Jury remains out on new Cup car

Feb. 13, 2013 @ 07:47 PM

In recent weeks, NASCAR officials made an all-out push, that at one point included media stops, extolling the virtues of the new version of cars raced in its premier Sprint Cup Series.

One of the selling points: With help of the three auto makers involved in the series, the new wheels (be still my heart) bear a resemblance to cars driven on the street, something they did from the time the sport started with cars driven off the showroom floor in 1949 until NASCAR drifted in the last decade toward cars with common bodies with minor differences and then to the Car of Tomorrow — which was a common car with brands identified through decals and not much more.
The lack of brand differentiation brought howls from long-time fans. So, NASCAR decided to get back to its roots.
“When NASCAR started, people came to see the cars,” said seven-time champ Richard Petty, who has been around the sport since his father Lee competed in the first race for the series ever in 1949. ”They were Ford people or Chevrolet people and rooted for that because they had never heard of Lee Petty, Junior Johnson or Fireball Roberts. Over time, the car faded away and the personalities came out. The last 10 years, there was no car identity. Now we need the personalities but we need the car identity because sometimes the car identity will get you a new fan because they may not have heard of Jeff Gordon or whoever. They don’t know those names but they have heard of a Ford or Chevrolet.”
In promoting the difference, NASCAR would have you think that the new cars are one of the biggest revolutions in the sport. It’s a change but not nearly as big as the move to the radically different Car of Tomorrow in 2007 or to smaller wheelbase cars in 1981, according to Petty.
“The change to the smaller cars in 1981 was big,” Petty said. “But, the biggest change was going to the Car of the Future because they brought in all the safety features. They got that done and put a body on it. This is taking the same car and putting a new body on it. The other stuff is pretty much the same. As far as working on the car and spending monies on the car, it is not a drastic change.”
Now the question is whether the beauty is more than skin deep and if the aerodynamics of the new bodies and other mechanical changes will result in better racing. For the long haul, that question won’t be answered at Daytona over Speedweek, which begins with practice on Friday and ends with the Daytona 500 a week from Sunday.
What is known for Daytona is drivers won’t be able to tandem race (one car pushing another clear of the pack) as easily because the rear bumpers and front bumpers don’t match up squarely as they did with the Car of Tomorrow.
How much impact the new car will generate won’t be known until the Tour competes on the 1.5-mile tracks that populate the circuit.
Based on testing so far, drivers say look for higher speeds.
“We were going a lot faster,” Dave Blaney said of a test last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We were going a lot further into the turns before we let off.  The cars seemed stable. With the increased speeds and downforce, there is a challenge in keeping the front of the car from scraping the track. And  we need to see how much tires are going to wear.”
Jimmie Johnson sees the potential for better racing.
“NASCAR’s intention is to give us a car that is more stable so we can have more side-by-side racing and give us an opportunity to be more aggressive on restarts,” Johnson said. “And through the course of a race if you have more downforce, you might be more willing to force your way into a situation beside of someone. The car is very comfortable, speeds are up. It’s a very forgiving car, one you can drive ten-tenths every lap.”
But, drivers won’t really know until they get into competition.
“We’ll probably know five or six races in,” Denny Hamlin said. “Particularly on the mile and a halfs how are they driving and if you can pass the guy out front, that will be the key that you’ll know. And we really can’t tell from the tests. You have to have all 43 cars out there because the air is so different than it is with just a few cars.”

While the new car will be the center of attention, that’s not the only thing new for this year.
There’s Matt Kenseth moving over to Joe Gibbs Racing; Joey Logano moving from Gibbs to Penske Racing; Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. being an item off the track while competing for rookie of the year; Carl Edwards trying to rebound from a disappointing 2012 while being paired with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig; and Kurt Busch in his first full season with Furniture Row Racing.

A total of 19 drivers are entered in Saturday night’s Unlimited exhibition race, which was formerly known as the Shootout. ... NASCAR unveiled its forced air track-drying system on Tuesday. ... Trey Hutchens, 14-year-old son of longtime team manager Bobby Hutchens, will compete in Monday’s late model portion of the Battle of the Beach for short-track racers on a quarter-mile track to be laid out on Daytona’s backstretch. Races for NASCAR Tour Modifieds and the K&N Series are slated Tuesday. Area drivers entered in the Modified race are Burt and Jason Myers, Brian Loftin, Luke Fleming, John Smith and Brandon Ward.