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Adjustments in order as 2013 car tests continue

December 11, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Adjustments in order as 2013 car tests continue

CONCORD, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth couldn't remember the last time he was nervous in a race car. But Tuesday, working with a new team for the first time in his Sprint Cup career, certainly fit the description. That might explain why on his last run in the morning session of a test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he mis-shifted and over-revved the engine in his No. 20, prompting his crew to change the power plant during the lunch break.

"I think the guys are in love with me right now," deadpanned Kenseth, who switched from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2012 season. "'Where did we get this clown? Give us the other one back.' Or something."

"The car has really awesome potential. I already like it leaps and bounds over the CoT."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

If it was any consolation, he wasn't the only one going through an adjustment period. Sixteen drivers descended on the 1.5-mile track for the first of a two-day open test of the 2013 Sprint Cup car, which will debut in February at Daytona. The vehicles not only look much different, featuring brand detail that visually brings them more in line with their respective passenger models, but also they drive differently from their predecessors, thanks to changes NASCAR thinks will enhance the quality of competition.

The Charlotte session was scheduled because many teams focused on the end of the past season weren't able to test the new car previously. Tuesday saw several top drivers climb behind the wheel of their 2013 models for the first time, and it produced positive reviews despite the relatively limited track time.

"The cars drive really good," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I know everybody's probably real curious about how we think the racing is going to go and this and that and the other, but it's real early in the game. This is the first time I've drove the cars at all, but I'm really impressed. I like the downforce of the car, and the balance seems to be relatively good. The car drives well for us [Tuesday]."

Drivers liked the increase in grip provided by more camber in the rear end. Earnhardt said the body also seemed to perform better aerodynamically, and the vehicle turned well through the corner. The only thing he didn't like was the taller spoiler, which he said could make it more difficult to see out the rear window. He added that the contoured 7¼-inch blade was there for a reason and didn't increase the risk in a vehicle that carries improved safety systems over from its predecessor.

"That spoiler's doing a lot, and NASCAR seems to think that spoiler is the one that's going to provide a package for better racing, and it does resemble what we ran many years ago," Earnhardt said. "And those were some good race cars back then."

Indeed, Earnhardt said the new vehicle drives more like the model that was replaced by the safer "Car of Tomorrow" in 2007. Even so, he couched his praise by pointing out that he'd had only a few hours in the 2013 car, and those in single-car runs. Drivers didn't run in larger packs until the afternoon session.

"The car has really awesome potential," Earnhardt said. "I already like it leaps and bounds over the CoT. ... This car gives me a lot of sensations that are similar to the old car than we ran four years ago, or however long ago it was. But it's still early. I'm trying not to get too excited or form too big of an opinion or too solid an opinion of the car. We still have a lot of things to learn about it."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said Tuesday's test featured some cars that were made of late-model-style one-piece carbon bodies, others that were "100 percent correct" for 2013, and still others anywhere in between. Teams still are adapting to recently announced rules packages, and are obtaining new pieces like lighter carbon-fiber hoods. But Pemberton added that the shape of the vehicles is where it needs to be and that the bulk of the work is done.

"All in all, the feedback in the garage area has been very positive," Pemberton said. "... When we hand this car off to the teams, it will be in the best shape we've ever handed a car off to the teams to start a new season."

Even so, fine-tuning will be in order. The two days in Charlotte continue an extensive testing slate that will stretch into the early portion of the 2013 season, much of it with an emphasis on finding the right package for 1.5-mile intermediate tracks. There's another two-day session at Charlotte scheduled for next month, the option for teams to test at Las Vegas later in January, all in addition to the Preseason Thunder session at Daytona. Pemberton said NASCAR would also add test days to the race weekends at Las Vegas and Texas, the first two 1.5-milers the Cup Series visits in 2013, and extend practice at 2-mile Auto Club Speedway.

"There are some things we're continuing to work on," he said, "but all on a positive note."

It seems clear that getting a handle on the new car is key to early success in 2013. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski -- who Tuesday was driving a No. 2 Penske Racing Ford for the first time -- thinks some teams already are ahead of the game.

"I think the Toyotas have shown that they're going to be really, really tough to beat with this new car," Keselowski said. "I really like the way they finished last year, and for them, I think they have the capability of starting out next year even stronger than the field, so that will be interesting to watch. But there's still a lot of testing and a lot of development left to be done. However, if I was to venture a guess, I would definitely say that they're at the top of the list."

That group would include Kenseth and his new teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing -- that is, if the 2003 champion can keep from over-revving his engine.

"My fault," said Kenseth, who replaced Joey Logano, now Keselowski's teammate at Penske. "Everything is different inside there, and I just put it in first gear instead of third and it didn't work out too good. It didn't blow it up, but they just changed it for precautions. Like I said, my guys are real impressed."