Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Wednesday December 12, 2012
With the 2012 season barely in the rear-view, the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars took to the track in a rare December test to give organizations, especially those who have Chase runs foremost on their minds during the fall, a chance to shake down the 2013 race cars at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The test runs Tuesday and Wednesday of this week with a total of 16 teams in attendance.
Is there anything to be gleaned from a glorified practice session, one that took place before the old year is even out the door? Absolutely. Here’s nine things in particular I took away from Day 1, positive signs 2013 will bring plenty of excitement ahead:
1. The 2013 cars are pretty badass Well, the new Ford Fusion and Chevrolet SS are definitely high on the B.A. scale. The Toyota Camry isn’t changed much and well… it’s about as badass as a Camry is ever going to get. Seriously, the track was abuzz with positive comments about the new look.
2. Not only are they badass, there’s brand identity While the only visible difference in NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow models was the headlight and grille decals, these cars look different at a glance. Unlike the CoT, the only common piece on the outside among the three makes is the rear deck lid between the spoiler and rear window, which will come from one supplier. NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton explained this change was to ensure that the spoiler was in the same position across the board – good for competition. The rest of the cars are based on production models, though the days of a template fitting production and race cars has been gone for more than 15 years.
3. With brand identity, there is the potential for car wars One aspect that Pemberton admitted is a strong possibility of the return of “car wars,” or different manufacturers claiming the others have an advantage and demanding changes. In general, this wasn’t well-received by fans in the past, and it’s something NASCAR will need to carefully monitor… and not give in if the numbers in the wind tunnel or other tests do not show a distinct advantage. Otherwise, the cars could wind up looking like the disastrous results of the previous generation — a grotesque caricature of an original design. That’s not good. Pemberton did say that there are enough areas for teams to work on that it should offset the differences in body, and hopefully that will prove to be the case moving forward.
4. The cars look like they can pass A few teams lined up for short, mock races, and it looked like a faster car could pass with relative ease. Drivers praised the car’s increased rear grip (the cars run without a sway bar and have rear camber changes as well), which is essential in turbulent air. They could also pull away in clean air, but whether there is anything that can change that is doubtful. Plus…
5. There just isn’t enough information to know how the car will be in race conditions This fact was one thing drivers agreed on on Tuesday. There isn’t enough data for anyone to really say if the cars will improve the racing, or if they will still have the aerodynamic issues of their predecessors and just look good doing it. The few mock racing runs looked promising, but the packs were two or three cars, and only about eight or nine teams participated in the pack trails. Most of the testing has been single0car runs, with teams working on getting the handling adjusted for their drivers before they test more in race situations. Look for January tests at Charlotte and Daytona in January to feature more pack practice. Let’s give the car a “cautiously optimistic” rating for now. Especially because…
6. Can aerodynamic issues even be eliminated? Everyone is in agreement that in order to improve the quality of racing, the race cars need to be less aerodynamically dependent. But look around at today’s street cars, and — well, there’s part of the problem. Street cars are a whole lot more aerodynamic than they used to be. The new cars follow the body lines of their street-legal counterparts, but it’s unlikely that even a pure stock version of today’s street cars with their curvy lines and low profiles would produce the kind of racing we all hope for. While the complaints about race cars being too far from their production counterparts are legitimate, I’m not sure many of today’s production cars would make the kind of race car longtime fans hope for.
7. Who wasn’t at the test was surprising Several teams opted not to attend the session, though it was open to all organizations and teams. Both Roush Fenway Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing were completely absent, choosing to rely on information from Wood Brothers Racing/Penske Racing/Germain Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing information, respectively. Was this a good move for these teams, especially for Roush Fenway and their rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.? It seems as though seat time would have been very important, but Stewart-Haas rookie Danica Patrick was also not at the test.
Others not present included Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson, though all three had at least one teammate involved. Jeff Gordon didn’t drive his car, but the No. 24 did test with Regan Smith, while Austin Dillon filled in for Paul Menard in the No. 27. The absence of Johnson and Busch was particularly puzzling as both stumbled badly in 2012, with Johnson and his team practically handing the title to Brad Keselowski in the final races and Busch missing the Chase altogether. Given their respective performances, perhaps they, along with Carl Edwards, should have been the first names on the sign-up sheet. (Chad Knaus was in attendance, but without a car.) Testing in the wind tunnel and on seven-post shaker rigs doesn’t replace what the driver feels, and not putting cars on the track could put them behind to start the year.
8. Well, not all of them were a surprise Also absent for the most part were the small teams. Germain Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing, and Wood Brothers Racing tested, while Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, BK Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing and FAS Lane Racing are among teams who attempted to run full races in 2012 but didn’t join the Charlotte session. That wasn’t entirely by choice; manufacturers are still trying to churn out parts and pieces for the cars, and there wasn’t enough to go around. Whenever that’s in play, the little teams are the ones who are going to stay home. Plus, test sessions aren’t cheap; a two-day test is often a six-figure expense. It’s not fair, but it’s the nature of the beast. At least one mitigating factor will be gone soon; Pemberton says he expects all teams to have the parts they need in plenty of time for the January tests.
9. There’s reason to be optimistic about 2013 All in all, the test session served to create a buzz at a time of year when NASCAR isn’t in the forefront, even for fans. A few diehards turned out despite the cold to sit in the grandstands. The new car is at least an aesthetic success, and the drivers’ feedback so far is encouraging. Will the racing be exactly what fans hope for? Unlikely; there are simply too many factors at this level that get in the way. However, there is a lot to look forward to, namely a car that looks like the model it’s supposed to be and one that teams will be able to work on. It’s a step in the right direction, though whether it’s a baby step or a giant step remains to be seen.
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