What have we learned after three days of testing with 34 teams at Daytona International Speedway?
1. The bump-drafting era is over at restrictor plate tracks with the Generation 6 car
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. tapped the back of Marcos Ambrose on Friday, 12 cars were collected out of an 18-car drafting pack. Earnhardt insists the bumpers between the two manufacturers (Chevy and Ford) simply didn’t line up. Martin Truex Jr. posted the third-fastest lap on Friday (199.212 mph) afternoon but the team packed up after he was collected in the “big one” during that session.
Still, from the two days Truex spent on the track, he believes drafting will be “more like it used to be. There were no two-car tandems,” Truex said. “It was somewhat difficult to get on a guy’s bumper and push him, but again you get that little air bubble between you and you could get a guy rolling and get a guy moving in front of you and give him some good momentum and make some passes. It was cool being able to back up off the leader and get runs and take the lead and do things like you used to do. It was a little bit more strategy involved than just holding it wide open and hitting the guy in front of you as hard as you could, so I thought it was cool. It was a lot of fun and I think it’s going to put on a great show when we come back down here."
2. Lack of inventory, lack of testing
For Jeff Gordon and about 10 other teams, Friday’s wreck signified the end of his test. “We were pack drafting, just trying to learn what will the cars (do) and what this aero package is doing. Some guys started forming a line on the inside and things started getting a little more aggressive at that point,” said Gordon, whose test session ended with the wreck due to the absence of a back-up car.
He added his teammates on the No. 48 car “look like the really smart guys in the garage by not drafting.”
3. Where the decklids are …
Sprint Cup teams have been at a disadvantage in preparing their Gen-6 cars due to the limited supply of spoilers being distributed to the teams. Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said the carbon fiber pieces — which are distributed by NASCAR to ensure uniformity and measure four by 53 inches — should be released in groups of 50 starting next Friday.
4. Could this be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally breaks through and wins the championship?
Despite a set of concussions that sidelined NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for two races last season, Earnhardt feels fully recovered and ready to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
“As a team we have improved ever since Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and I started working together,” Earnhardt said. “I’m excited about the car. I’m excited about the opportunities to discover what makes it work and what makes it go fast. I think that if we apply ourselves and stay focused we can have a real solid year. It was a disappointment not to finish as well as we had hoped in the Chase and really go for the championship. We felt like we were a strong enough team at certain parts of the year to definitely do that. We definitely have some unfinished business and feel like we can put forth the same effort and the same results this year.”
5. Let’s play the feud — or not
Don’t mention Jeff Gordon’s name to Clint Bowyer. He doesn’t want to hear it or about his altercation with the Hendrick driver from last year. While it’s unlikely that the two rivals kissed and made up over New Year’s on P Diddy’s yacht in St. Barts, Gordon acknowledged that he and Bowyer talked over the holiday. When pressed for details, Bowyer replied, “Who cares?” Well, Clint, we do and so will the fans the minute the Nos. 15 and 24 share the same real estate in 2013.
6. Jack Roush is "cautiously optimistic" regarding his teams’ progress with the new car
It was clear that outside of the draft that the Fords lacked speed for the first two days of testing compared to the Chevrolets and Toyotas. In the final hour of the sixth and final session, Greg Biffle knocked his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth off the top of the speedchart with laps of 194.936 mph. In the draft, Trevor Bayne was able to post the fastest laps of the entire test session at 199.650 mph. However, in single car runs throughout the three-day test, Toyotas as a group were overwhelmingly the class of the field whether it was Kenseth, Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch. Could this mean the return of manufacturer lobbying? We hope so.
7. Speaking of Matt Kenseth …
The affable veteran and 2003 champ is picking up where he left off from a competitive standpoint. Despite his move to Joe Gibbs Racing after 13 seasons with Jack Roush, Kenseth, who will defend his Daytona 500 title, led two of the six practice sessions over the three-day test. While it might be reckless to make an early call, expect Kenseth to be a champion contender.
8. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t want 2012 to end
Johnson said his No. 48 team “lost” its competitiveness in 2011 and that season couldn’t end soon enough. But last year, when he was battling Brad Keselowski for the title, Johnson felt he left a lot on the table.
“I did a much better job of managing the pressure and stress than any other year,” Johnson said. “I think Chad (Knaus, crew chief) did, my guys did and although it came to an end, I could have gone the next week and raced again. I had more left. I enjoyed the offseason, I had fun, but I’m ready to go racing. I hope that I’ve matured some and understand how to lay out the season. Know when to take some breaks in between some races and just disconnect and set a pace that I can keep for another 10 or 15 years and stay in the sport.”
9. We really wish we would have seen more of Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski
Keselowski was one of the drivers that packed up early on Friday along with his teammate Joey Logano. Certainly, with Penske Racing’s move from Dodge to Ford it will be curious to see how their performance evolves. Carl Edwards, who struggled dramatically in 2012 and has suffered through a 69-race winless streak, welcomes the Penske contingent into the Blue Oval camp.
“I hope we can share information,” Edwards said. “It would help us a lot. The way that Brad ran at the end of last year, that was spectacular and at the end of the day I hope we have something to give them so that they will reciprocate. The more teams you have working together the more information you have and more ideas you have and it makes things better. I am looking forward to it and hope we get to share a lot of information.”
10. Rookie contenders
NASCAR’s favorite Sprint Cup freshmen Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick used the test to acclimate with their new teams. Although Stenhouse felt his car lacked speed, he was pleased with the chemistry of his new team led by crew chief Scott Graves and two additional engineers. The current Nationwide Series champ says his Cup strategy is to "be smooth and consistent."
Patrick believes introducing a new car this year will be an equalizer for her.
“Everybody is starting off on sort of a little bit more of a level playing field,” Patrick said. “Who knows, maybe this new car will play into my driving style better than the old one. … I think that especially with a new car, being a new driver, I’m not going to be looking for a feeling that the old car gave me; because I don’t really know it that well. Especially, going with Tony Gibson and the guys for the last couple of races with some different set-ups I think that we will be starting with a clean sheet of paper for this year. I think that could be a real positive.”