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NASCAR To See If Gen-6 Cars Mesh With Texas

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 11 2013

Jimmie Johnson took the new Chevy SS for a ride around Texas Motor Speedway on Thursday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – When NASCAR’s Gen-6 race cars finally are fully-sorted, they’ll be branded as “Texas Tough.”

On-track teething of the Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry continued Thursday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway in preparation for Saturday’s NRA 500, Race No. 7 of the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The season’s first night event will be the second contested on a 1.5-mile “intermediate” layout, and the second time the Gen-6 cars have invaded TMS since October.

“Texas is really one of the pivotal moments in the development of this car and the package that we wound-up handing off to the teams to race this year,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development, said during a break between two sessions totaling 3.5 hours. “We talked throughout last fall and over the wintertime that we’d been through a lot of iterations on the car with high downforce and low downforce and tire tests and things of that nature.

“With the guys that we had here – Greg Biffle was one, I think Paul Menard was here, Kyle Busch, Juan Montoya and a few others – they worked really hard at helping us develop the package. It was important for us, and it really set the stage for what we have for 2013.”

The Gen-6 is NASCAR’s attempt to improve the quality of racing while reconnecting its fan base to the showroom

Greg Biffle at TMS on Thursday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

versions of the Fusion, Chevy SS and Camry models. The season’s first six races have taken the Gen-6 to a variety of configurations including Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile layout to TMS in the Speedway Motorsports, Inc., empire, and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

There were a track-record 31 green flag passes for the lead at LVMS, and a record-matching 41 at Auto Club Speedway. Pemberton traced that development back to TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval.

“This was one of the tracks that we had the opportunity to go to with Goodyear, with a number of different tire combinations,” Pemberton said, “and we were able to put cars on the racetrack in groups and run with low downforce, high downforce and some different tire setups.

“At that point during the test, it became quite obvious to us that the cars race better around each other with more downforce than they did with less downforce. Greg Biffle and Juan and Kyle and the others that were here worked very hard at whatever it took to run cars around each other. As people have pointed out over the years, in traffic and at some of these high-speed mile-and-a-half racetracks, it’s hard to race around another car. And so we’ve taken measures to help that, cleaning the cars up a little bit.

“It’s probably gone a little bit under the radar, but we’ve removed the roof camera for our high-speed racetracks because it does create downforce that you have when you’re by yourself, and you don’t have that downforce created by that camera pod that’s on the roof when you’re in a group of people. So there’s things that we worked on on the car along those lines, helped clean the car up a little bit, and to help it run better in traffic. But it was here that we realized where we needed to be heading with the downforce situation.”

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the lone two-time winner so far, prevailing on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and the half-mile Martinsville Speedway in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy SS. Johnson leads reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford fielded by Penske Racing, by six points (231-225) in the standings. Kasey Kahne, who is Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, posted Chevy’s other victory in his No. 5 Time Warner Cable SS at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth gave Toyota its first Gen-6 win at LVMS in his No. 20 Dollar General Camry, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch prevailed at Auto Club Speedway in his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Camry.

Ford’s lone Gen-6 victory to-date was scored by Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway in the No. 99 Fastenal Ford.

“I honestly think we’ve had some of the best racing we’ve had in a decade,” Pemberton said. “I mean, they’re really hard racing. Vegas was an outstanding race. Best race we’ve had there. (Auto Club) Speedway, best race we’ve had there. It was an opportunity for us to start over in many ways, shapes or forms because we had everyone working together, so everyone started at a higher level when we handed this car off, very different than what we’ve done in the last decade.”

That said, Biffle indicated he will approach Saturday’s 334-lap/501-miler with a sense of urgency. “Yeah, I think so,” Biffle said after placing second on the speed chart in Thursday’s opening two-hour session. “If you would have told me I would finish (17th) at Las Vegas and ninth at Martinsville (last Sunday) I would have told you that you were smoking something. I don’t know. I just never thought that would happen to us, but that’s just the way it works.”

Biffle one-upped himself during the day’s second practice, topping the speed chart with a hot lap in 27.999-seconds/192.864 mph that was fastest of the afternoon. Former Cup champion Kurt Busch was second at 28.071-seconds/192.369 mph in his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing/Serta Chevrolet SS while brother Kyle Busch was third at 28.178-seconds/191.639 mph.

Kurt Busch topped the opening practice in 28.239-seconds/191.225 mph, followed by Biffle at 28.265-seconds/191.049 mph. Johnson – winner of the AAA Texas 500 here in November – was third at 28.383-seconds/190.225 mph.

Biffle started third and led 90 laps en route to his win last spring, the ninth in Cup by a Roush Fenway driver dating to TMS’ inaugural race weekend in April 1997. A driver from RFR has wound up in Victory Lane here four times in the previous 10 Cup races. Overall, Roush Fenway drivers have posted 18 wins, 74 top-fives, 125 top-10s and eight poles, while leading 3,439 laps in combined NASCAR action here. Gen-6 notwithstanding, TMS would appear to be the perfect venue for RFR and the Ford camp to shine.

“Yeah, I really think so,” said Biffle, who has not led a lap since pacing 39 at PIR on March 3. “We plain and simply screwed-up at Vegas and I take most of the blame for that. We were just way off with the new car. California was more of us (started second/finished sixth).

“This track feels good. I had really good speed here…and (on) the lap-tracker our laps look fairly good. So I feel pretty confident we’re going to have a decent weekend with at least a top-10 run and we’ll hone-in on that as the weekend goes. I think we have a good chance at winning. Right place, right time. Two-tires, four tires. Make it on gas, whatever it comes down to.”

Pemberton said he was not anticipating any major tweaks to emerge from this test. “I think 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 that the teams are – they’re 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.”

A key component of this test was the radial tire compound supplied by Goodyear Racing. Teams in both the Cup and Nationwide series are running the same tire codes, with the left side code (D-4392) the same as supplied here in 2011 and 2012. But the right side code (D-4418) is new to both Cup and Nationwide teams, although it has been run by NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors at TMS for the last two seasons. Compared to what Cup and Nationwide teams recently have run here, the right side tire has a tougher compound for better wear on a surface that was last fully repaved in 2001.

“I think you’re going to see pretty high speeds in qualifying (Friday),” said Biffle, sixth in points and 32 behind Johnson. “This is one of the ‘old school’ racetracks, one of the few that are left, where the tire is super-fast for the first lap and then falls off almost a tenth on the second lap. Two-tenths on the third and fourth lap. You’ll see that really fast one lap speed but that’s not really a big concern if we’re going too fast or with track records because it slows down so quick. We do have less gear and that’s probably worth at least a tenth of speed as well. It seems like to me that I could tell the motor doesn’t seem like it has quite as much steam because we have a little less gear in it.”

Biffle and Paul Menard (ninth) both currently reside in the top-10 in points, and both have had success at TMS. Biffle is a two-time winner here, while Menard collected one of his seven career top-fives at Texas in 2011.

“The last time I drove this car was last year here and it has come so far since then,” Biffle said. “It was definitely a handful then to drive and now the first few laps on the racetrack it has a lot of grip and is really fun to drive. You know, it’s the same old Texas. We’re sliding and a little loose and then tight – and it’s going to be a fun race.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 11 2013
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