Mark Martin, with hot iron in Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, let's forget, for a moment, the most boring Daytona 500 in years, and the lack of downforce that left drivers running single-file for more than three hours last Sunday.
Let's see what ageless Mark Martin can do this afternoon. He finished third at Daytona, dogging Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line in a furious rush. And he's on the pole for Sunday's Phoenix 500K
If 'downforce is good,' then let's see how much downforce these new 2013s really have, when not gimmicked up by officials trying to take downforce off, to keep drivers from running in two-car packs.
The question at hand today: Will Round Two of the new 2013s come off today with more pizzazz than last weekend's stock car racing season opener?
Well, Scott Miller, competition boss for the Mark Martin-Michael Waltrip team, says keep an eye on the rear axles of these new cars this afternoon.
Think Martinsville 1992.
Cambered rear ends -- 'bent' axles, giving more grip and better bite through the corners....at a price. Go too far, 'bend' that rear axle too much, and 'Pop!'
At Martinsville that afternoon, nearly every crew chief figured he'd finally figured out the trick that Harry Gant and Andy Petree had been using in that four-in-a-row winning streak in later 1991.
Well, most of them had. And it bit many of them.
In response to the mess, NASCAR put a limit on how much teams could bend the axle.
And that's worked pretty well over the years.
Now, however, we've got a new car, with new stuff under the rear end. NASCAR, in closing the door on the 'skew' that Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson used so successfully last season, has opened the door for teams to tweak in another area.
Guess we may find out this afternoon.
NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell, who has been taking a much more upfront spot in this sport, calls today's 312-miler on the flat one-mile, just-repaved Phoenix International Raceway track "the first true test of the Gen?6 car."
Why NASCAR execs keep calling the new 2013s 'Gen-6' isn't clear. Just as how they defined what they call the previous five generations of stock cars....
Still, if Daytona was a bust, well, Phoenix last fall might be a great benchmark with which to judge today's race. Man, that was a wild one....a bit too wild. And it's still not all that clear why Jimmie Johnson blew that right-front tire, which ultimately all-but cost him the championship.
For Danica Patrick, that Phoenix race marked her best Cup finish (17th), before her eighth last week in Daytona. Still Patrick's finish in November was memorable in more than one way....
These 2013s do look spiffy. "Robin (Pemberton) has put in a heck of a lot of work in the car," O'Donnell says. "This week and next week in Vegas is going to be a good indicator of where we're at.
"We're getting a lot of good feedback from the drivers."
One problem with all that 'good feedback' is a big question of how legitimate it is. NASCAR execs are strong-arming drivers and crews not to diss the new car. And that raises serious question about how honest all these comments really are.
The proof is in the doing, and that comes in Phoenix this afternoon and in Las Vegas next Sunday.
This sport needs drivers willing, and able, to pass....willing and able to take chances, to make something happen. That wasn't the case at Daytona, and that wasn't the case at many tracks last season.
That's not all that's at issue in this race and at Las Vegas -- Fox' production of NASCAR races may need some major tweaking too.
It is still outrageous that last Sunday, in the final laps, while Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson were dueling side-by-side for the lead in the Daytona 500, Fox went into a two-minute commercial break.
Question: How many plays does the National Football League run while TV is in commercial break?
Another potential issue today: new Goodyears.
Drivers have complained about tires here since the repave. So Goodyear ran a test last fall, with Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards.
Goodyear says the new tire should give more grip.
Jeff Gordon likes the new rubber.
However "I was a little surprised we didn't have an extra day (of practice) here. We do have an extra day next week at Vegas. This track can be just as tricky to figure out as Vegas."
This track has been good and bad for Gordon.
"Last couple of times we've been here the groove has widened out and the cars on the longer run have gotten tricky to get into certain sections of the corner," Gordon says. "Like in turn one under braking - it's hard to be consistent with that entry as the air pressure builds up and the heat builds up in the tires.
"Sometimes that opens it up for opportunities."
The tires? "Now we've lost a little grip in this track (as it's aged), and now we can soften this tire up, maybe we can have some fall-off over a longer run," Gordon said.
An, uh, Clint Bowyer?
"It's hard to get away from it -- They're still using it to advertise for the race... and it was a big story," Gordon says, reflecting on last fall's controversial run-in.
"But we're really focused on this new car. Luckily we've got enough things going on that it takes your mind off of it.
"So at this point, I'm not thinking about it.
"We'll race hard for position, and hopefully we don't have any incidents. I can't run every lap worrying about every guy I've ever had an incident with."
"The tire is different, and that changes things. It feels great, it's got good grip, and the car drives really well.
"But that pushes you to be more aggressive with it... and then you start finding the limitations.
"So far I'm enjoying the characteristics.
"It's not just the body and the aerodynamics, it's some of the things NASCAR changed for this year -- the (rear end) bushings and the (front) splitter structure, no rear sway bars.
"And then there's lot of downforce in this car."
What all that means?
Tony Stewart, whose Daytona 500 was cut short, says "We're still going to be learning for the next four weeks. Give us about four or five more weeks and we'll be able to give you a lot more answers.
"The next five weeks people are going to be learning, going to different race tracks, and trying to get a handle on what this car is actually going to be."