New Car Improves NASCAR Racing

Sam Hornish Jr. (12) drafts behind Martin Tuex Jr. in Gen 6 cars | AP photo

Although the sample size is small – just five races, including Daytona – NASCAR appears to have found the right combination of style and performance with its Gen 6 race car.

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t kept up with the five previous incarnations of stock cars, the nomenclature is new. The French family just went back in time and retroactively designated five previous eras of automotive design history.

Both the redesign and the labeling are important. Historical markers are necessary, as is the need for cars to look like cars.

The Car of Tomorrow quickly became the Car of Yesterday in a large part because skin templates were so uniform you couldn’t tell a Camry from a Charger. That’s a big deal in NASCAR country. Next to the drivers, manufacturer support is the second biggest attractor of fans. Bill Elliot was truly Awesome Bill, but if you weren’t a Ford supporter, odds were you went hunting for another favorite driver. The COT was a safer vehicle than its predecessors, but the brand image became lost in a sea of sameness.

Naturally, not all have agreed the changes are superior. Denny Hamlin was the first to criticize the car and was hit with a $25,000 fine. Expect more widespread support in the future.

Whether the Gen 6 is truly a better car likely will not be known for some time. But what cannot be argued is that the car has done exactly what NASCAR chairman Brian France wanted. It has created less mass drafting, stresses driver control over aerodynamics, and has put some of the good ol’ boy back into racing.

“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 told AP last week.

He’s also not going to punish people tossing a punch or two.

Tony Stewart’s attempted assault on Joey Logano following the race at Fontana was met with a collective yawn by the first family.

“We’re not going to allow a boxing match to take place every time they have a disagreement. But on the other hand, we’re not going to prevent the emotional exchanges that occur after a race,” said France, whose grandfather Bill France Sr. first organized a collection of bootleggers to create the nation’s preeminent auto racing enterprise.

Hamlin may not agree, especially after a 200 mph game of tag with Joey Logano sent him into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Hamline will be out six to eight weeks with a back injury.

But France so far has been proven correct.The racing has been outstanding, and the ending’s a white-knuckle ride of fear and loathing. (See the final 10 laps at Fontana.)

Las Vegas had a record 31 green-flag passes for the lead, which on a 1.5-mile oval is impressive. For the season, lead passes have totaled 147, up from 122 a year ago, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is early-season points leader. Most important, television ratings and attendance are up.

At least for now, this is the new NASCAR. Which is to say, it’s also the old NASCAR.

It’s Yarborough vs. Allison, Elliot vs. Earnhardt, and Robby Gordon walking in the middle of yellow flag traffic at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2005 to throw his helmet at a passing Michael Waltrip.

It’s a 54-year-old Memphis man whose obituary read “went to be with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Dale Earnhardt …”

After his second-place finish at Las Vegas, Kasey Kahne said the car responded in ways previous generations did not. “I could race underneath other cars and do things I couldn’t do here in the past. I had battles for the lead five or six times. I felt I could pass anywhere.”

Want to see a parade? Watch Formula 1.