Car advances stand test of time for Gordon, Burton

Veteran drivers have broad perspective on evolution of NASCAR racer

When a mustached, mullet-haired 21-year-old Jeff Gordon first climbed into his 1992 Chevrolet Lumina in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, the car had a big rear spoiler and looked similar to the Luminas that fans drove to the race track.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since — Gordon lost the mustache and mullet and picked up four Cup championships — but NASCAR’s latest evolution of race car includes an intentional dose of stock car nostalgia that has captured the attention of drivers, fans and Detroit’s automakers.

As NASCAR formally launches its 2013 Generation-6 — or “Gen-6” — race cars during Daytona Speedweeks in February, fans will immediately see the resemblance to production cars, just as they did decades earlier.

The drivers, meanwhile, are embracing a race car that reigning Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski refers to as a “game-changer” and that Gordon affectionately calls, “a street car on steroids.”

“I get asked a lot what has changed the most in the sport during the years, and without a doubt it’s aerodynamics, and how we understand aerodynamics, computer simulation and telemetry,’’ Gordon said.

“I look at the Chevy Lumina I drove in my first race, the height of the deck lid, the greenhouse, how the air flowed over the car, how it got to the rear spoiler, the height of the front air dam, how it flowed underneath the car,’’ Gordon said, becoming more animated as he marveled at the different eras while recalling the old-style cars.

“Had we known then what we know now, that car on the track would have looked a lot different.’’

Now it does.

Gordon and Jeff Burton are two of a handful of veteran drivers with firsthand experience in NASCAR’s car evolution during the past two decades — the move from production-based cars in the 1990s to the safety-first, boxier COT (Car of Tomorrow) in 2007 and now a return to a stronger manufacturer brand identity.

And these veterans provide an important perspective on this new generation of cars — Chevrolet SSs, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys — set to turn their first official race laps in the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.

“The first time I drove the COT (2007-2012), it was kind of an eye-opening experience of going, ‘Whoa, this car doesn’t drive anything like the current car,’ ” recalled Gordon.

“It took us probably a year or two to understand that, racing it. This 2013 car, right out of the box it drives good and that’s a very good sign. I think we’ve learned so much more about the splitters, sealing the air, the side-skirts, the greenhouse and how it affects the airflow as well as how it exits rear of the car and affects cars behind it.

“I feel like there’s a lot of positives, a lot of momentum.”

Burton couldn’t agree more. The potential of the Gen-6, as far as he’s concerned, reaches beyond the cockpit and directly into the grandstands.

“When I first started racing, I drove a Thunderbird and it looked like a Thunderbird,’’ said Burton, who made his first Cup Series start in 1993. “As it’s evolved now, this in many ways puts us back to when I started. A Chevrolet looks like a Chevrolet and a Ford looks like a Ford. It’s more like it used to be.

“From the technology standpoint, however, it’s light-years away. The COT was a great concept from the safety standpoint but didn’t look very good. We were able to take the COT concept and improve it and also make it look good.

“In some ways, it’s going back to the way it was 20 years ago but with all the advantages of the safety advances in the last 20 years.’’

Both Gordon and Burton agree, however, that as great as the new cars look, it’s how they race that will decide their true impact.

The COTs, while much safer with more driver room and better impact protection, were often criticized for the racing they produced. NASCAR has gone to great lengths with the 2013 models to ensure that the racing looks as good as the cars do.

The new cars have undergone vigorous wind tunnel tests and on-track experimenting to hit on the right combination that will produce close, exciting, side-by-side racing on all types of NASCAR tracks.

“We have to give fans what they want to see today, not what they wanted to see 10 years ago,’’ Burton said. “And they want to see more action, they want to see more battles, more side-by-side. We’ve got to find a way to give it to them.

“I think they (NASCAR) have put more effort this go-round into understanding what makes the cars race with each other better. That’s irrefutable. Whether the outcome is where it needs to be will be decided later. But the effort has been greater this time than ever before.’’