The Daytona 500 is just over a month away but 34 teams rolled into the Daytona International Speedway last week for three days of testing with the new Generation 6 race car that will be used for the first time this season. In years past the annual January test session has been used to work out the kinks of the new rules package for the upcoming season, but this time it was all about trying to find some speed in the new cars.
NASCAR knows that its Daytona test sessions are the most important of the year because not only do they give teams the opportunity to shake down their new cars, they also give the sanctioning body the opportunity to see how its new rule package plays out on the track. The pressure is squarely on NASCAR to get it right in order to start the new season with a great show in the Daytona 500 that will give the sport a ton of momentum as it starts its long schedule that doesn’t conclude until November.
Teams began the testing on Thursday with single car runs as everyone was in the hunt for speed and trying to figure out how good the cars would handle on the highspeed restrictor plate track. Most teams were content to run without being in the large drafting packs that we always see at Daytona, but NASCAR wanted to see what the cars would do running in the draft and encouraged as many teams as could to participate in a drafting session on Friday.
If you remember, restrictor plate racing at both Daytona and Talladega had been dominated by two-car drafts in recent years with the driver in the rear trying to put his bumper through the car in front of him. The bumping allowed both cars to go faster and was the accepted ways of restrictor plate racing with the old Car of Tomorrow, but as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose found out during that Friday afternoon test session, the new Generation 6 car didn’t like a bumper being put to it.
Early in the drafting session Dale Jr. in his Chevrolet gave Marcos Ambrose a bump in the rear of his Ford that actually lifted up the rear end of Ambrose’s car causing him to go into a spin. The spin eventually would involve 12 drivers and for many of them it ended their test a day early.
While Dale Jr. caused the wreck, it was a move that someone was going to have to eventually make to see if the two-car style of racing could be used this season. The 12 cars that went spinning in every direction quickly gave everyone the answer to that question as the bumpers of the new cars no longer will line up like the cars that were used last season.
Now it seems that the racing will go back into the hands of the drivers as drafting will still be the key to winning at Daytona next month, but it should now revert back to the kind of drafting that we use to see before the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007. No longer will the bump draft be used to work the way up through the field, instead drivers will have to rely on a layer of air to move the car in front of them.
Drivers also quickly picked up on the fact that the new car has about 50 percent less down force in the rear that caused the rear end to jump out from under them as they enter and exit the corners. This just adds to the race moving more back into the hands of the drivers and it could be the drivers that experienced success using the draft before the Car of Tomorrow may have an advantage when the season gets underway next month.
Teams will get one more chance to tweak on their cars this week when they return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the second test there since the conclusion of the 2012 season. One concern for this test is that some teams may not have enough of the new cars prepared to attend the test. Every team, regardless of what make of car it uses, must use a common rear deck lid that is being supplied by NASCAR.
Most teams went to Daytona with only one car as up to this point only 50 of the rear deck lids have been distributed to the teams. NASCAR officials don’t expect a shortage going into the 500 as beginning this week NASCAR should begin shipping 50 rear decks each week leading up to the race.