NASCAR’s new car still on honeymoon as it pulls into Texas

Posted Saturday, Apr. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
The Gen-6 cars The new cars look more like the cars you see on the road. A look at a few of the features: Carbon fiber The hood and deck lid are now constructed from carbon fiber. The hood-tether squares are no longer visible as they were on last year’s car. The roof NASCAR added roof structure to increase driver safety. Paint scheme changes The driver’s last name now appears on the windshield, sponsor’s name on the roof, step and repeat designs behind number. Unique body panels Each manufacturer now runs unique panels that better represent their production counterparts. Rear deck fin The fin that runs down the left side of the back glass and intersects with the spoiler is constructed from clear polycarbonate.
Three drivers to watch Saturday night Jimmie Johnson: He’s dialed in. No one is driving better in the series right now. Matt Kenseth: Has the best driver rating in the series at Texas Motor Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr: His first Sprint Cup win came at TMS, and he was fast in practice.

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Six races into the Sprint Cup season, the shine is still on NASCAR’s new “Gen-6” car.

It’s getting credit for creating some of the best races the series has seen in 10 years — Matt Kenseth’s masterful sprint at Las Vegas, the three-car dash at Fontana, the bumping at Bristol and Martinsville.

“It has come so far,” Ford driver Greg Biffle said.

“Compelling racing and great battles,” series champion Brad Keselowski said.

“The races seem to be causing some excitement,” Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. said.

And, from the brass: “I honestly think we’ve had some of the best racing we’ve had in a decade,” said competition vice president Robin Pemberton.

It is music to the ears of Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, whose track hosts the NRA 500 tonight in what the promoter in him thinks might be the best race yet this year.

At least TMS’ high banking and big track could provide the toughest test yet for the new car, which has already stretched its legs out at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, the two-mile track in Fontana, TMS’ sister track at Las Vegas, the one-miler at Phoenix and the short tracks in Bristol and Martinsville.

“If we can put on that style of a race at a track that’s two miles long and has all the aero issues that we complain about, I think this car could put on some very, very good races at these mile-and-a-halfs,” three-time TMS winner Carl Edwards said.

The mile-and-a-half race tracks, like TMS, make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule.

But they get criticized for producing parade racing, where the drivers run in one long line and pass very little. It’s not as much of a problem at TMS, which has produced multiple “grooves" where the drivers can find grip and race from the bottom to the top of the track.

But bigger tracks mean higher speeds, making the cars depend on more “downforce” to remain stable on the track. That in turn takes control away from the drivers — more downforce, less control.

What the Gen-6 car — so named because it is the sixth generation of competition vehicle for Sprint Cup —has done is provide both downforce and control, which NASCAR learned at a test at TMS last October.

“Texas was one of the pivotal moments in the development of this car,” Pemberton said. “It became quite obvious to us that the cars raced better around each other with more downforce than they did with less downforce.”

Even with more downforce, the drivers believe they might still be able to take advantage of every inch of the track at TMS.

“It was definitely a handful then to drive,” said Biffle, who tested at TMS in October. “And now, the first few laps on the race track, it has a lot of grip and is really fun to drive. You know, it’s the same old Texas. We are sliding and a little loose and then tight, and it is going to be a fun race.”

The results of the first six races show some evidence for the kind of parity the series has lacked. The dominant garages — Hendrick, Roush Fenway, Gibbs — produce the vast majority of the winners in the series.

But smaller teams like Furniture Row have produced top-5s and others like Phoenix and Germain are producing top-10s and top-15s.

“I think we’re in a fairly good spot,” Pemberton said. “We feel like the playing field is fairly level. It looks like everybody has an equal opportunity to compete, and we don’t feel like the teams are done developing their own packages for this car.”

Eventually, the big players will wind up the big winners. They have more resources.

But for now, every team and driver has the same challenge in learning the Gen-6 and its capabilities. Tonight’s race is only the latest.

“With a few little tweaks, the racing could be even better every week,” Keselowski said. “If we could do that, we would sure hit a home run for the sport. I am interested in seeing how committed we all are as a sport to doing that. And like I said, if we can hit that, it would really showcase great racing for our fans.”

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez

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