Crucial time for cars, stars

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 21, 2013 at 5:33 PM

CONCORD, N.C. -- The Fox Sports broadcast crew all agreed on Monday at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway -- 2013 is a crucial year for NASCAR.

Lead announcer Mike Joy explained it’s important the sanctioning body reconnects with much of its fan base with a car which more resembles those on the street.

Analysts Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond, who as competitors formed one of the greatest driver-crew chief tandems in NASCAR history, talked about it’s time for a couple of drivers with plenty of star power -- Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- to step up performance on the track.

Joy called the Gen 6 car, scheduled to make its debut at the Sprint Unlimited (former Bud Shootout) on Feb. 13, the biggest game-changer in two decades.

“I think this move is huge,” Joy said. “We got so far away from the win on Sunday, sell on Monday cars that persisted into the middle 80’s. As every manufacturer wanted better aerodynamics, we ended up with that car we called the twisted sister.

“NASCAR finally had to say enough and come out with the COT (Car of Tomorrow). It was a common template car that everybody thought went too far in the other direction. Watching the Daytona test, when you can identify the cars coming off turn 4 by their shape, that’s a game-changer.”

Waltrip, a three-time champion and 83-time race winner as a driver, wasn’t diplomatic in his feelings about the recently retired Car of Tomorrow.

“From the day I saw it with the big old wing on the back and the teeth on the front with the splitter, that was not a race car,” Waltrip said. “That was a safe car. It was like when to the fair and bought these cars with bumpers all around them so nothing would happen to the people inside them.

“Rightfully so, we needed to do that. But, we went too far. This car brings it back. It looks good, it’s fast and it’s safe.”

Joy added it was important that the manufacturers also started making street cars with styles which people want to buy. He pointed out the wow factor of the 2013 Ford Fusion and the buzz surrounding the new Chevy SS.

“We got away from people being Chevy or Ford or Plymouth or Dodge fans,” Joy said. “They became fans of individual drivers. I think this shifts the game back in favor of the cars again. I think people will come wearing their Ford gear, their Chevy gear or even Toyota gear and say, ‘That’s what I drive and what I want to see win.’ I also think it’s vital that Dodge returns to the race track, and the dealers will demand that. I understand why they stepped away when they couldn’t sign a top team, but I think they’ll be back in a year or two.”

This season marks the full-time debut for Patrick, who ran 10 Cup races last season. So far, her NASCAR career has been nothing to write home about. Despite running in top-notch equipment, she has just one top-five finish in 58 Nationwide Series starts.

Waltrip, who has publicly been one of her biggest fans to the point many in the media have lampooned the former champion as a cheerleader, said it is the time for her to show what she’s got.

“We’ve gone through the learning experiences,” he said. “She knows where the garages are, how to get on the track, where the switches and gauges are. She said she knows how to race, the double-file restarts, how it all operates. Put it to use. Now’s the time to show what she’s learned.”

This season is possibly a make-or-break year for the 38-year-old Earnhardt in his pursuit of a Sprint Cup Series title. While his 2012 victory at Michigan was his first in the series in four years, Earnhardt faded in the Chase. A concussion knocked him out for two races and finished off his championship hopes.

This is Earnhardt’s third year working with crew chief Steve Letarte, which Hammond said is the time for a combination to put together a championship run. The biggest question is Earnhardt’s desire.

“It is time. We’re going to find out if Dale Jr. wants it,” Hammond said. “I know Steve wants it. Steve knows what he’s got to do to motivate his driver. Now is the time, you’ve got to make it happen.

“You have those days when you have to motivate him, when you have to say you’ve got a fifth-place car, but you’re a first-place driver, now carry it for me. You’ve got to make him believe he can take it to victory lane. I can say that from past experience. I had a driver who wanted it, and we won when we didn’t always have the best car.”

Recommended for You