhn Vs Gibbs

Unlike a fuel mileage race, where fuel can be saved at any point in a run, tire management is something that takes precedence from the drop of the green flag. Every driver knows at the start of a run that what they ask of their tires on lap 5, they will have to repay double and then some by lap 50. With this in mind, there is a tendency for the drivers to quickly fall in line after a restart as they begin babying their tires.

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The bottom lane is typically favored on restarts here but the top lane can hang on for a couple of laps as drivers scrap for position on starts and restarts. The asphalt aggregate on the inside groove of the corners, like the outside of the straightaways, has been worn down over the years. This gives the middle to outside lanes slightly more grip than the bottom but at the expense of rapidly accelerated tire degradation. Drivers who line up on the outside for a restart will want to gather as many spots as they can on the opening laps before finding an opening to jump back down into the bottom groove.

Tire management at Richmond Raceway falls on the teams as much as it does the drivers. The Xfinity Series teams are given four sets of tires for the 250-lap race. This breaks down to one set for each stage and one set laying in the pit box when Stage 3 begins. While a green flag stop won’t be necessary as teams can make it from the stage break to the finish on fuel a caution flag presents a tricky scenario. With only one set of tires remaining the decision to pit or not will make or break your race. Option A the team can pit but if there is another caution late in the race they will not have any tires left to put on the car. Option B the team can stay out and save their set of tires for a late race caution, but they run the risk of that caution never coming while the teams who pitted leave them in the dust.

Cup Series teams will have ten sets of tires for their 400-lap race: nine sticker sets plus the qualifying scuffs. With so many sets of tires available, the cup race is a true blue-collar day for the pit crews. Teams will likely pit approximately seven times as they split the second and final stages into thirds. Pitting under green at Richmond Raceway will cause the driver to go at least one lap down, but probably two laps down for a portion of the pit cycle. This is obviously a big risk, but the undercut is so powerful here with stickier tires being almost two seconds per lap faster than staying out on old tires. Pitting early in the cycle leaves teams exposed to being caught a lap down if a caution comes out. However, as we saw earlier the frequency of natural caution at this racetrack has been steadily declining over the years.

In addition to everything else, teams and drivers also have to contend with the curved pit lane. The entrance and exit of pit lane curves to follow the profile of the front straight, and drivers try to run slightly higher RPM in these sections to minimize their rolling time on pit lane.

Richmond Raceway may not be quite the action track it used to be and may not make for a door-slamming highlight reel, but sit back, get comfortable and watch the tire strategy play out over the inevitable long runs this weekend. You’re certainly in for a treat.

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Photo: Barr Visuals/Big Machine Racing

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Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
15 days ago

Hopefully Richmond gets a repave and some new adjustments to the banking. It’s such a boring race to watch.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
17 days ago

Still remember seeing Jr. payback Ferret Face for the spin. Thanks for the clip from NASCAR. It was obvious that it was “payback time”, and Jr. was great at that. His car control was so good that he could make payback look like just another one of “those racin’ things.” Dale Sr. was never as subtle as Jr. when it came to payback time.

Thanks for a great article.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
17 days ago

Anyone who thinks NASCAR is boring has no idea what is really going on. It ain’t just “go fast, turn left.”

Dave mid-engine
Dave mid-engine
17 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Managing tire wear, optimizing fuel quantities, strategizing corner weights are also boring.

Go faster and pass other contenders is the only excitement.

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
16 days ago

I agree. Every other form of motorsport also has strategy. Tho I am easily bored by watching motorsports that do not involve sliding and leaving the ground.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
16 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Absolutely. I used to think that, and esp. that oval tracks were just boring.

Then I got into actually doing the motorcycle equivalent, flat track. It was (and is) for me amazingly more difficult and exciting than I’d expected, and gave me a real respect for oval track racing.

Like you say, if you’re just observing and not paying attention, it seems easy; but if you get into it, a world of detail and nuance opens up, as does an appreciation of what it takes for pros to do something difficult, well.

Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
15 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

I’ve been an avid fan since 1996 and I find Richmond incredibly boring. Strategy races are okay every now and then, but the last decade of Richmond races have been exclusively about strategy.

It doesn’t help that the current gen car is terrible at passing on short tracks.

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
17 days ago

This website is such a gold mine.

Framed
Framed
17 days ago

Great article Aedan. I’m wondering who is the decision-maker for the tire strategy, and how much is decided before the race vs. during the race?

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
17 days ago

Ugh – I’m convinced this track and NASCAR in general is why so many Richmond drivers are notorious for tailgating and recklessness. For such a small city, you wouldn’t believe the frequency of crashes and trashed cars – LA is safer to drive in than this place.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
17 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

Dover’s excuse is just that everyone is on drugs

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
17 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

You should see the Interstate trying to drive home after the Talladega races.
90 mph and the occasional bump draft tap is pretty common. It’s like 100K people have all gone nuts at the same time. almost as fun as watching the race in person…

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
17 days ago

Your weekly articles have gotten me to start watching NASCAR again. I still wish they’d get rid of stages but this content makes the actual racing fascinating

Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
15 days ago

They tried getting rid of stages on road course and everyone seemed to hate it. I don’t think we’ll see them go away.

James Carson
James Carson
17 days ago

Track racing moneyball. Really interesting post. That’s why The Autopian Rules.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
17 days ago

These insights into the physics and strategy of NASCAR are much more interesting than I had expected. I don’t watch the races themselves, but do look forward to these articles each week.

CSRoad
CSRoad
17 days ago

Thanks for the explanation. That is quite the chess game.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
17 days ago
Reply to  CSRoad

When it comes to strategy, the other sports got nothin’ on these guys.
Still miss John Andretti though. He was a good guy.

Last edited 17 days ago by Col Lingus
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