Even though the Gen-6 made its competition debut at Daytona, NASCAR's new race car for the Sprint Cup Series will get its first true test this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
The Gen-6 was not exactly a hit during last Sunday's Daytona 500, due to a lack of passing for most of the race. But Daytona was by no means an indicator of the car's full potential, especially with the season-opening race being contested on a restrictor-plate track.
Phoenix, a one-mile oval, is the first downforce track on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule this season. Since the Gen-6 is 150 pounds lighter and has more downforce than the previous Cup car, which was used from 2007-12, the current car will likely break track speed records here. Kyle Busch currently holds the track qualifying record at Phoenix with a lap at 138.766 mph., set in Nov. 2012.
A couple of weeks before last year's fall race at Phoenix, eight drivers participated in a Goodyear tire test for this car. Brad Keselowski, the defending series champion, was one of them.
"I think we're all anxious to see how the car performs this weekend when we all get on the track together," Keselowski said. "It's our first true test."
Teams still have a lot more to learn about the Gen-6. After Phoenix, the series moves on to Las Vegas, which is the first intermediate (1.5-mile) track on the schedule. The series will then compete at Bristol (0.533-mile) before running at California (two-mile).
"Once we get a downforce race or two behind us, we'll have a better understanding," said reigning Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson. "We're really excited for the races to come. But it is a little early. Maybe after Vegas, Bristol, we can see which team has the upper hand."
After winning the Daytona 500 for the second time in his already illustrious NASCAR career, Johnson has been busy during the week with media obligations throughout the country, including appearances on ABC's "Good Morning America" and the "Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS.
Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion, is hoping to start the season 2-0. He holds the record for most victories at Phoenix with four. Johnson won three straight fall races here from 2007-09. He won the spring event at this track in 2006 as well.
"When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it's a totally different game, as we all know," he said. "We'll enjoy this rush. If there's some down points through the year, we'll look back on this race (Daytona 500) and smile again."
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have run very well at Phoenix lately. When the series competed here one year ago, Hamlin conserved enough fuel late in the race and held off a fierce challenge from Harvick in the closing laps to snap his 23-race winless streak.
"With Daytona such a prestigious race of its own, I look at Phoenix as the start of the points season," Hamlin said. "You're going to see what cars are good and what teams have done a good job in the offseason. The new car will also mix that up."
Hamlin's win at Phoenix came in his second race with crew chief Darian Grubb.
Harvick lost fuel pressure with two laps remaining but managed to finish in the runner-up spot - 7.3 seconds behind Hamlin. He led the most laps with 88. Harvick came back to Phoenix in the fall and ended his 44-race winless drought, holding off Hamlin at the finish by a half-second.
"This year, we have a new car and a lot of new things to deal with, so you got to have an open mind on how to approach the weekend," Harvick said.
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, March 3. Race: Subway Fresh Fit 500. Site: Phoenix International Raceway. Track: one-mile oval. Start time: 3 p.m. ET. Laps: 312. Miles: 312. 2012 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.