Can NASCAR's 2013 car make the racing better?

Jamie Squire

In 2006, Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker found herself surrounded by reporters peppering her with questions about the frequently subpar racing seen at her track.

They asked if she was considering changes to the venue in order to reduce Fontana's single-file, strung-out racing - boring in the eyes of many fans.

But Zucker shook her head. She leaned in toward the group and said quietly - as if to let everyone in on a big secret - that changes weren't needed because NASCAR had told her its upcoming "Car of Tomorrow" would fix the racing.

Back then, NASCAR was selling that line to everyone who would listen: Fans, media, sponsors and even track presidents. The COT, NASCAR said, would solve so many problems and set the stage for more passing and side-by-side racing than ever before.

Clearly, that did not happen.

So with NASCAR's next COT - known simply as the "2013 car" - set to debut next year, should anyone be optimistic things will change?

Yes. Cautiously so, but yes.

NASCAR has learned from its mistakes. Vice president of competition Robin Pemberton sat with a group of reporters on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway and flat-out said: "Our goal is to make the cars run better in traffic and to reduce the advantage as best we can of the lead car in clean air. That's what we've been working on."

Boom.

For fans frustrated with the current state of NASCAR racing on 1.5-mile tracks, help may very well be on the way. While aero dependency can never be fully eliminated, NASCAR is trying everything it can to make its races more entertaining to watch.

"We have to do what's best for the show," Pemberton said, "and the racing itself."

Officials are trying everything in what Pemberton said was perhaps NASCAR's most ambitious project ever. At no time in its history has there been the combination of a set deadline where every manufacturer and race team had to be ready plus a massive undertaking that required everyone to work toward the same goal.

Even in 2007, when the uniform-looking COT debuted, Pemberton said the focus was "strictly about safety, and a little bit on competition and cost." The quality of the racing was not the primary objective, and it showed.

The car was safer, but that turned out to be one of the only positive things anyone could say about it. It was also uglier, had no manufacturer identity and seemed even more sensitive to aerodynamics than the previous model.

The 2013 car already looks better - each manufacturer will have its own identity - and now the challenge is to get it to race better.

At frequent tests - some held in secret - NASCAR has been experimenting with every conceivable aerodynamic setup. All the ideas drivers and garage insiders have suggested are being tested, in part so NASCAR can later tell them, "We tried that," if critics complain.

In one test, NASCAR took away up to 40 percent of the car's downforce and had drivers practice in an extremely loose condition. In another test, officials implemented what they believed to be a high level of mechanical grip to see if cars could pass more easily that way.

NASCAR has even fiddled with reducing the horsepower - by 200 hp in one test - to see if slowing the cars down provides for better racing.

So what do the drivers think?

"It's like every other thing we approach: It's a third, a third and a third depending on the day," Pemberton said. "That's absolutely not a shock whatsoever."

Because there are so many different opinions, NASCAR will ultimately be left with a very difficult call. After all, Pemberton said, how one person defines a good race might be completely different than someone else.

Does "good racing" simply equal side-by-side challenges with lots of passing? Does it mean the second-place car is close to the leader? Does it mean there are packs and lots of action?

Pemberton has his own opinion, just like everyone else. But one thing is for sure: NASCAR is intent on starting 2013 with a better racing than exists today.

"I think there's opportunity out there where the vast majority will like what they see," he said.

There will be hiccups, though. Brad Keselowski said the odds are the 2013 is "not going to come out perfect." But the potential is there to make it great, he added.

"Much like if you unveiled a new iPhone and said, ‘Well, in a year we'll have it working right,' your customers aren't going to be very happy about that," Keselowski said. "I think we all know that and are braced for long term, but this car is going to be part of the solution for getting NASCAR as strong as it possibly can be."

No matter what the new car produces, Pemberton knows it's impossible to satisfy everyone.

"You'll never be able to get 100 percent happiness out of fans, because it's never happened," he said. "Ever."

Still, that apparently won't stop NASCAR from trying.

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