DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (USATODAY.com)-- NASCAR's Gen 6 race car makes its Daytona International Speedway debut Thursday amid jubilation about its sportier look and jitters about how teams will adapt to the paradigm shift.
"It's going to be such a steep learning curve at testing to understand what kind of race we'll see in February," Jeff Gordon said. "It's exciting but also nerve-wracking for the unknown. It's going to be a lot of work to get ready for next season."
Sprint Cup teams will be focused on preparations for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24 during the three-day Preseason Thunder test at the 2.5-mile track. Fans, meanwhile, will be fixated on the sleeker cars, which are designed to resemble their Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota showroom counterparts with more distinctive character lines and shapes than the previous Car of Tomorrow model that was much maligned for its homogenized appearance.
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Though the chassis (which was upgraded for safety in its last iteration) remains relatively the same, the overhauled bodies will change the aerodynamic packages that have become the primary determinant of performance.
Besides trying to enhance the action via more side-by-side racing and passing, NASCAR is trying to re-emphasize the old-school mechanical elements -- such as shock absorbers and springs -- beneath the car that impact its handling.
"This new car will be the biggest challenge teams have faced in probably six or seven years because of the way the car will be set up," Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "It's a totally different body style. Those are huge changes for teams. Although it's been tested, we won't see this car in true competition until we get to the Daytona 500, so all this testing is critical in order to come up with a package that will produce the racing everyone is so anxious to see."
Because the mammoth high-banked oval requires restrictor plates that limit airflow to the motor and harness speeds, the Gen 6 will have specialized technical regulations for Daytona unlike most tracks. The spoiler will be more than three inches shorter (though still a half-inch higher than last year's restrictor-plate races).
"It's going to be difficult to glean anything from this test that will bleed over to Phoenix, Vegas or California," Speed analyst Larry McReynolds said. "Daytona and Talladega stand alone for several reasons."
With similar specifications during an October test at Talladega Superspeedway (a sister restrictor-plate track), the new car received positive reviews for its stability in the draft. NASCAR believes the new car also will eliminate the tandem drafting that mostly was eradicated last year through rules tweaks after fans revolted against the two-car trains.
"We are confident we've got a good package," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. "Probably better than last year by a fair margin."
But there has been concern about assembling the new model, which is much more dependent on manufacturers and equipment vendors for mass-produced parts and pieces that once were crafted by teams. Some, such as Michael Waltrip Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, opted to skip a test last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway because the inventories of outside suppliers were too sparse to build cars within the rulebook (some teams elected for carbon fiber bodies instead of steel).
There also is speculation the disparate appearances will mean a divergence in speeds across the makes, reigniting the incessant howling by manufacturers and teams lobbying for rules changes that has been absent over the past decade since NASCAR standardized the cars.
"They've been tested in the wind tunnel and they've been aerodynamically matched up the best they can, but there is no guarantee they'll all be equal and no one will have an advantage," Waltrip said. "When you look at the variances in the bodies this year compared to what they've been in the past, one manufacturer could wind up with a huge advantage at Daytona, and that's something NASCAR will be keeping an eye on."
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski has said the new car will be a game-changer, and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said it might take a few months for teams to settle in with the new model, which is 160 pounds lighter than its predecessor.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin said the new car will demand new setups and suspension adjustments at every track.
"Everyone will be afraid to push the limits on the bodies of the car, so the first one that does and gets away with it will have an edge," he said. "I think one organization will hit on something early and dominate."
A bevy of teams will arrive in Daytona with the modest goal of just learning their drivers' idiosyncrasies and preferences. Matt Kenseth will try to defend last year's Daytona 500 victory in his debut with JGR's No. 20, whose former driver, Joey Logano, will start anew at Penske Racing.
Rookies Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will enter the season with new crew chiefs, as will veterans Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Burton.
"What's important to the teams with new driver and crew chief combinations is what they do outside the car," Waltrip said. "They're just trying to get the team comfortable with each other and to the point they believe in each other. It's a building process, and it really doesn't have nearly as much to do with the car as it does with the people."
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