During the Car of Tomorrow era, Sprint Cup models were so close in design that, in many cases, it took a practiced eye to tell a Chevrolet from a Ford and a Dodge from a Toyota.
Consequently, with the cars built to meet common templates across manufacturers, there was little room for Ford Team A to claim that Toyota Team A had aerodynamic or other advantages. The ground for arguments was soggy, at best.
That was then. This is now. The 2013 Gen-Six models actually look like their showroom counterparts. Manufacturer-unique body panels show off the lines of each model.
This is great for fans and, presumably, good for competition, but it potentially opens the door for a game that almost no one likes to play – lobbying for rules changes.
For many years, this was an almost weekly event on the Sprint Cup tour. Fords running better? Chevrolet complained and asked for a body change. Chevy wins five straight? Ford asks for more spoiler.
NASCAR often responded with changes – mostly minor, and the game eventually became a messy interchange of complaints and whining.
A return to the depths of that period is not anticipated this year, but if one manufacturer bursts out of the box with a strong early season, garage-area talk is likely to bubble forth.
“There will be a little bit more of that, which we anticipate, to give the manufacturers the look that resembles their cars,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “Obviously, we had to go away from the complete common template that really would have defined the old car. So that goes with the territory a little bit. But, having said that, we're also working closer with them (car builders) than we ever have, and they're really excited about that, and that's good for us and good for them.”
Technological advances have allowed NASCAR to design cars that are relatively close in shape but still manufactured-oriented.
“We didn't [previously] have that technology to build a car that looks and is extremely different in appearance but comes out aerodynamically the same,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton. “But it wouldn't surprise us very early in the year to see manufacturers come and lobby about spoiler dimensions or something that is traditional in our sport. But so far all the indicators and the voice of the sport are telling us that we're on the right track.”
The three manufacturers put months of work and millions of dollars into development of the new cars.
"I can't wait to see how it plays out,” said team owner and driver Michael Waltrip. “I know the manufacturers along with NASCAR have spent a lot of time putting [together] these cars. While they have their own style lines and their own look, they really worked hard at keeping them in the same box. Hopefully, that will play out as intended."
Pat Suhy, manager of Chevrolet’s NASCAR Technical Group, said the various strengths of the competing models won’t be known until several races are in the books.
“I think we’re satisfied with where we are right now,” he said. “But it was like liars poker at Daytona in testing. Who really put up a good lap? It’s a cat-and-mouse game. I think we’ll find out next month at Daytona.
“Lobbying as far as every Friday, Saturday and Sunday has gone by the wayside. I happily never lived through it. … Different things might provide a competitive advantage. We do know the art of lobbying a little bit.
“With the new car, the question is asked, ‘Are you going to be competitive?’ We really don’t know. We’ve been to the wind tunnel. We’ve seen the other wind-tunnel numbers from their submission numbers, but how will they respond on the race track? It’s hard to tell until we get to Daytona and Las Vegas. You can expect people to be watching and trying to put arguments together if we need to go talk to NASCAR and say, ‘Hey, we’re not getting a fair shake here.’”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.