FORT WORTH, Texas -- It was my job once upon a time to call up Rusty Wallace every week to discuss the upcoming Sprint Cup race and get his thoughts on the keys to the event.
It was truly a pleasure, just as getting the opportunity to speak to him now every chance I get is. Rusty is a warm and caring man, a racing legend and one heck of a storyteller.
But there was always something during our talks that drove me nuts.
Reviewing some old files, I found the passage of one of our conversations, and the words that would almost always come from Rusty first regardless the conversation.
"I'll tell you what, the most important thing is going to be the tire Goodyear brings to the track," he said about a race at Pocono.
Of course, he said it about every track.
I would roll my eyes, dutifully jot it down and then move on to what he believed was the second most important thing for the upcoming race.
All these years later -- seven, to be exact -- we're at Texas Motor Speedway, and what do you suppose is the most important thing deciding the outcome of Sunday's Duck Commander 500?
You guessed it: It's the tires Goodyear brought to the track.
Drivers talked about it Friday and Saturday. Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear came in Friday with Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, and talked about it.
You can get tired of the tire talk, but it is important.
So, what's going on here?
Many drivers (and one would suppose many fans) don't want to see tires blowing out only halfway through a fuel run -- the distance a car can go between pit stops for fuel, and, at the same time, fresh tires. This is what happened two weeks ago in Fontana, Calif. With Texas being one of the fastest tracks in the series, the concern is it could happen here. Kurt Busch blew a left-rear tire in practice Friday after 19 laps before bouncing back to lead Saturday's Happy Hour practice and qualify 11th in a backup car. His teammate and team owner Tony Stewart rolled to the pole.
But some drivers were fine with the way the tires performed at Auto Club Speedway, and the split seems to be based on whether the teams and drivers adhered to something close to the air pressure in their tires that Goodyear recommended and those teams and drivers that chose to run much lower pressures on the left-side tires -- as much as 40 percent lower -- in search of more speed. NASCAR does regulate the pressures for right-side tires but has left left-side pressures open to the teams
Jeff Gordon, he of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, was one of those who chose to push the limits at Fontana, and, although he didn't blow a tire, he felt he was close enough to doing so that he backed off and potentially cost himself a victory when Kyle Busch passed him for the win.
This Saturday, Gordon sounded like a driver who hopes NASCAR will put in rules that will save the drivers and teams from themselves.
"I would be fine with just putting that [air pressure] number out there and saying, 'Don't go any lower than that,'" he said. "We do that with the right sides, so why wouldn't they do that with the left sides? That's up to them. And we'll try to manage it the same way that we did in California.