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2013 Daytona 500: Drivers Adapt to Gen 6 Cars

NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran Jeff Burton poses with a fan during Saturday's prep for the 2013 Daytona 500.

As the roar of today’s kickoff Nationwide race at the Daytona International Speedway shakes the track’s hot pits and Media Center, the top NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are making final adjustments for Sunday’s 2013 Daytona 500.

The dominant topic on every Sprint Cup driver’s mind is the ongoing familiarization process with the New Gen 6 NASCAR vehicles.

This year’s racing sees a return to a more genuine “stock car” look and feel. In recent years, due to concerns for driver safety following the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR introduced the “Car of Tomorrow” philosophy – sacrificing car performance and demanding safer racing from drivers. Regardless of whether a NASCAR ride was a Chevy, Ford, Dodge or Toyota, the overall appearance and parts of each car were predominantly uniform.

Unfortunately, that mix of similarity and limitation can make for less competitive and less exciting racing under some conditions. Enter 2013’s Gen 6 cars. While the vehicles still contain all of the same driver safety systems and precautions, the individual makes are forging a comeback. The Chevy, Ford and Toyota race cars look more like the models with which NASCAR fans can drive their kids to school than dedicated race cars built only for tracks.

That means racing parts are being built specifically for car makes, and the NASCAR-stamped part that fits a Toyota won’t fit a Ford, etc. It increases competition between pit crews, car makers and sponsors – and returns to the old days when Ford people could hate Chevy people, while both of those groups hate Toyota.

More importantly, turning away from the limiting, homogenous Car of Tomorrow design should allow proper car physics to return and allow tighter, more aggressive racing (especially on smaller tracks where added grip can make a huge difference).

Twenty year NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton tested the Gen 6 designs earlier this year in Charlotte and seemed satisfied with how the technology is progressing after his final practice laps Saturday.

“I’m just a redneck from Virginia,” Burton said. “But, I believe you don’t make better racing while removing grip. I said so then (when NASCAR changed to Car of Tomorrow), and I was right.”

“We’re still making adjustments. You need to remember we’re early on this process after getting thrown into it for 2013, so it’s taking some time to get used to (Gen 6).”

Burton will start at 18th on the grid Sunday after finishing in the top 5 during last year’s rain-extended Daytona 500.

“I like the new cars, and we’ve been running well here all week,” he added. “We’ll make some final, minor adjustments, and I’m feeling good about tomorrow.”

On the other end of the age and experience spectrum, 22-year-old Joey Logano is not only getting used to the Gen 6 cars, he’s also adjusting to a new crew after making the first team change of his young career.

“With restrictor plate racing on a big oval like this, I don’t know if we’ll see a big difference (with the new Gen 6 cars),” Logano said. “But, on smaller tracks, like next week in Phoenix and the week after that in Las Vegas, it’ll be interesting to see what the racing is like with more grip.”

“I just think it’s great for the fans that these cars will look more like the cars they can buy from showrooms.”

When the green flag flies Sunday, Logano will be making his first career start in the Shell/Pennzoil #22 car for Penske. That seems like a more daunting change to Logano than jumping into a new race car design.

“I’d been with Joe Gibbs racing since I was 15,” Logano said. “So, it did feel a little strange at times to make the change. Driving with Gibbs Racing was a great experience, but I’m excited to be working with my new Penske team. I think it’s going to be a great 2013.”