The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: The Gen-6's Fontana Follow-Up, Vickers' Texas Debut, More by Matt Stallknecht -- Thursday April 11, 2013

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Texas Motor Speedway is the site for round seven of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. After Jimmie Johnson thoroughly whipped the field Sunday in Martinsville, it’s starting to become abundantly clear who the championship hopefuls will be heading into the meat of the regular season. Sure, Five-Time is sitting on top but Hendrick Motorsports in general, along with Joe Gibbs Racing have firmly established themselves as the two teams with the best grasp on Gen-6 race cars. As we head to one of the most aero-reliant tracks on the schedule, their advantage should shine through even more so than Martinsville, a track where they combined to lead 498 of 500 laps.

Does that mean a boring weekend is in our future? Not necessarily. No, there are no feuds or theatrics of any sort to speak of this week (at least that we know of?) but there are plenty of teams feeling the heat with the specter of a Chase bid already slipping away. Also, with the NRA sponsoring this weekend’s festivities, off-track issues remain in the news. Whether that sponsorship will become a problem is sadly a major talking point, the one that leads our four-pack of questions this week. So, without further ado…

1. How will the NRA’s sponsorship have an effect on this weekend’s race?

Every time any NASCAR driver comes close to a gun, even for show the media scrutiny this weekend will be higher than ever before.

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: it won’t have any effect on the actual racing this weekend. I know that sounds silly to even say, but there are certain uninformed types in today’s mainstream media (the CNN, FOX News, and MSNBCs of the world) who would have you believe that the NRA could somehow inexplicably change the complexion of the actual competition. Such changes, they claim would come through an on-track driver strike, in opposition of the sponsorship or some other equally preposterous idea.

However, off track the NRA sponsorship will alter this weekend in some unfortunate and perhaps curious ways. The mainstream media jumped on this story like flies to garbage the minute the news of the sponsorship dropped. Everyone, from racing journalists to daytime talk show hosts has weighed in on this issue. Me personally? I don’t have much of an opinion on the NRA or the gun control debate. But as far as I’m concerned, if someone is willing to pony up the money to support NASCAR, I am alright with them partnering with the sport.

Sadly, many do not feel this way, which is fine, but it will be drawing a great deal of attention to the race this weekend: some positive, some negative. The NRA’s sponsorship has in some ways (quite serendipitously) built the race up to be bigger than perhaps it really is. To someone not familiar with NASCAR, if news of a race sponsorship breaks national news, you would probably assume it’s one of the bigger NASCAR events, no? For those reasons, a great deal of casual folk will likely be tuning into the race this Saturday just to see what all of the fuss is about. On the other hand, many in the media and in political circles will unfortunately use the race as a platform to shout out their opinions on the gun control debate, and many of the aforementioned uninformed types will likely bastardize NASCAR for their involvement in the whole thing. Sad as it is, the sport will be a punching bag from Thursday to Sunday, no matter how the weekend plays out.

Either way, the NRA sponsorship will ultimately draw a lot of eyes to NASCAR again this weekend, in particular ones not used to seeing it. So with tensions already high, due to the NRA part of the equation, expect the drivers, teams, and everyone associated with the NASCAR brand to be on their best behavior off the racetrack in an effort not to put the sport in even more hot water. NASCAR can not afford a slip up of any kind; even the slightest whiff of bad PR this weekend could send NASCAR on a wild ride of public ridicule.

2. Will the success of the Gen-6 car continue? How will it race at Texas?

After the first two weeks of the season, things were looking rather bleak for the future of NASCAR’s prized Gen-6 chassis. Daytona was a parade, to put it politely and Phoenix was much of the same. But the last four races since then have more than made up for what the first two lacked, the best of which being the Auto Club event which gave fans a glimpse of what the Gen-6 machines are truly capable of. Excitement appears to have finally returned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but can it actually last? Is the Gen-6 for real?

The latter of those two questions will be tested in Saturday night’s event. Texas, even more so than its 1.5-mile sister track Las Vegas, is exactly the kind of track that the Gen-6 was supposedly built for. With two intermediate track races already in the books, the teams finally have somewhat of a grasp on what it takes to build a competitive setup. Will those notes translate into good racing here? After all, Las Vegas was nowhere near Fontana in terms of competitive balance.

I say there is reason to believe that it will. Texas has a weathered track surface, similar to Auto Club, and has just barely enough room at the end of straightaways to make the draft work for passes. Goodyear has also brought better tires to the racetrack as of late which, combined with Texas’ surface, could bring tire wear into play once again. All of these changes should, in theory open up multiple racing grooves, and if the cars perform as well as they did in traffic, like Auto Club, the racing could be hot and heavy.

The only issue that could hinder the competitiveness of Saturday night’s race is corner entry speed. Texas is roundly considered to be one of the two to three fastest tracks on the circuit, with top speeds estimated to be somewhere around 210 mph. That wasn’t an issue at Auto Club, but given the fact that Texas has about half the number of lanes, it could ramp up the difficulty in making passes. If multiple grooves come into play, as expected, this problem will likely be negated. But as everyone continues to evaluate the Gen-6, especially in green flag runs early on, some might opt for “better safe than sorry.”

3. Will Brian Vickers shine in his first race with JGR?

Brian Vickers, after some promising performances with Michael Waltrip Racing begins a sub assignment for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 this weekend.

The next step in Brian Vickers’ continued return to NASCAR relevancy will take place this Saturday night; he will be handed to the keys to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 machine in the wake of Denny Hamlin’s medical absence. Perhaps even more so than Vickers’ part-time MWR deal, this race will be a key factor as to whether he’ll be deemed ready to make a full return to the Cup Series in 2014. He’ll be piloting one of the best cars in the garage, on a track that is representative of 3/5ths of the series schedule. That makes Saturday a measuring stick, no matter how well he’s performed everywhere else in the No. 55.

Remember, in his “return,” Vickers has only run on short tracks and road courses. Texas will be the first time since 2011 that Vickers will be racing on a mile and a half. As such, this weekend, more than any other, we will finally get to see if Vickers actually has improved as a driver, or if his 2012 performances were just flukes. In the past, he has performed admirably on mile-and-a-half tracks, even notching a pole here at Texas back in 2006. But the Gen-6 car is much different from anything Vickers has ever driven. With that in mind, there’s really no telling where he could finish on Saturday. We only know it will be something of an indictment of where he stands at this moment in time with the Gen-6.

Finish well, and Vickers has a chance to erase any remaining doubts about his skill this weekend. As such, he will most definitely be someone you want to keep an eye on throughout Saturday night’s race.

4. Will Roush-Fenway Racing rebound at one of their best racetracks?

Around this time last year, Roush-Fenway Racing was at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup world. RFR driver Greg Biffle took home the checkers in last year’s running of the Sprint Texas event and held the series points lead, leading many to believe that Roush had their fastest cars in Sprint Cup at the time. However, after that race at Texas, the bottom fell out for Roush-Fenway Racing, and that downward slide has continued into 2013. That’s not to say Roush has completely fallen from relevancy; they just simply are not the dominating force they were in 2011 and early 2012. Either that, or they just haven’t quite figured out the Gen-6 race car yet. Even though RFR’s aces Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards sit sixth and seventh in points, the in-race performance just hasn’t been there, and the team’s lone win in 2013 (Phoenix with Edwards) could be more attributed to tire strategy than outright speed. Simply put, RFR is a step behind the other powerhouse teams, and it seems they are still searching for the magic that made them so good in 2011.

Whatever ills have befallen Roush as of late ought to at least be cured in part with a trip to Texas. Arguably the team’s best track, they have won the Spring event the past two years and have delivered 18 wins as a team across NASCAR’s top 3 series at Fort Worth. So if there were ever a track for the team to finally get going, Texas would be it. All three drivers have had success in the past, listing the facility among their favorites in the sport. If Roush-Fenway Racing has any hope of making serious noise in 2013, a win this weekend in Texas is something of a must.

As such, the performance of all three of Roush’s drivers will bear watching this weekend. Another race of mediocrity for the team could be a signal that bigger problems are afoot in Roush-land. You can be sure that team owner Jack Roush won’t be afraid to shake things up in terms of personnel if Texas proves to be another dud for his organization.

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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