DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR raises the curtain on its 2013 season Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway with The Sprint Unlimited.
While the three-segment, 75-lap race among the previous season’s pole winners will kick off Speedweeks, the race will mark the debut of NASCAR’s next-generation car, which has promised to return the “stock’’ to stock car racing.
Judging from the reviews following preseason testing, it appears the new car — the Gen-6 — has delivered on that promise.
Unlike its uglier predecessor unveiled in 2007, the Car of Tomorrow, which was a homogeneous, rear-winged tank with a spatula-like splitter on the lower front end, the Gen-6 has been widely embraced as a success by manufacturers, fans, and drivers, largely because of its aesthetic appeal.
The sleeker and faster Gen-6 was deemed a hit because it incorporated contours and characteristics that made it resemble the production cars rolling off the assembly lines at Toyota (Camry), Ford (Fusion), and Chevrolet (SS).
“I did not like the way the COT car looked and I think most of the garage would say that,’’ said Brad Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup champion. Keselowski won his title driving a Dodge but will make his defense behind the wheel of the No. 2 Ford Fusion fielded by owner Roger Penske.
So, does the look of the new car matter?
“It does matter,’’ Keselowski said. “It matters because that is the image we portray. I wear a fire suit with a helmet and a full seat around me. You can’t see me.
“What you are seeing is this car going around the racetrack and the sponsors and the car construction, styling, etc. So, that is what you see as a fan.
“So, as an ambassador of the sport, yeah, absolutely it matters.’’
NASCAR helped manufacturers achieve greater brand identity by incorporating several cosmetic changes to the Gen-6, which at 3,300 pounds is 150 lighter than last year’s model.
“We have been working on this car for nearly two years,’’ said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “We have been at the track on and off for well over a year in different stages and forms and configurations of the car.
“Because of the depth of everybody, throughout our entire industry, we were able to take these things and put a long lead time in them and develop a better product.’’
Race teams were tasked with building 2013 cars that had unique body panels and distinctly stylized front grills, with hood and deck lids constructed from carbon fiber. At 196.2 inches, the Gen-6 is 2.3 shorter than its predecessor, most notably on the rear deck lid.
Paint scheme changes will include the driver’s last name across the top of the windshield.
“When you look at the enormity of the project . . . and basically putting three brand-new models of racecars out on a racetrack . . . and put speeds up that are within a 10th of a second of each other — it is an incredible, incredible effort,’’ said Sprint Cup director John Darby.
“I truly believe there is not another racing series in the world that could accomplish what these guys did since we left Homestead [following the 2012 season finale].’’
Now, for the first time since NASCAR campaigned truly stock cars in the 1960s, the racecars on the speedway will look more like the production cars in the showroom, thus returning the sport to the days where manufacturers could win on Sunday and sell on Monday.
“I think it’s something that’s hurt the sport in the last few years,’’ said Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 Toyota fielded by Michael Waltrip Racing.
“When I was a kid, half the reason I pulled for a few of my favorites was because of what kind of car they drove,’’ said Truex, whose father campaigned Chevrolets on the old Busch North Series. “I’d be like, ‘My dad drives that kind of car, so does he, that’s awesome.’ We get that back.
“Our Camry looks just like the Camry that we saw being built last week in Kentucky. It’s amazing. The fans can really relate to that and they can say, ‘Man, look, this guy’s out there winning in the car that I’m driving to work tomorrow.’ That’s awesome. That’s part of the sport that’s been gone for the last few years and I think it’s important that we get it back.’’
Drivers will have to work through some issues with the Gen-6, particularly how it handles in traffic and bump-drafts at Daytona’s high-banked, 2½-mile tri-oval, where a Jan. 11 test session was marred by a multicar crash.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. triggered the accident when he attempted to bump-draft Marcos Ambrose. Because the cars no longer share bodies and chassis, they are no longer capable of linking up nose-to-tail. As a result, Earnhardt turned Ambrose when he bumped him from behind, and lifted his rear end and “wheel-barreled’’ Ambrose down the backstretch.
The crash collected the cars of Aric Almirola, Jamie McMurray, and Keselowski, along with those belonging to Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Regan Smith, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne.
“This car demands you to drive it,’’ Truex said. “It wants you to be aggressive. It likes to be pushed. The car we’ve been running the last few years was the opposite — it was always telling you to slow down and wait and be patient and be smooth. I don’t like that. I like to attack. I like to drive the car.
“It’s so much fun to drive this new car because of that.’’
On Friday, nine minutes into the first practice session for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500, Matt Kenseth turned into Kurt Busch exiting Turn 4 and triggered a five-car mishap.
The Gen-6, evidently, has virtually eliminated bump-drafting at Daytona.
“The sport is rewinding,’’ Keselowski said. “That’s an important thing to say, because the sport advanced to where we got the two-car tandem about three or four years ago. There were certain things that you do to them that you could never do in the past without wrecking.
“Now the rule package has changed back to where we were in the early 2000s, where I think the fans and everybody else enjoyed the racing a little better.
“So, as drivers, we have to rewind back to how we used to drive those cars.’’