After six seasons of forcing competitors and fans to assimilate – and accept – the Car of Tomorrow, it was time for something new.
Enter NASCAR’s new vehicle for the Sprint Cup Series – the Generation 6.
Given the resounding success of the Pony cars in the Nationwide Series, it was clear that stock car racing’s top tour needed to return to its roots.
While the COT served its purpose of providing a safer car for drivers, fans wanted a sexier product on the race track that would create more side-by-side racing. Manufacturers needed to return to a stock option with deeper character lines and brand identity. And competitors desired a model that would not only even the playing field but produce a good show.
Over the last two years, the sanctioning body and its partners have worked diligently to satisfy those needs. Although it’s premature to predict the level of competition before the season begins, optimism is at an all-time high.
During last week’s test of the Gen 6 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, veteran racer Jeff Burton said with the advent of the new car “it’s an exciting time” for the sport.
“The car is a really good-looking car,” Burton said. “It has a lot of potential, as I’ve said before; I think that there has been more work that has gone into this car in the sense of just not the aesthetics but the opportunity to have better races. As we have evolved the sport into much more of a mile-and-a-half oriented sport, it has become harder to have the good, close racing that people want to see.
“The racing is really similar to what it has always been, but I think the fans want more than that today. A lot of effort has gone into making these cars so that we will have better races. I’m really excited about that because I think at the end of the day that is the cornerstone of this sport. It’s an exciting day at the race track whether you are watching it on TV or watching it at the track; without that, the sport is in trouble.”
With every organization starting from scratch with the body construction, it levels the playing field to a great degree -- particularly since critical car parts such as deck lids and hoods were allocated by team on a limited basis. Smaller teams have become increasingly valuable to larger clubs. While companies cannot transfer tests, with the four sessions each organization receives -- whether it's a one- or four-car operation -- the lesser-funded operations can test the latest innovations for the juggernauts in exchange for technological upgrades and data.
Since NASCAR rescinded its testing ban for the 2013 season, not only will teams have the ability to get up to speed with the Gen 6, it will offer drivers valuable seat time. For a Sprint Cup rookie such as Danica Patrick, the new car coupled with ample testing could be a boon.
“For me as a first-year, full-time (driver) in Sprint Cup, I think that a new car is probably a positive for me,” Patrick said on Jan. 10. “Everybody is starting off on sort of a little bit more of a level playing field. Who knows? Maybe this new car will play into my driving style better than the old one.”
Earlier reports Patrick received described the handling characteristics of the Gen 6 to be similar to the latest generation of the Nationwide Series car – which she drove in every race the last two seasons. Patrick is hoping her experience pays off.
“Maybe it will be something that will be more familiar to me,” Patrick added. “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 … we will be starting with a clean sheet of paper for this year. I think that could be a real positive.”
Following last week’s rain-shortened test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton was pleased with the progress the teams were making in the garage. Many teams had advanced from shaking down the cars to durability tests by the end of the Friday’s session.
“Well, we know where the car was last year, where last year's car was, and some of the things,” Pemberton said. “The input that we've gotten about aerodynamics and how cars are around each other, we set out to make a car better than that, and we have given more under the underbody to work with, more area, we've extended the splitters a little bit, so they should react a little bit better in the draft. And if you've noticed, the body is a little bit different shape, so it should react a little bit different in the air.
“Our goal was to start better than we left the last car, and we do have better numbers on the car, and I think the drivers' confidence that they can hustle the car a little bit more will be there with this car once they get their setups fine-tuned.”
Ultimately, NASCAR is hoping to achieve a field of cars that race in closer proximity on shorter and intermediate tracks and separate the cars on the restrictor-plate tracks to prevent the recent trend of tandem racing.
Burton, who has tested the Gen 6 five times during the course of the car’s evolution, believes the sport can accomplish that task particularly with a 150-pound lighter model that features more grip and downforce on the non-plate tracks and “less downforce” and a smaller spoiler at Daytona and Talladega.
“At the end of the day, the better the cars are stuck in the race track, the closer the cars run to each other,” Burton said. “Especially on big tracks, the better the grip is, the closer the action can be.
“I believe that more grip gives the drivers more opportunity to put their car in a position that they wouldn’t be able to put it if they didn’t have that grip. That’s why I think the racing is going to be better.”