NASCAR has unleashed a new car on its drivers and fans (called Generation 6, or Gen-6 for short) and it's bound to shake up the race for the chase in 2013.
The Gen-6 car offers several changes and improvements over the now-old COT that the circuit has been using since 2007. Among them are its lighter weight and increased down force. The overall effect should be greater handling and potentially higher speeds.
As with any major change to an automobile however, who benefits and who loses are dependent mostly on two major factors: driving style and adaptability. An aggressive driver, for example, should be able to parlay the added grip into bolder moves and higher finishes. Also, a crew chief/team that is able to get a firm grasp on the new car quickly will be able to set up the car for his driver, while others are still "swinging for the fences."
With those things especially in mind, who fits the bill? Who will benefit most from the Gen-6 car in 2013?
Burton used to be a staple at the front of NASCAR's biggest series. In 2008 (the first full season under the COT), Burton won two races, posted 7 Top 5's, 18 Top 10's and an average finish of 12.47.
While it's true that Burton also had two solid seasons preceding 2008 under the fourth generation car, the transition to the COT didn't hinder him at all. In fact, that was his best season since 2000.
Burton bemoaned the fact that NASCAR has traded several half-mile (and mile) race tracks for the "cookie cutter" 1.5 mile ovals. However, he also displayed a solid grasp of what's going on with the new car.
To be sure, Burton's RCR crew has a lot of work to do to get back on top. In 2012, their average finish was a paltry 19.61, which was only slightly worse than 2011's average of 18.28.
It's his experience with the various incarnations of race car that has helped Burton in the past and will help him again in 2013. His sheer understanding of this car and what it can do should help propel him past those that are still trying to figure it all out.
Burton should particularly find success at Daytona and Talladega. On the shorter tracks, he might find the increase of aggressive driving a little harsh for his more "mature" style, but Burton's no fool. What's more, he's no coward.
Expect him to keep within striking distance on the intermediate tracks, then push the envelope to make a move on the leaders. The new car will fit his experience and ability better than the previous generation and potentially better than any he's driven.
Extra down force means extra grip. Extra grip means the potential for bolder moves.
Who could possibly benefit from the ability to make bold moves? Hmmm...maybe...Kyle Busch?
Admit it, you thought for a moment that I was going to channel Dana Carvey's Church Lady and say Satan, didn't you?
Well, for Rowdy haters, they may be one and the same. If that's the case, be ready for a season straight out of you-know-where.
Busch has always been an aggressive driver, pushing the envelope with his car. Many times it panned out. Other times, it just got him into trouble.
Like Burton, Busch's best season was 2008 when he won eight races and posted an average finish of 12.47. It's no real surprise. The COT featured better handling than the previous generation and allowed Rowdy to successfully put the car in places that might have ordinarily seen him sliding into the wall.
The competition eventually caught up to Busch, but in the initial running of the COT, his style combined with the new aero package made for some profitable finishes.
I would expect nothing less than a repeat performance in 2013 as the new car comes straight to Rowdy's aggressive style. Expect some fantastic passing and wow moments as Busch pushes this new car to the edge of the threshold and comes out looking brilliant in the end.
When JPM made the move from Formula 1 and Indy cars to NASCAR, he found the sledding pretty tough. The cars were heavier and featured far less grip than what he was used to.
What's more, Montoya has long been known on the open wheel circuits as an aggressive driver. That aggressiveness didn't pay off in NASCAR as he made more enemies than friends.
The transition for Montoya from the fourth generation car to the COT wasn't spectacular. Then again, he didn't do so well in 2007 either, finishing 20th in points. The drop to 25th was marginal.
In 2009, Montoya burst onto the scene finally, claiming seven top five's, 18 top ten's and an average finish of 14.25. He finally seemed to be mastering the oval tracks (his two victories to date have been road courses). Montoya finished that season 8th in points.
Then, he faded into near obscurity all over again.
With the new car, Montoya may well find the handling more familiar. The lighter weight—while still heavier than Indy or Formula 1 cars—combined with increased down force should feel more like the vehicles he was so successful in rather than the bulky, "elephant on roller skates" he's been trying to conquer.
If aggression is the style he favors, he should find it somewhat easier to stick his nose in tight places and make it stick.
I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that JPM will strike out and win a Sprint Cup title in 2013. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see something of a resurgence from the Colombian, thanks in large part to a car more suited to his style.
Earnhardt had a successful 2012 campaign compared to the two seasons prior. In fact, he posted a tremendous 10.85 average finish and led the points standings mid-season. It's almost unfortunate that he has to shake all that up by having to break in a new car.
I don't think he's fretting it.
After initial tests at Daytona, Earnhardt was pleased with the way the new car felt. At least on Super Speedways, the cars are more like the fourth generation car. That suits Dale Jr. to a tee.
Remember that Junior won a Daytona 500 (two wins total at Daytona) in the old-old car. Remember that he owned Talladega in the old-old car (five wins, average finish of 15.0).
In the COT, Earnhardt struggled on the tracks that used to be his forte.
I've been touting the increased down force of the Gen-6 car, but on Super Speedways it actually has less. The decreased weight with a smaller spoiler makes the new car slippery and more like the touchy old cars that Earnhardt understood and loved.
What about all of those intermediate tracks?
Crew Chief Steve Latarte was a godsend for Earnhardt last year. The communication between driver and crew chief is better than it's been perhaps throughout Junior's entire career. Latarte understands Earnhardt's language and knows how to fix the car the way Dale needs it.
I'm confident that won't change with the new car.
On the intermediate tracks where drafting is somewhat less important and grip goes farther than raw speed, Earnhardt should not see a drop from last season's success.
Most importantly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is displaying an energy and confidence we haven't seen from him since his early days in the series. He's hungry and believes in his team. The new car may be the missing piece that takes him over the top in 2013.
Since Jimmy Johnson started his full-time ride in the Lowe's No.48 car, he has never finished the season ranked lower than 10th. His five consecutive championships spanned from 2006 through 2010, traversing the transition from the fourth generation car to the COT.
In other words, the man has won in whatever car they've put him in. So, why does any car benefit him over any other?
Simply put, Johnson needs less time than virtually anyone else to adapt to the car under him.
It could also be noted that crew chief Chad Knaus is as good as it gets at setting up cars Jimmy can drive. It's a rare day when the car is so far off that Knaus can't bring it back around to Jimmy by the end of the race.
While other drivers/crew chiefs struggle to get the feel and setup of this new car, Johnson will be busy leading laps and winning races. If you think I'm wrong about that, just look at his stats. You'd be a fool to bet against him.
Make no mistake about this: Danica Patrick will not be challenging for a Sprint Cup title in 2013. That doesn't mean she won't benefit greatly from the Gen-6 car that NASCAR has introduced.
For as many fans as Patrick has in the sport, she has as many detractors. Open wheel racers have had a notoriously difficult time adjusting to stock cars, with the obvious exceptions of Tony Stewart and—to a lesser degree—Juan Pablo Montoya.
Many fans just aren't that impressed with Patrick as a driver, and wish there wasn't so much focus on her.
Whatever your feelings about Ms. GoDaddy, the Gen-6 couldn't have come at a better time for her.
When Patrick joined the series on a limited schedule last season, she was going head-to-head with drivers that were well versed in the nuances of the COT. They'd been driving it for five years. She was coming in fresh from Indy cars and was having to learn virtually everything about driving a race car all over again.
Now, the playing field is more level. While she's building on what she learned last season, other drivers are also having to learn what these new cars can and cannot do. They may well be struggling with where they can go every bit as much as she does.
Who ultimately succeeds in 2013 will have much to do with who masters the learning curve of the new car the quickest. Danica benefits greatly from the new car in the sense that she's no longer so far behind that curve as everyone else.
Daytona may be a nightmare for her as the reduced spoiler size will make the car handle far less favorably than the Indy cars she used to drive. However, on the other tracks, she might well find that the Gen-6 is closer in handling to the Indy car than anything else she's driven in NASCAR.
Smoke has been the model of consistency throughout his career. He has finished outside the Top 10 only once since entering the series in 1999. His transition from the fourth generation car to the COT only hindered him by three places as he finished 2007 in 6th place and 2008 in 9th.
In other words, it really didn't affect him at all.
Stewart's racing career has spanned several different types and styles of vehicles. He's raced Midget Sprints, Late Models, Indy Cars, trucks and Cup cars. What's more, he's been successful at all levels.
His ability to adapt to whatever vehicle he's in is one of the great reasons for his success. Stewart just has a natural feel for vehicles and purely loves racing.
That ability and that love of the sport will translate well in the new car. If anyone can figure out how to get the most out of the equipment handed to him, it's Smoke.