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At the beginning of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the excitement around the new car was nearly palpable.
Lighter, racier-looking and a step up in technology, the Generation-6 car made its debut at Daytona and promptly started setting records. How many? Glad you asked.
Entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the new car had set track records in 19 of 31 qualifying sessions this season, at tracks from tiny Martinsville to Charlotte, Michigan, Pocono, Indianapolis and Texas. And they weren't cheap records, either. All of them were more than a mile per hour faster than the previous records.
As the final race of the season looms this weekend, there's a lot going on behind the scenes to make adjustments to the record-setting machine.
In the everlasting pursuit of that elusive "race-ability," NASCAR and its technology team are working overtime on the aerodynamics of the new car, which are much slipperier than that of the Gen-5 car, to improve the side-by-side aspects of competition.
Earlier this year, NASCAR tested a roof wicker that would dirty up the air behind the cars. A wickerbill is a thin slat of metal across the brow of the roofline, which by nature roils the air behind. That means the air is not a solid wall but a thinner, more navigable flow. While it is not expected that the change will be made, doing so would help the cars to get away from the dreaded "aero push" that has plagued stock cars in the modern era.
Aero push happens when the wall of air pushed by a lead car inhibits the overtaking of a trail car. It's like pulling out from behind a semi on the highway -- and stopping in the passing lane. Getting it fixed is a big deal for all of NASCAR.
Indy cars had the Handford Device back in the early 2000s that did the same thing, and it was successful to a point. Open-wheel cars, however, generate about four times the downforce of a modern stock car.
Aerodynamics is a straightforward science. It is fluid dynamics, pure and simple, with air flow acting as the fluid. In other words, air acts like water when it attains sufficient force. A 3,300-pound stock car punches a hole through the air and causes it to react, and while air will not turn a corner, it will follow a curve.
That's why the noses and fenders of today's stock cars are curved, to manage the air flow and provide downforce, side force and whatever other force it can generate.
The piece that manages the air flow once it's gotten over the roof and along the sides is the rear spoiler. NASCAR's tech and innovation team is looking at larger rear spoilers for 2014, and that will put more weight on the rear of the car.
Of course, more downforce means that the cars will be stuck to the ground more, and that means they slow down.
One of the other things NASCAR is testing, and will likely test again in December at Charlotte, is a tapered spacer in the manifold, which will limit the flow of air into the engines and take some horsepower out of the mix.
The tapered spacer is not new tech: it was used in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in the past few seasons. But it does address some of the speed issues, and that in turn will address some of the aero issues.
Plus, the tapered spacer is a way for teams to make engines live longer. Cost containment for the teams is another aspect of the remake of the rules that teams will likely appreciate. The spacers were run in the October test at Charlotte, and were the subject of discussion a couple of weeks ago at Texas.
Making major technical changes during NASCAR's offseason -- it's about 11 weeks, all told -- is a major pain in the bumper for teams, and it costs a lot as well. Anything huge at this point is most likely a non-starter, but NASCAR is wise to set the bar now for changes in the future.
The Gen-6 car has, by all accounts, done what it was supposed to do: make the cars racier, faster and more appealing. It has also improved competition and registered a ton of attention from hungry race fans.
Now, at the end of a smashing debut season, NASCAR is setting about making the new car even better. The optics are pleasing, and the potential is quite evident. Some tweaks to the aero package are to be expected.
Keep an eye on the test in December. The rules for Daytona are already set, so the first time you'll likely see whatever the new specs turn out to be in action is in February at Phoenix.