Has the NASCAR Sprint Cup Generation 6 car evened the playing field?
Before the season began, everyone attempted to be armchair crew chiefs and predict how the new cars would perform. But entering Daytona Speedweeks, no one really had a clue.
Now, after the first 10 races on the schedule on a variety of racetracks, the season is starting to take shape. While the same five organizations continue to have drivers top the speed charts and contend for wins, other drivers and teams have had the opportunity to shine with the new Gen-6 car.
At Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, David Ragan came from 10th place with two laps remaining in the race and blew by the fastest cars in the field. The Gen-6 car offered Front Row Motorsports the chance to re-evaluate its inventory. Since team owner Bob Jenkins was forced to change his fleet of cars, he could improve the systems along the way. The result? FRM's first career win.
"Bob and our team made an investment this offseason to go through our chassis, upgrade some of our suspension components. Stuff that other teams do on a weekly basis we got to do at the end of the year," Ragan said. "I look at some of our qualifying stats, some of our running positions at some of the non-restrictor-plate tracks this season, and we're a few spots better and more competitive this year than we were last.
"Absolutely, the Gen-6 car has not only provided for some outstanding races, but it has helped the Front Row Motorsports', the Tommy Baldwin Racings, the smaller teams of Sprint Cup racing be more competitive."
Ragan's crew chief, Jay Guy, doesn't expect to be running alongside the Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing cars in every race. However, he believes with all the teams "starting in the same playing field right now" the Gen 6 has become "a great equalizer."
"It's a great car," Guy added. "It looks great. So far, the results on the racetrack have been, to me, a little bit surprising, but NASCAR did a great job with the Gen-6 car, and we've made our cars a little bit better.
"We're certainly not contending for wins on a weekly basis or even top 10s, but it's enabled us to be a little bit better than what we were in years past, and we look forward to going to Darlington."
So does Furniture Row Racing. Two years ago, the single-car operation broke through at Darlington Raceway with its first company win. On Sunday, FRR was running in the top five before a late-race wreck collected driver Kurt Busch. Similar to Front Row's engine alliance with Roush Yates, Furniture Row has the benefit of top-of-the-line engines through Earnhardt-Childress.
However, Front Row builds its own chassis while Furniture Row's chassis come from Richard Childress Racing. Still, both organizations put the finishing touches on their cars. For Busch, it has paid off with two top-five finishes and three top 10s.
Team owner James Finch and his Phoenix Racing team were also forced to reassess their stable of cars, which became obsolete in the Gen-6 era. Finch receives his engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports and has been historically stout at restrictor-plate tracks. This year, Regan Smith posted top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega. Smith's season-best sixth-place finish on Sunday elevated Finch to an uncharacteristic 14th place in team owner points.
Another breakout team to watch is the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports group with driver Aric Almirola. On Sunday, Almirola scored his fourth consecutive top-10 finish and vaulted four positions in the points standings to seventh. Like the aforementioned teams -- Phoenix and Furniture Row Racing -- which benefit from technical alliances with more established organizations, RPM has a direct pipeline with Roush Fenway Racing.
Almirola was forced to acclimate to three different crew chiefs in 2012, but the third -- Todd Parrott -- was a charm. The two were paired for the last 10 races of the season, and in the final four averaged a 10.5 finish. Parrott's ingenuity and Almirola's ambition have helped this team emerge.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton says that any time the sanctioning body "resets" the parameters "there's opportunity for somebody to do a better job than others to get out there." Pemberton also notes the impact of the laser-inspection platform, which has erased many of the gray areas where teams with a greater depth of engineering could explore and stretch the limits in the past.
"Some of the feedback that we got and continue to get is the laser-inspection platform has actually helped a lot of the teams where they wouldn't have to go into so much of a gray area with the risk of not being able to compete," Pemberton said.
"So it's helped -- that part of it may have helped some of it. But we have gotten some good positive feedback from a lot of the organizations that has made life, as complicated as it looks, has made life a lot simpler for them."
And that's a good thing, especially for companies whose budgets are just a fraction of what the powerhouse organizations have to invest in their teams. And while Front Row Motorsports or Phoenix Racing may not become household names any time soon, sharing the success across the Sprint Cup Series will only make NASCAR stronger as a whole. So it's not surprising that Pemberton doesn't anticipate any changes to the car in the near future.
"We're in a fairly good spot," Pemberton said. "The teams -- one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to . . . it's harder for them to keep chasing that.
"We feel like the playing field is fairly level. It looks like everybody has an equal opportunity to compete, and we don't feel like the teams are done developing their own packages for this car. And as long as the input is -- it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with -- we feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now."