In The Pits: So far so good for NASCAR's new car
The only certainty at the unveiling of NASCAR's new car was that the Gen-6 was aesthetically pleasing.
The new design looked more like a stock car and returned brand recognition to the manufacturers. Adding driver names to the windshield was a late addition, but a sporty touch.
But if the Gen-6 wasn't racy, NASCAR's exhaustive yearlong effort would amount to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.
Turns out all that hand-wringing was unnecessary.
Through nine races, the on-track action with the Gen-6 is much improved from a year ago, when fans were screaming about how boring NASCAR had become. The races haven't been perfect, but there's been no shortage of story lines and few runaway wins.
"I'm telling you, whoever designed this new car, we should kiss 'em every weekend. It's creating drama," Clint Bowyer said after Saturday night's race at Richmond. "We haven't seen racing like this in years, since I first started in this sport (in 2004). When you can leave a race track and there's people in tears because they won, and in tears because they got crashed, that's what brings us to the race track, that kind of racing and determination and passion."
The idea behind the Gen-6 was to improve the racing on intermediate tracks, where it was unwatchable at times last year.
NASCAR suffered through a brutal stretch last spring of painfully long green-flag runs with very little side-by-side racing. There were few cautions beyond occasional yellow flags for debris, and a four-race stretch without a multicar accident.
The problems were never more glaring than Memorial Day weekend, when just hours after one of the most exciting Indianapolis 500's in history, NASCAR staged a nearly four-hour snoozefest at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Only nine cars were on the lead lap of the Coca-Cola 600 when Kasey Kahne beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line by a whopping 4.295 seconds.
The racing hasn't been so monotonous this year and the statistics back it up after nine races:
— There have been 1,203 more green flag passes throughout the field.
— The average margin of victory is .634 seconds, compared to 1.759 seconds last year.
— There are 49.9 percent of the cars finishing on the lead lap this year, up from 38.2 last year.
— The percentage of cars running at the finish of the race is up 3 percent to 83.2.
And, as Bowyer said, the drama has increased immensely.
Former teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano crossed paths in the closing laps of the season-opening Daytona 500, and the feud culminated with their white-knuckled, door-to-door race to the finish in California last month. Each driver was so bent on not losing to the other, they ended up wrecking moments after Kyle Busch slid past them for the victory.
The accident sent Hamlin to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a compression fracture in a vertebra that has sidelined him the last four races. Injury aside, that's the racing NASCAR chairman Brian France had in mind when he demanded his senior management design a car that could improve the product.
"I have said repeatedly, every minute, that contact, especially late in the race when you are going for a win, that's not only going to happen — that's expected," France said last month. "Both of them did exactly what I think you would do when you really, really want to win. Getting some contact, trying to race extra hard to win the race, that's what we're about."
It was on display again Saturday night at Richmond when a late caution sent the race into overtime for a two-lap sprint to the finish. Kevin Harvick rocketed from seventh to first, while Tony Stewart was knocked out of the groove by a hard-charging Kurt Busch, who called the final two laps "a free for all."
Stewart restarted fifth, was bumped out of the way by Busch, and wound up 18th and angry.
"He just rammed right into us there at the end," Stewart said through a team spokesman.
Logano, who finished third at Richmond and joked several times how pleased he was to not be in the middle of any new drama, praised the new car for improving the action.
"Like Clint said, about every single race has been entertaining and crazy, especially the finishes of them," Logano said. "I think the car has done a great job. They look awesome, they have put on a good race. So we don't really have anything to complain about."
The Gen-6 is 150 pounds lighter than the old car, which makes them a little easier to drive and allows drivers to push a little harder. Changes to the design have helped eliminate the aerodynamic push that limited passing on bigger tracks, almost doubled the rear camber to put more grip in the rear tires and added more downforce that has given drivers more confidence to attempt a pass.
"You can be aggressive with the cars," Harvick said. "Last year, the spoiler was shortened, it's hard to be aggressive with those cars because they're so edgy, you don't have a lot of confidence in racing side-by-side. I feel like I can drive my car in 10 miles deep, do what I have to do on the inside of another car, not worry about spinning out and wrecking."
The next test is Talladega, where everyone is waiting to see how the car performs. The two-car tandem racing of the last several years was widely panned by fans, and NASCAR eliminated it last year with changes to the rules package.
But the result was a wreckfest last May in which Stewart shredded the product in post-race and suggested a radical tongue-in-cheek change to the racing, making the track "a figure 8. And/or we can stop at halfway, make a break, and turn around and go backwards the rest of the way. Then with 10 to go, we split the field in half and half go the regular direction and half of them go backwards."
The Gen-6 isn't guaranteed to eliminate the wrecks that have become a staple of restrictor-plate racing, but it has added a spark everywhere else.
"I think there's still a few things here and there, whether it be the superspeedways that everybody wants to see how the racing is at Talladega compared to how it was at Daytona," Harvick said. "There's still some unanswered questions. But I think all in all, it's been a huge success so far."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.