The time and effort that has been poured into the rollout of the Gen-6 Cup car is probably more than the GDP of most Third World countries. The manufacturers have cooperated with each other in unprecedented fashion, and NASCAR has worked with all of them to make the cars as equal as possible while still maintaining the characteristics of the street cars they represent. The release has been forced down the throats of the fans, media and drivers to make sure everyone is on the same page as NASCAR tries to move back to the head of the sports landscape, or at least in the passenger’s seat next to the NFL. Unfortunately, after the first eight days of exposure on the racetrack in competitive events, the report card is somewhere between a C- and an F.
Before the tweets and hateful emails start rolling in from everyone in Detroit, Japan, Daytona and all points in between, restrictor plate racing is far from the only yardstick that will be used to measure this car. In fact, with just four of 36 point races being on plate tracks, there is no need to jump to harsh conclusions after one point race (and three exhibitions). The problem with having the biggest event of the Cup season right out of the gate, though is that more people, fans and non-fans, watch that one than any other on the schedule. As a result, the first impressions of the Gen-6 car are that it is even less competitive than the Generation 5/COT.
After the Sprint Unlimited, Kevin Harvick was quick to point out that, after the initial wreck, there were only 12 cars left on the track and that a line of four cars was not going to be able to move faster than a line of eight. That sounded great until the Budweiser Duels on Thursday. There were 22 and 23 cars in those races and yet it was still a single-car parade around the top of the track, with almost no attempt at two-wide racing after five laps following a restart. You might still be able to play it off that teams knew, barring a major incident, they were going to be in the Daytona 500 and that starting position is unimportant in that race — so why dice it up and potentially damage your 500 car? That all sounded plausible until the green flag dropped on the Great American Race.
Jeff Gordon led the first lap of the race and by lap five, there were at least 15 cars in a single-file parade at the front of the pack. During the event, there were six caution flags which meant there were two rounds of green-flag pit stops. Green-flag pit stops can lead to an exaggerated number of lead changes when, in reality, it is just the cycle of cars getting their service. There were 28 lead changes in Sunday’s Daytona 500, which in itself isn’t a high number to begin with. But after taking out the lead changes during green-flag stops, it appears as though the number of actual, on-track passes for the lead was somewhere very close to 10. Restrictor plate racing isn’t for everyone but, whether you like it or hate it, one thing it has always provided is a myriad of on-track passes for the lead. To see only 28 total passes for first place and have roughly 10 of them be on-track is abysmal.
You can’t blame all of this poor racing on the car. Jimmie Johnson proved, late in the race, that you could make a move on the bottom of the track, although the top line was being led by a car with a damaged front end. There very well may have been several factors that played into drivers’ decisions not to press the issue in the bottom line for most of the race. Saturday’s race finish was fresh on everyone’s mind and many of the competitors may have just decided they didn’t want to risk life and limb to race all out in the event. Car parts might also be weighing on teams’ minds. Hoods and deck lids are still not in abundant supply for this new car design and, especially in the Ford camp, a large number of race cars have been torn up in the last eight days. Drivers and teams may have just been conservative because they don’t have a choice. If they tear up their car, then they’ll be even further behind heading into the early stages of the season. Finally, it may have just been simple physics with the new car. This chassis, in this configuration, just might be faster around the top of the race track.
One thing is for sure; something has to be changed before this new generation of race car hits the high banks of NASCAR’s longest oval in Talladega, Alabama. It may mean the return of the wicker bill, it may mean a bigger spoiler to punch a bigger hole in the air, or it may mean the rear spoiler made even smaller so that drivers are forced to lift and hit the brakes from time to time. One thing is for sure; NASCAR knows that seeing 40 cars driving around in a single-file line for dozens of laps until a caution flag flies is not what fans are going to pay to see. The Trucks put on another exciting race and, until the crash at the finish, the Nationwide event was tremendous. The sport’s powers that be will come up with a new way to have Cup cars pass each other, under power, for the lead and stay in the packs that fans have told the sanctioning body they want to watch.
As was stated at the beginning of this article, this race was the Gen-6 car’s debut. It is one of four plate races that are contested for points. Remember, the majority of the events on the schedule, including 50% of the Chase are on intermediate race tracks. When the engineers were given the mandate for this new car, it was supposed to look like the street car and it was supposed to promote closer racing on those “cookie cutters” that have gotten rather stale as of late. Even Phoenix is going to be a unique event because it is unlike any other track with its dogleg. When the series gets to Las Vegas in March, then makes it to California and Texas and Kansas we’ll see what the car really has to offer. If the racing is great and drivers can pass more easily for the lead on the track, it may be worth sacrificing the plate race excitement that fans have grown accustomed to. If the races on the intermediates are as bad or worse than Daytona, we very well could be seeing the beginning of the end for NASCAR.
Here’s hoping that the Daytona 500 was just the first pop quiz of the semester and, although it was tough and the first grade of the year was near failing, some extra homework and maybe some tutoring will get this car to the head of the class. Don’t write it off just yet; even the Sistine Chapel started with a rough sketch. But it had better improve, and fast.
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