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Monday, December 10, 2012
'13 car gets 'fine-tuning' at Charlotte

By David Newton
ESPN.com

Chevrolet SS
NASCAR president Mike Helton was on hand for the unveiling of the 2013 Chevrolet SS in Las Vegas.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick laughed when asked if he was going to miss the media after last month's Sprint Cup Awards banquet in Las Vegas.

"Well, just come to Charlotte in two weeks and you can all see us again," he said, referring to this week's test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Sadly -- or happily, depending on how you look at it -- he is right.

If you want an idea of how important the Tuesday-Wednesday test of the 2013 car is, take a look at the drivers participating at a time when they're typically vacationing and staying as far away from the sport as possible.

Brad Keselowski will be there only a few weeks removed from winning his first championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be there only a few weeks removed from being named NASCAR's most popular driver for the 10th straight year.

The others include: Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth from Joe Gibbs Racing; Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith with Earnhardt from Hendrick Motorsports; Jeff Burton and Austin Dillon with Harvick from Richard Childress Racing; Juan Pablo Montoya from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing; Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola from Richard Petty Motorsports; and Ryan Newman from Stewart-Haas Racing.

Don't be surprised if a few other top names show up for track time. NASCAR is relaxing the rules for this test to allow additional drivers and cars to participate.

"It's time to go," NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said.

That's true now more than any preseason since the Car of Tomorrow (COT), otherwise known as the Car of Yesterday (COY), was introduced in 2007.

This is a pivotal time for the sport. The new car comes with high expectations that go beyond brand identify that already is a success. There is the hope that with more than a year of testing on the track and in the wind tunnel, the car -- about 160 pounds lighter -- will promote more passing and better side-by-side racing.

The Charlotte test will be the first since NASCAR distributed to teams on Tuesday the total package for non-restrictor-plate tracks.

"We're far better off than we've ever been as far as releasing a car," Pemberton said. "We're to a place now where we've never been that I can ever remember in my 33 years in the garage with car development as far as ready to hand it over to hit the racetrack with good results right out of the box."

Pemberton is so confident that he hesitates to call it a pivotal time.

"You're more into the fine-tuning," he said.

Regardless, this is a key time; otherwise, so many teams wouldn't be taking top drivers off the beaches and ski slopes to test. Here are five reasons:

1. A new era?

I asked Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, in Vegas if there would be a considerable difference in the aerodynamic issues that drivers complained made side-by-side racing tough with the COT.

"You're still basically driving a brick through air," he said. "It's always been that way."

In other words, expectations should be tempered. The lighter cars will allow Goodyear to make a softer tire that should promote more wear that drivers want. That also should make handling somewhat better, so competition from that aspect should improve.

But to expect passes for the lead to double, or even go up 20 percent, might be asking too much. As has almost always been the case, a couple of teams likely will find something to make their cars faster and dominate.

"What's fair is we've worked very hard giving these teams and this car an opportunity to run better around each other," Pemberton said. "[This package] definitely had the best look, the best feedback, when you watch it go around the racetrack."

2. The 'E' factor

There have been years when Earnhardt couldn't wait for the season to end so he could disappear.

This is not one of them.

Earnhardt is as anxious as anyone to learn the new car so he doesn't get left behind like he did when the previous car was introduced. In case you forgot, in the first four years of the COT, Earnhardt finished 16th, 12th, 25th and 21st in points after finishing fifth in 2006 with the old car.

"My attitude needs to be real tenacious about going to testing, getting an advantage on this car," Earnhardt said in Vegas. "I have an opportunity as a driver, as an individual, as a team, to gain an advantage, to stake my claim on how this car is going to drive, the knowledge of how to get the car to work."

3. Special K

Kenseth is to be commended for the way he kept his focus on his No. 17 team at Roush Fenway Racing after it became public he was moving to JGR in 2013. He did it the best way he knew, by keeping communication with his new team to a minimum.

"Once the season was over after Homestead, I got over there and spent a little time and sat in that car," Kenseth said. "I don't have a real great feel of what's great, what needs to be worked on."

He will start to get that feel at the test when he begins working with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff and his new teammates. It'll be his first time in something other than a Ford in Sprint Cup.

And while it shouldn't be a big adjustment, there typically are growing pains working with a new team. This gives Kenseth a head start at a time when most teams aren't on the track.

"I'll be disappointed if I'm not in this group next year at the end of the year and we haven't won races," Kenseth said of the Chase class at the banquet.

He should be. I'm picking him to sit at the head table.

4. Sliced Bread, Ford to Penske

For the first time in his young career, Logano won't have the pressure of living up to the expectations Tony Stewart set in the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Unless, that is, you consider it pressure replacing Sam Hornish Jr. and AJ Allmendinger in the No. 22 at Penske Racing.

That Keselowski also will be at the test is a testament to how much he wants to build on this championship season and prove his recommendation of Logano was a good one.

The test will give us an early look at how well they work together and how well they perform with a new manufacturer -- Penske and Keselowski going from Dodge to Ford, Logano from Toyota to Ford.

Keselowski is optimistic on several fronts.

"The potential is there for it to create much better racing," he said of the new car. "There are boxes that are opening up with the car -- the most significant box is the car is lighter and has better weight distribution in general.

"That should allow Goodyear to build a better tire that is less prone to failure and permits side-by-side racing because of its grip-to-aero-balance that the car generates."

Spoken like a good new spokesman for NASCAR.

5. What's next?

We know NASCAR has a Jan. 10-12 test at Daytona International Speedway and a Jan. 17-18 test at Charlotte.

But five-time champion Jimmie Johnson brought up a good point during the unveiling of the new Chevy SS in Vegas. He called on the tracks to step up to improve racing.

"We all want great side-by-side racing," Johnson said. "I don't have the answer, and I'm like everyone else wondering what it is, but I do know the teams have worked so hard over the offseason the last four or five years, and we haven't seen the impact we wanted, and we need to look elsewhere.

"As tracks need to resurface … let's do some redesigns and start looking at the racetracks and taking those opportunities to create more racing."

But first things first: the Charlotte test where those of us who just parted will get quickly reacquainted.