NASCAR's Gen-6 a work in progress; Carl Edwards relevant again
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
By: Athlon Sports | 3/4/13, 1:08 PM EST
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.
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