Drivers find it hard to keep cool when running hot
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- At the conclusion of Sunday's Aaron's 499, the steam emanating from the garage area at Talladega Superspeedway was coming more from between the drivers' ears than their overheated radiators.
After at least four cars retired with engine-related issues -- and a number of drivers spent the day worrying they'd be next -- the prevailing feeling in the garage was that the current rules limiting cooling system water pressure and grille size need to be re-evaluated before the next restrictor plate race in July at Daytona. Jeff Gordon, who wound up getting wrecked on Lap 142, was perhaps the hottest under the collar about water temperatures. At least two Hendrick Motorsports powerplants -- those of teammate Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman -- failed to make it to the race's halfway point.
"This temp thing is kind of a joke," Gordon said. "They're going to have to fix that. We all knew coming in that was a big issue, because you can't even race because the temps in a regular pack are an issue. We've got to address that.
"Talladega is different than Daytona, the temps are different, and we've got to recognize that. Nobody's really pushing a lot out there, even though we know it's going to happen at the end."
Overheating was on the minds of nearly everyone even before Friday's first practice. And when Regan Smith's No. 78 Chevrolet began emitting a trail of white smoke on Lap 15, concerns began anew.
They escalated significantly after Tony Raines joined Smith in the garage, followed by Newman on Lap 42 and then Johnson on Lap 61.
"We lost the oil pressure there," Johnson said. "I don't really know why just yet. Unfortunately, [Newman] is in here with a similar issue. I'm hoping that our teammates -- and the other Hendrick engines out there -- don't have the same issue with this oil pump or oil pressure situation.
"This is a bummer. We had such a great race car and were up there, leading the race and had something happen there."
The rules did have the desired effect of bringing back the traditional Talladega pack racing, but Kevin Harvick said there's got to be a more equitable solution for everyone, especially since most of the overheating problems seemed to affect Chevrolets more than they did the other manufacturers.
"It's fun racing to watch," Harvick said. "I enjoy it, but NASCAR has got us in a terrible box here as far as temperatures and things like that. You run around in a pack at 260 [degrees], but I love this style racing. They just have to figure out a way to do it without [damaging] the engines." Kurt Busch found himself in a similar position: trying to maintain a coolant temperature that wouldn't cook the engine while trying to race to the front. That was made more difficult by the weather: a sticky, sultry afternoon made worse by morning thunderstorms.
Water boils at 212 degrees but stays liquid at higher temperatures under pressure. Even so, there's a limit to how much heat you can create, and Busch said he reached that limit very quickly.
"We left pit road, before the race even started, at 230 [degrees]," Busch said. "Rolling under caution, you could get it to 225, but racing out there -- it was hard to keep it under 240 just running in a line.
"[The temperatures increased], especially on the outside, with a lot of guys being real tight up there. That's the only way to make that lane go [faster]. ... We just had to really, really work hard at making sure they didn't go over 240." Greg Biffle's Ford finished fifth, but he admitted "the car ran hot a lot of the day."
There were a number of drivers on the other side of the issue, those who ran into few, if any, overheating problems on the day. Jamie McMurray said he never came close to temperatures that would have damaged his engine.
"I made sure the whole race [to keep] my car really cool," McMurray said. "We had some engine failures last year that I'm overly paranoid [about], especially when I saw [Smith] blow up on Lap 25 or something like that." Carl Edwards finished 31st after being caught up in the multi-car accident that ruined Gordon's day. But he had nothing but praise for the sanctioning body's attempts to severely curtail tandem drafting.
"Right now, what you're watching -- guys running three-wide, bumper to bumper -- I think it's the best package we've had here," Edwards said. "I like this package. I hope they bring it back in the fall."
NASCAR officials realize they're walking a fine line. They're trying to entertain the ticket-buying public with racing more in line with what they're used to seeing at Talladega, but at the same time trying to enforce rules that create a fair but level playing field for the competitors.
The problem, Gordon said, is the current rules are "a little too conservative."
"I think that would be nice next time we come back here to have a little concession for Talladega," Gordon said. "I don't know what we are going to do in Daytona in July. There is just that fine line between getting the temperatures right and not being able to push.
"I'd like to be up there taking it three-wide, pushing cars and making some good exciting moves because I know we have a car that can be up front, but it's just too risky."
Perhaps the final word should go to winning car owner Roger Penske, who has seen his share of rules controversies.
"To me, I think the rules are fine," Penske said. "You could get out and back, you could run up front, you could run the bottom, you could run on the top. To me it was a matter of how hard you wanted to push. You had to watch your water and oil temperatures.
"Bill France told me a long time ago, if you don't like it, you don't have to come and run. I guess I've always played by those rules."