Matt Stallknecht · Friday March 8, 2013
Viva Las Vegas, baby. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the site of this week’s Sprint Cup Series race, and as we enter the third week of the grueling Sprint Cup Series season, the field is beginning to take shape, with the haves rising to the top and the have nots slowly beginning their descent to the bottom of the series standings. However, for the third week in a row, the performance and raceability of the Gen-6 car will undoubtedly be the hot topic amongst media types and fans alike, and less than stellar races in Daytona and Phoenix have suddenly given pause to the seemingly boundless optimism that surrounded the new car. Are we in for another parade at Las Vegas? There’s little doubt that’s the main question on everyone’s minds as we gear up for the Kobalt Tools 400.
1. Will the Gen-6 finally come alive in the Sin City?
NASCAR was not bashful at the start of this season when touting the raceability of it’s prized Gen-6 race cars. Seemingly every day over the course of the offseason there was a new quote from some NASCAR higher-up singing the new car’s praises and raising expectations for the 2013 season to a fever pitch. Well, here we are in Week 3, and so far the cars have failed to deliver as promised. Daytona was a 3.5 hour parade, and Phoenix was only marginally better. Is this the week that we finally get to see the Gen-6 perform like it was supposed to?
I’m an optimist so I never rule anything out, but I wouldn’t count on it. Not yet at least. Phoenix painted a very telling picture as to what the drivers and teams are dealing with in the new Gen-6 machines. Many drivers, most notably Denny Hamlin (who angered NASCAR officials with his remarks, more on this later), were quick to point out how hard it was to pass at Phoenix, mostly due to aero sensitivity issues. Brad Keselowski’s comment was perhaps the most telling of them all, as he went on to say that the new car is the “hardest car I’ve ever had to drive in traffic.” Its possible that this was a Phoenix specific issue (it has long been hailed as one of the most difficult tracks to pass on), and that the car may in fact drive differently on the 1.5 mile tracks that the cars were designed for. Indeed, there is one saving grace that could play into NASCAR’s favor here, and that is the draft.
That absolutely massive spoiler you see on the back of the new cars is the biggest one NASCAR has used in a very long time, and in addition to all of the extra downforce it creates, it also creates a very sizeable draft effect. Phoenix is too small for that draft to come into a play, but the 1.5 mile high-banked Vegas track may just be big enough for it to work. If the draft effect is sizeable enough, it could theoretically negate whatever aero grip is lost in the corners and allow drivers to race closer than they have in years past (note that this wouldn’t yield pack racing, as the drivers will obviously still be lifting quite a bit in the corners). The draft may be NASCAR’s only hope for good racing at 1.5 milers, and we will find out soon enough if it’s viable enough to finally be the spark the Gen-6 cars need.
2. Will Denny Hamlin’s penalty affect driver-media relations going forward?
Ridiculous is the only word apt enough to describe this mess. In case you missed it yesterday, NASCAR announced that they were fining Denny Hamlin $25,000 for “disparaging remarks about on-track racing at Phoenix”. The specific remark Hamlin uttered that angered NASCAR is supposedly as follows “It (the Gen 6 car) did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars did here.” Hamlin, who is irate over the fine, has vowed not to pay it, and said that NASCAR could suspend him if they wanted to. Yikes.
NASCAR is once again going down a dangerous road. They boast about wanting the drivers to show their personalities and speak their minds, yet they fine a driver when he makes even the (admittedly quite accurate) slightest of negative comments about the new car. The simple fact is that nothing Hamlin said was worthy of a fine. He correctly pointed out that it was hard to pass in Phoenix, and that the cars needed more work to become racier. NASCAR’s ultimate message is clearly that they don’t want anyone to say anything negative at all about their new cars. The sad irony of this whole ordeal is that the fine will likely have the opposite effect of the intended one. If anything, the fine just draws more attention to the growing pains of the Gen-6 cars.
So where does this leave driver-media relations going forward? Well, frankly, it completely sours them. What driver will want to speak his mind to us media types now that he/she knows NASCAR will drop the hammer on just about any comment that paints the sport in a negative light? With the Hamlin fining now set as a precedent, you can expect even more political correctness and vanilla faux optimism about the new cars than we had before. And trust me, more political correctness is the last thing this sport needs.
3. Will JGR and TRD get their engine woes straightened out?
For those keeping track at home, Toyota Racing Development, who supplies engines for powerhouse teams Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, has already had issues with four of their engines in the first two weeks of the season. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth both had their Daytona 500 hopes dashed by late race engine woes, and last week both Busch and Denny Hamlin were forced to start from the rear at Phoenix because of another rash of engine issues.
This is nothing new to anyone who follows the Toyota teams, especially JGR. JGR struggled mightily with mechanical issues all throughout 2012, and engine issues plagued the team even before they switched engine suppliers to TRD. Interestingly enough, Toyota sister team Michael Waltrip Racing has not suffered near as many issues as JGR has with engines, suggesting that this may be a JGR-specific problem in which their engineers are perhaps overtuning the engines past their limit.
Whatever the problems are, both JGR and TRD need to get them figured out before this weekend’s race in Las Vegas. The engines will be turning some of their highest RPMs of the season at the fast and unrestricted Vegas track, meaning that engine strain will be heavy. Mechanical issues derailed JGR in 2012, and they can’t afford to have that same fate to befall them once again in 2013. They need to either figure out their problems now, or face another season of wondering what could have been.
4. Will the tires hold up in Vegas?
Last week in Phoenix, for the first time in quite a while in the Sprint Cup Series, tire blowouts were a very real concern. Many teams dealt with tire issues, but none more so than Stewart-Haas Racing as Ryan Newman suffered two right front tire failures while Danica Patrick suffered one that resulted in an accident so vicious that it was covered Monday night on the FOX News show “The Five”. Drivers blamed overtly hard left side tires as the main culprit, as they created a “balance issue” (as termed by Denny Hamlin; he’s been popular this week hasn’t he?) in which the right side tires were forced to do too much of the work, especially the right front.
However, for as much as drivers complained last week about tires, don’t expect to hear quite as many this weekend. Goodyear is reportedly bringing a softer tire this week, and the slightly aged surface of the Vegas track ought give teams more leeway in building their setups in such a manner that blowouts have less of a chance of happening. Drivers may still complain that there isn’t enough falloff, which is a legitimate grievance, but I wouldn’t expect any outright blowouts. We have to remember that the Phoenix track was repaved only a year and a half ago, and brand new surfaces always cause problems for Goodyear. Thus, last week’s tire problems were something of an anomaly, and it probably won’t be something teams have to worry about for this weekend at least.
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