'Gen-6' Sprint Cup cars prove to be safer, better aerodynamically
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Typically, drivers command the spotlight as teams unload their cars in the garage at Daytona International Speedway to prepare for the season-opening Daytona 500.
And there are any number of plots and personalities to follow in the days before the pole-sitter leads a 43-car field toward the first left-hand turn of the season at the monstrous 2½-mile super speedway.
There is a long list of questions begging for answers: Is defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski the real deal? Can five-time champ Jimmie Johnson reclaim the throne? Can Danica Patrick prove she's worthy of a full-time ride?
All those questions were pushed to the back burner during the offseason, in part, because NASCAR officials have focused primarily on selling the new Gen-6 car to stock-car fans who reluctantly, if ever, embraced the Car of Tomorrow.
For all the hype, the next generation Cup car is essentially the same as its predecessor, the Car of Tomorrow (CoT).
So far, it's proven aerodynamically better during tests at Daytona and Charlotte. It has a few more safety features. It's marginally faster, but speed will become relative when side-by-side racing replaces the tandem, bump-and-grind racing at restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona.
But there were no changes in the chassis. While most drivers like the leaner, more stylish Gen-6, others insist it handles only minimally better than the CoT.
“It has some different tendencies than the old car, but it has the same chassis,” Kyle Busch said. “It's still the CoT. All they did was redo the shell.
“All the safety features are the same with the addition of three additional bars on the chassis. It does have more downforce.”
While Busch appears to have a somewhat indifferent attitude about the Gen-6, 10-time Cup champion owner Rick Hendrick is confident the car is progressing on time. Hendrick is convinced that any imperfections will be fixed over the next two months.
“We won't know how any of these cars are going to work until we get 43 cars on the track,” Hendrick said. “All the adjustments we've got to make aerodynamically, we'll tweak and twist.
“Most everyone likes the way it drives, especially on the intermediate tracks. I think you're going to have to drive the car (at Daytona) because the bumpers don't line up.”
At Daytona, the new car will have a downforce package that could make for tense and interesting moments, particularly in crowded packs through the unpredictable turns 2 and 3.
“The cars are going to be out of control in Daytona,” said Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers. “The drivers are going to be screaming, and the fans are going to be cheering.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. discovered as much while testing in 10- and 15-car packs last month. He crashed but learned an invaluable lesson about how much to push the Gen-6 in the corners.
“It's going to take some time to get to know the new car,” said Earnhardt, who won only twice with the Car of Tomorrow. “The CoT wasn't a good fit for me because you couldn't overdrive the car at all. There was a little window of grip, so I would get into the corners too hard.
“The new car is a step back to the car we used to have. I might not be in love with it, but as a whole I like it. When we go to Phoenix and Las Vegas, we'll start to understand it more.”
Jamie McMurray, winner of the 2010 Daytona 500, expects a wild 200-lap race in which attrition will dictate the outcome. He figures that accidents are a reality with the uncertainties of a car facing its debut.
“Daytona is going to be a massive challenge for everyone because the cars don't drive very well,” McMurray said. “Ultimately, what you want to do is get a lot of television time for your sponsors.
“The tandem racing was painful for me, and I hated it because you couldn't see when you were getting pushed. It's going to get back to what it used to be like at Daytona before they repaved it, but I don't see how they won't have a lot of wrecks.”
Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said accidents are inevitable because the cars are too fast.
But NASCAR officials countered by arguing that tests were faster, partly because of the cooler temperatures during winter practice sessions.
“It's not as sexy to say the car isn't as fast as it used to be,” said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. “Fast doesn't mean better. I think the racing would be better if the cars were slower.
“If everybody is complaining, the cars are pretty equal. If everybody is happy, something's wrong.”
So far, most everyone appears to be happy with the Gen-6 — including Johnson.
Johnson, who finished third in points last year, said the Gen-6 probably will encourage more aggressive, side-by-side racing, especially on restarts.
“It could require me learning to drive the car a little differently and may pose a couple of challenges for me early in the season,” said Johnson, who won 27 times with the CoT for Hendrick Motorsports. “We have to get into the season to see what's out there.
“I'm going to miss some of the mechanical aspects of the 2012 car. There will be mechanical things we'll fight throughout the year from a team standpoint. If we're struggling, we have to remember that others are struggling, too.”
However, the heavily funded teams are expected to have some advantages early on.
That, of course, contradicts what NASCAR president Mike Helton sought to achieve. He's hoping the new car will enable smaller teams to be more competitive throughout the 36-race season.
“The drivers are pretty sharp, and every time there's a change they are quick to adapt,” Helton said. “The good thing is that everyone is in the same bucket. A lot of the moves we've made in recent years were designed to minimize the gap between cars with and without resources.”
McMurray is confident Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing will rebound after two disappointing seasons. He expects EGR's switch to Hendrick engines will afford them the opportunity to keep up during the 26-race regular season.
“We can very easily hit on something before the big teams do,” McMurray said. “It's hard to keep the big organizations down. They seem to always find the trick, but we can be in the same boat.”
McMurray's boss, Fox Chapel native and co-owner of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing Chip Ganassi, agrees there isn't much distance between the haves and have-nots.
“I think our drivers are getting used to the new car,” Ganassi said. “It's a learning curve. Some guys adapt and others don't, especially with the cars not lining up.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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