Former teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano crossed paths in the closing laps of the season-opening Daytona 500, and the feud culminated with their white-knuckled, door-to-door race to the finish in California last month. Each driver was so bent on not losing to the other, they ended up wrecking moments after Kyle Busch slid past them for the victory.
The accident sent Hamlin to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a compression fracture in a vertebra that has sidelined him the last four races. Injury aside, that’s the racing NASCAR chairman Brian France had in mind when he demanded his senior management design a car that could improve the product.
“I have said repeatedly, every minute, that contact, especially late in the race when you are going for a win, that’s not only going to happen _ that’s expected,” France said last month. “Both of them did exactly what I think you would do when you really, really want to win. Getting some contact, trying to race extra hard to win the race, that’s what we’re about.”
It was on display again Saturday night at Richmond when a late caution sent the race into overtime for a two-lap sprint to the finish. Kevin Harvick rocketed from seventh to first, while Tony Stewart was knocked out of the groove by a hard-charging Kurt Busch, who called the final two laps “a free for all.”
Stewart restarted fifth, was bumped out of the way by Busch, and wound up 18th and angry.
“He just rammed right into us there at the end,” Stewart said through a team spokesman.
Logano, who finished third at Richmond and joked several times how pleased he was to not be in the middle of any new drama, praised the new car for improving the action.
“Like Clint said, about every single race has been entertaining and crazy, especially the finishes of them,” Logano said. “I think the car has done a great job. They look awesome, they have put on a good race. So we don’t really have anything to complain about.”
The Gen-6 is 150 pounds lighter than the old car, which makes them a little easier to drive and allows drivers to push a little harder. Changes to the design have helped eliminate the aerodynamic push that limited passing on bigger tracks, almost doubled the rear camber to put more grip in the rear tires and added more downforce that has given drivers more confidence to attempt a pass.
“You can be aggressive with the cars,” Harvick said. “Last year, the spoiler was shortened, it’s hard to be aggressive with those cars because they’re so edgy, you don’t have a lot of confidence in racing side-by-side. I feel like I can drive my car in 10 miles deep, do what I have to do on the inside of another car, not worry about spinning out and wrecking.”
The next test is Talladega, where everyone is waiting to see how the car performs. The two-car tandem racing of the last several years was widely panned by fans, and NASCAR eliminated it last year with changes to the rules package.
But the result was a wreckfest last May in which Stewart shredded the product in post-race and suggested a radical tongue-in-cheek change to the racing, making the track “a figure 8. And/or we can stop at halfway, make a break, and turn around and go backwards the rest of the way. Then with 10 to go, we split the field in half and half go the regular direction and half of them go backwards.”
The Gen-6 isn’t guaranteed to eliminate the wrecks that have become a staple of restrictor-plate racing, but it has added a spark everywhere else.
“I think there’s still a few things here and there, whether it be the superspeedways that everybody wants to see how the racing is at Talladega compared to how it was at Daytona,” Harvick said. “There’s still some unanswered questions. But I think all in all, it’s been a huge success so far.”