NASCAR's Robin Pemberton: a lot of hard work put into these 2013s (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Let's be right upfront here: NASCAR's 2013 stock car project is one of the best things the sanctioning body has done for this sport in years.
The new stocker has the potential to put real good racing back on the tracks...not necessarily because of the various engineering and design points, all very carefully thought out and orchestrated, but more so because of the unusual teamwork, and yes even camaraderie, among the manufacturers.
It is that theme of teamwork which is so striking. And NASCAR's Robin Pemberton gets high-fives for making it work.
If NASCAR officials can amp that up just a little more, to get the car through its birthing process, these 2013s should really sing.
Everything seems going right with this program, except for one key thing -- time.
This 2013 thing seems to have progressed at a painfully slow pace, with too much foot-dragging somewhere.
When Carl Edwards crashes five Daytona 500 cars, there might be a problem (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So, while NASCAR executives try to figure a graceful way out of the needless/mindless Denny Hamlin controversy and gently apologize to irate stock car fans for the mess, let's take a closer look at the 2013s at the heart of all this, and the 2013 project itself.
Re NASCAR versus Hamlin: You think drivers have been too plain vanilla? Now you can even hear them cowering. Where's a real Dale Earnhardt to straighten this stuff out? Remember what Big E had to say about NASCAR's five-and-five rules back when?
(It sometimes seems lost that NASCAR's prime directive, as originally defined by Big Bill France himself, is to be the caretaker of this sport, not just some money-making machine.)
For a program that had its first grand 'gather-round-the-table, boys' meeting in May 2010, this 2013 project should be much further along than it is at the moment.
Be honest: what did you really think about this year's Daytona 500?
It was painfully obvious that this 500 was not a barnburner.
And it should be painfully obvious to someone that Carl Edwards does not crash five Daytona cars without there being a serious problem somewhere. Remember Edwards drives for Ford's Jack Roush, whose teams had dominated Daytona and Talladega the past two years. Roush men know how to build Daytona-Talladega cars.
There have been way too many gas-mileage snoozer races the past two seasons, 12 or so last year alone. So it is downright frightening that one top sports figure here is warning that unless something changes, fans this season could see as many as half the 36 tour events as gas-mileage snoozers.
That is simply unacceptable.
Patience? Let the car develop? Let teams work out the kinks before we get too critical?
Sounds like 'come back next year, and we'll have it all sorted out for you.'
That is simply unacceptable.
Time for NASCAR to apologize to fans and to Denny Hamlin for this unnecessary sideshow controversy? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What's the real deal here?
(And don't expect anyone to go on the record, not with NASCAR eager to slap down $25,000 fines.)
Let's try to piece together what all we know.
The 2013 rules tweaks were finally made official only in early January, after way too much dawdling.
For a sport that prides itself on quick turnaround times, and 'we gotta be ready for next Sunday's race,' this 2013 project wasted a lot of time.
Ford rolled out its 2013 January 2012, Dodge rolled out its 2013 three weeks later. Toyota dragged its feet until May, for some reason. And Chevrolet, inexplicably, didn't even unveil its street version until three weeks ago.
Somebody in Daytona should have been cracking the whip harder, it would seem.
The 2013 race cars should have been on-track testing last June or July. And there should have been good, hard testing at all these different tracks the rest of that season.
The goal was clear -- to put on a sizzling Daytona 500 to kickoff 2013.
Kyle Busch: NASCAR has done a good job lately of trying to strip this sport of personalities. Guess plain vanilla is the official flavor of stock car racing. Or maybe NASCAR execs are just shooting themselves in the foot... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then there's the 2013-car marketing campaign. Whoever was in charge of that project, well, it may be well past time to put that thing out for new bids.
Instead of using the full 2012 season for teaser ads about the 2013s, the storyline of the 2013s was instead about repeated delays (though most of the media didn't even bother to go past the press releases and dig into the situation).
Each race week from Daytona-July through Homestead-November should have had all four 2013s on the track for at least an hour or so of testing/practice/marketing/promotion. Drivers signing postcards. All that jazz. NASCAR's marketers know just how to do that; why did they lose that great opportunity?
Perhaps NASCAR executives have been too afraid of presenting this new car as a work-in-progress, too worried that some drivers and crewmen might say 'we think we need more downforce in the rear,' or 'the nose doesn't work right.'
So they kept it all under wraps....apparently with the goal of triumphantly unveiling the new car at SpeedWeeks to thunderous ovation.
How did that work out for you?
Jimmie Johnson took the high line and nobody could run the low line, and that was the big story at Daytona. Well, unless you were Carl Edwards.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Well, some in the media were pointing much of this out early last year, prodding NASCAR to get more open with things, to get cracking on putting real race cars out on real tracks.
The first 2013s were finally put out on a track, perhaps as much for some publicity photos as anything, at Martinsville in mid-August. Now Martinsville is a great track, a classic short track, but it's not a high-speed 1-1/2-mile monster to really test these new cars. In fact Thursday's test session here was perhaps the first solid test session on a track like this for the 2013s.
Yes, there was a December test at Charlotte -- inconclusive, because of still evolving rules, parts shortages, and cold weather. And a mid-January test at Charlotte was equally inconclusive, pretty much for all the same reasons. (In fact some teams had to take parts off their Daytona 500 cars and put them on their Charlotte cars, because of parts issues.)
The Texas and Kansas tests in early October were both duds, prompting significant rethinking. (How did TV cover those tests anyway?)
Can you say 'behind schedule'?
Throw in Friday's rainout here, and a full slate of Saturday stuff on the track, and perhaps a few questions about tires -- why really did six right-fronts blow out last week at Phoenix?
You get the picture.
Now Las Vegas is a great town, and the track is neat, and the Neon Garage is a cool marketing move. But how great will the racing really be Sunday?
In a word, this place is 'fast.' Very fast.
These new cars are fast too.
How brave might drivers be? Well, many might well be skittish about trying any bold and courageous moves, at least until they learn a little more about these new cars.
When drivers are skittish, well, you saw the Daytona 500, after Edwards' five crashes.
Ever wonder why NASCAR's marketers don't put as much effort into promoting, say, Johanna Long, as they do Danica Patrick? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Goodyear here will err, rightly, on the side of caution, with conservative tires. The same tires raced here a year ago.
Race speeds, though, should be up.
The Texas 500, which comes up in early April, will likely be the same as what we see here Sunday. And probably the Kansas 400 too later that month.
The California 500 in two weeks? The racing at that track, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to what that huge market deserves.
Why NASCAR execs seem to have all but given up on the LA market is bizarre. Certainly not brilliant marketing in one of the world's most important markets, and one of America's biggest auto markets.
(Is it time yet to question NASCAR's scheduling here, Daytona to Phoenix to Las Vegas to Bristol and back to Los Angeles and then back to Martinsville?)
One of NASCAR's big goals should be to present a great Sprint Cup race in the Los Angeles market...whatever it takes. Redesign the track? Slow the cars? Do something. What NASCAR has been putting on in California the past so many years simply isn't getting the job done.
Maybe the new 2013s can do the trick.
Hmmmm, so how did the 2013s test at California's Auto Club Speedway?
The best race ever at California Speedway? Hmmmm. Maybe NASCAR officials should be putting a little more effort into giving Southern California/Los Angeles fans the best possible action. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)