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Drivers say Goodyear has improved tires

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[March 12, 2009]  DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- In a rare show of accord, the NASCAR drivers testing tires at Darlington Raceway this week agreed that Goodyear is making progress on the most thankless task in racing.

All four drivers testing at Darlington -- Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler and Denny Hamlin -- felt the tires Goodyear brought to the track had worked well so far, pointing to strong, exciting racing when Sprint Cup returns to Darlington on May 9 with the rechristened Southern 500.

If Goodyear brings good, effective rubber to a racetrack, people think the manufacturer is simply doing its job. Bring a tire that doesn't hold up or slips around -- and gentlemen, start your griping.

That's what happened a year ago here when a tire test at Darlington followed the disastrous race at Atlanta where Tony Stewart let loose at Goodyear for what he and others felt was a shoddy product.

"I feel like they're in the worst position in the sport," Harvick, a Chevrolet driver, said Wednesday during the second and final day of testing at the track.

Harvick, Labonte, Sadler and Hamlin -- one driver from each auto manufacturer -- participated in Goodyear's latest lab session to bring the grippiest tire to the historic track.


"It's tough to build tires for our series," said Labonte, who drives a Ford and has a victory at Darlington. "I say, overall, in the whole thing, they're definitely the first one somebody's going to point the finger at when something happens."

Drivers slipped around again last week at Atlanta, with winner Kurt Busch saying it felt a bit like being at the 60-year-old Darlington with how close drivers came to the wall.

While there were complaints, none came close to Stewart's assessment from a year ago that the Goodyear tire at Atlanta was the "most pathetic racing tire I've ever been on in my professional career."

This time, testers talked of Goodyear's strong product at Las Vegas and the company's willingness to listen to drivers' ideas.

At the Las Vegas race, Hamlin thought the manufacturer brought a wonderful tire that gave racers good grip and total control.

"That was a huge improvement," said Hamlin, a Toyota racer.

This week, Goodyear was hoping to find a good compound to bring back to a slightly less slippery Darlington in the second event since a multimillion dollar repaving project.

Things didn't start out well Tuesday since the track, now down to one event a year, hadn't been driven on much and the teams spent the morning blowing off the dust and sand that had accumulated on the track.

By the afternoon, the surface was smooth and ready for testing.

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Hamlin thought Goodyear had brought an improved group of tires that should help when teams return on Mother's Day weekend.

NASCAR has prohibited teams from track testing, besides sanctioned tests such as Goodyear's. Hamlin was grateful for the extra time on Darlington's egg-shaped layout, considered one of the trickiest in the sport, but wasn't sure it would translate into an advantage come May.

"The drivers in the Cup series are so good, they'll run just as fast as we will on their first lap," he said. "They'll figure out exactly what they need first corner."

Sadler, who drives a Dodge, wished teams were allowed to bring a second car to shake out the track and get it ready before testing their competition car. "That's about the only thing I'd change," he said.

Hamlin is pleased that Goodyear is doing its best to get driver input and provide the right tire at all NASCAR tracks.

"I think they're listening more to us now than what they have in the past," Hamlin said. "They're trying to get us comfortable because they know the more comfortable we are, the more side-by-side racing they're going to see."

And fewer complaints after the race.

[Associated Press; By PETE IACOBELLI]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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