NASCAR: New car, Patrick, Earnhardt Jr. and Chase drama were big stories that never happened in 2013
NASCAR’s new Generation-6 race car was supposed to revolutionize the sport last season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally was supposed to become a consistent winner; Danica Patrick was supposed to make a significant impact; and, the Chase for the Championship was supposed to be thick with compelling possibilities.
Well, maybe next year.
There were so many legitimate expectations for 2013, each capable of putting fans in the grandstands and driving television ratings. But they were the big stories that never happened.
Back to drawing board for Gen-6 car
While the Gen-6 car did bring back a traditional “stock” look, it proved to be too fast and too fickle to generate a lot of traditional side-by-side racing.
There were 18 broken track records in qualifying during the season, but that speed came at the expense of the main event. There were 1,611 lead changes with the older Car of Tomorrow in 2012, but only 1,033 during the just-completed season. That’s 578 fewer passes for the lead, a 35.9 percent reduction.
NASCAR currently is working on changes to the car, including a restrictor plate-like tapered spacer that will reduce the flow of gas and air into the engine to reduce speeds.
Also under consideration are several air-deflecting devices to make the cars less dependent of clean air.
Newly-crowned crew chief Chad Knaus hinted during the season-finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway the changes will be dramatic. With 578 fewer passes for the lead last season, most believe it probably needs to be dramatic.
Despite going winless, Earnhardt Jr. happy with season
For the fourth time in the last five years, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win a race. Oddly enough, he still called it one of the best in his racing career.
Is it possible Earnhardt Jr. now is so content on racing for points instead of wins that he considers a fifth-place finish in the Chase for the Championship a roaring success?
“I’m really happy to run as well as we have this season,” Earnhardt said. “This has been one of the best years I’ve had, certainly the best year I’ve had working with Hendrick [Motorsports].”
After winning 17 races in eight years with his family’s race team, Earnhardt Jr. has only won twice since he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He’s appeared to be on the brink of a breakout for so long, many expected this to finally be the year he’d finally give his fans some victories to cheer about.
Patrick couldn’t sustain fast Daytona start
When Danica Patrick won the pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500, it triggered a firestorm of support and attention NASCAR hasn’t seen in years. An eighth-place finish in the race also gave everyone, including non-race fans, hope she could find real success.
That never happened.
Patrick only had five top-20 finishes all year – and no other top-10s after Daytona – to finish 27th in the final standings. For the most part, she became a non-factor after the buzz from Daytona faded.
Patrick admitted the learning curve has been steep.
“It seems like sometimes throughout the year the car has felt pretty good and it’s not fast,” she said. “So I think that there is a tremendous amount that I still need to learn for sure and a lot of stuff that I need to work on for making the weekends more smooth on things like anticipating how big of changes need to happen from practice to qualifying and qualifying to the race. And the things I need out of practice that result in a good race car those are all things that I need to learn. I need to be able to identify what is happening with the car better every time I’m in it so that I can help more.”
No playoff fever
While things went well for six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, few would argue this year’s Chase for the Championship had any real drama.
From the very start, Johnson and Matt Kenseth seemed to separate themselves from the pack, and by the time they got to Homestead, Fla., for the final race, Johnson basically needed to finish the race to win the championship.
As everyone expected, Johnson had no trouble closing the deal.
The failure of the Chase to attract a lot of outside attention was more about Johnson’s domination than everyone else inability to challenge him.
In fact, one of the top stories after the Chase was the argument whether Johnson now should be considered one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Like so many other big stories, it may not be answered until next year.