After getting two test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway done, the three-day test in Daytona completed and after talking to the drivers, crew chiefs, NASCAR and the fans, one thing is apparent to me. In 2013 the car is the star in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Now sure, the guy sitting behind the wheel is always going to get top billing, that’s just a given.
But that said, I am so very excited about what NASCAR is doing with this new Gen-6 car. I believe this is the spark our sport needs. We’ve kind of stalled out and gotten stale. Attendance has been down. Television ratings have been flat or in some cases even down. So we needed something to get us fired up again.
It had to be something big and dramatic. A rule change by NASCAR or a procedure change simply wasn’t going to do it. It had to be something that the teams, the media and especially the fans could wrap their arms around and really get excited about. I am here to tell you that his new car has done it.
Back in 1981 after I had just joined Junior Johnson, NASCAR introduced the Generation 4 car. It was a totally different concept and different car. It was totally redesigned. It really shook the sport up at the time. As a driver, we had never driven anything like that before. It affects the teams because they had never built nor worked on a car like that before. It really energized the sport.
If you think back to the 1980s, well those were great years. The manufacturer identity was so obvious. We literally used to go to the showroom floor to get an idea of how to build the cars to what NASCAR would accept under the rules package at the time. Unfortunately as we got through the 1990s and into this new era of NASCAR racing, we really had gotten away from that.
There was a time when the manufacturer had input into every aspect of the car. It didn’t matter if it was a Dodge, a Chevrolet, a Ford or a Toyota, because every manufacturer had themselves in the mix making sure they got everything — or pretty much everything — they wanted. Then there seemed to be some type of shift within NASCAR that maybe the manufacturers were too involved.
Then obviously after the string of tragedies we had, culminating with Dale Earnhardt Sr being killed in February 2001, safety became the primary focus on another generation of cars. I challenge you to find anyone that won’t say that NASCAR hasn’t done a simply amazing job making our race cars safer, our tracks safer and, obviously the most important, making our drivers safer. We all know that and applaud them for it.
In the process of all that however, we went from a race car to a safe car. Despite its incredible advancements in safety features, nobody liked the Car of Tomorrow. From Day 1, the C.O.T. car was U-G-L-Y. The braces on the front nose that held the splitter in place looked like you had braces on your teeth. It had that big ol’ ugly wing on the back. Stock cars have spoilers, not wings.
The C.O.T. was a totally different concept and a totally different look. Nobody wanted it, but NASCAR said this was what we had to use. Drivers hated the way it looked and more importantly, they hated the way it drove. The fans didn’t like the way it raced. So that really took us down for a while. When you couple that with the economic crisis, price of gas. etc., it’s no wonder our sport took a little dip.
However, when NASCAR realized as a sport we were going in the wrong direction, they got on it. Granted it might not be overnight changes like I or the fans wanted, but they recognized the problem and immediately began to address it. When there was a safety issue, they got on it and again, now we have the safest race cars and race tracks in our sports history.
Then they saw that the C.O.T. solved one problem but was causing others. So now they have addressed that. The thing I really liked was NASCAR worked hand in hand with all the manufacturers these last couple of years to bring this new Gen-6 car to life. I was especially impressed that the manufacturers worked closely with each other to put a better car on the track.
So now we have a safe car that is back to a race car. It looks great. It looks like what you could walk into your local car dealership and buy off the showroom floor. These new Gen-6 cars are a home run. These cars look great and they are fast.
The other issue NASCAR addressed on these cars was the weight. They realized they are too heavy, specifically too right-side heavy. We haven’t reduced the weight of these cars in quite a while, but NASCAR has done that with this Gen-6 car.
Too much right-side weight makes the cars drive bad. It makes the car feel like it’s going to turn over all the time when it’s going into the corner. So when you put left-side weight into the car it makes it feel like it wants to dig into the track.
So they made a weight adjustment. They eliminated that crabbing look that the cars had when they were going down the straightaway. That made the cars look ugly too, so that’s been addressed and these new cars won’t be running sideways down the straightaway anymore. Sure, teams were still given some options they can work with on the rear ends of these cars, but nothing like what we’ve seen in the past.
This Gen-6 car addresses all the past issues and now this thing is a rocket ship. In single-car runs at Daytona the cars were hitting 195 mph. Come qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, which you can watch on FOX, you should see the cars hitting 196- and maybe 197 miles per hour.
The speeds were even up at a non-restrictor plate track. The two tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway already had teams running under the track record. This car is well balanced, has a lot of power and good grip.
All those things will equate to great racing and let’s face it, that’s the bottom line that everyone is trying to get to. I think it is really going to be impressive. Now sure, there are givens at places like Daytona and Talladega that aren’t going to change. It’s when we get to the other sized tracks on our schedule that you are going to see one heck of a show.
Back in the day we had a personal relationship with our cars. We had an emotional tie to it. I named my cars. Heck, when I was working on them in the shop I would even talk to them. I loved my car. I gave my car names like Bertha, Betty, Wanda and on occasion when I needed to really, really stretch fuel mileage, I would call my car Wilma, as in “Wilma I going to make it.” I guess in the spirit of full disclosure, I had one nicknamed “Hemorrhoid” but that really doesn’t need any more detail on why.
So we are getting back to that type of scenario. The drivers are embracing these new cars. I have yet had a driver say a negative word about the Gen-6 car. In addition, the fans and the media are also embracing the car. I really believe this is the spark we needed that will put fans back in the grandstands and folks back on the couch watching the races on Sundays.
That’s why I named this column “The Way We Were” because it’s like that Barbra Streisand song. We’ve got the memories of the way things were and I truly believe we are going to make some new, great ones with this new Gen-6 car.
I am jacked up and I haven’t even had a Mountain Dew yet. I am jacked up to get to Daytona here in about two and a half weeks and go through this 2013 season. Don’t forget, the first time we will see these cars in competition will be Saturday night under the lights for the newly named Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona on Feb. 16.
I did want to mention that the other fun storyline we have to follow this year, in addition to this new car is the Rookie of the Year battle. I think it will be an exciting one and definitely one of the most high-profile ones we’ve ever had. You have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford taking on Danica Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
If that wasn’t enough to get you excited, don’t forget there are new driver/team combinations this year. Matt Kenseth starts a fresh chapter in his career by moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. Joey Logano has turned the page in his relatively young career and moved to Penske Racing. Plus don’t forget, in addition to Joey coming over to Penske, as an organization as a whole, Penske Racing has switched over to Fords.
We have so much to cover this year that it will take the whole Daytona 500 Speed Weeks just to get it all in. You are in for the ride of your life this season folks and you are going to get to do it in a brand new car.