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Friday, February 15, 2013
It's all about the car Saturday night

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nineteen test pilots take the track Saturday night, guinea pigs in helmets and firesuits.

One of them will end the night a winner. All of them will gain valuable information about a highly praised new speed machine. And a few of them might learn things the hard way, leaving the show with a car ready for the scrap heap.

The Sprint Unlimited, previously known to most of you as the Bud Shootout, almost always is a wild affair with drivers going all out to win, given that nothing else really matters in the all-star event.

That won't change, but this one is uncharted ground, the first racing action in the new Gen 6 car. Almost everyone believes this machine is a vast improvement over the Gen 5, better known as the Car of Tomorrow or CoT.

Might as well have called it SNOT, or NOT-HOT or Let it ROT, considering what most fans, and drivers, thought of it.

In fairness, the CoT was the safest race car ever built. Those safety components are part of the Gen 6, which has the same chassis. But the Gen 6 is sleek and stylish, resembling a real car. The CoT wasn't exactly the prettiest girl at the prom.

"I thought it was hideous,'' Kurt Busch said Thursday. "We took a step back when we introduced that car. We have to have a cool-looking car that people see and think it's futuristic. That didn't happen with the Car of Tomorrow. In 2007, if we had what we have today [the Gen 6], the sport would be further ahead."

A bold statement considering no driver has made a competitive lap yet in the Gen 6, but 19 guys will Saturday night.

Jeff Gordon's car
If testing of the new car last month at Daytona is any indication, bump drafting might end up causing a lot of crumpled metal.

"It's going to be an exciting race any way you look at it," said Joey Logano, one of the lucky 19 thanks to winning two poles last season. "There are going to be a lot of unknowns going into the race. That will make it exciting for the fans, too.

"There are a lot of unknowns on how the cars will handle. We need to learn as much as we can. I want to see a big W. I want to win."

What you won't see are the two drivers who finished at the top of the 2012 standings -- Cup champion Brad Keselowski and runner-up Clint Bowyer. Neither man won a pole last year (proving how unimportant that is) and neither one is a previous winner of the event, the two ways to get in.

"Any driver that's not [racing] is disappointed to not be in it," Keselowski said Thursday. "I think it limits some of your ability to win the [Daytona] 500 -- not all of it, but some of it. At the end of the day, this is not T-ball. Not everybody plays. We didn't earn our spot, we don't play. It's pretty simple."

Maybe Keselowski should count his blessings. The drivers didn't get 10 minutes into the first practice Friday before wrecking. Five cars were involved and three drivers went to a back-up car -- Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. These teams don't have a lot of the cars built because some of the new parts are hard to come by.

Only 12 Cars took the track for the final practice. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart were among the drivers who sat it out. Might as well wait for the real thing to get crazy.

Keselowski will be watching intently and taking notes Saturday night, as will the other drivers not in the race.

Some fans also might take a few notes, given that they are the ones deciding how this event is run. Sprint placed some of the rules in the hands of the fans, allowing the viewers to decide the format.

The first decision was the laps per segment. The winning trio is 30 laps for the first segment, 25 for the second one and 20 for the final segment. The starting order also is determined by a fan vote.

"I was pushing for a shorter last segment," said Aric Almirola, racing the event for the first time. "I think, especially with restrictor-plate racing, a green-white-checkered is the most exciting race anyway, and it will probably still turn into that.

"The fact that they voted for 20 laps really surprised me. I thought it would be the 10-lap segment. If I had to guess, I would say we are going to have a big wreck and a green-white-checkered finish anyway."

Before the green flag, Sprint and NASCAR will announce the fans' choice for a pit stop after the first segment -- either a four-tire stop, two tires or a no-stop option.

Before the second segment, fans also decide how many cars are eliminated before the last segment -- none, two, four or six. If it's six, that would leave only 13 cars (at the most) racing in the final laps.

It's all up to the voters. Whatever the format ends up being, the real issue to determine is how the car performs under race conditions.

It's a 200 mph experiment. What drivers want to know more than anything else is how much they can push another car in the draft. Who will try it first?

"I'm too old to be the first guy to try anything now," said Tony Stewart, a three-time winner of the event. "Somebody's going to have the nerve to try it."

Earnhardt showed some nerve in Daytona testing last month, only to cause a big wreck on the backstretch when he bumped Marcos Ambrose.

Call it a learning experience for everyone. And more learning will take place Saturday.

One caution: Don't read much into what you see.

What happens in this go-for-broke race isn't indicative of how the teams will race in the Daytona 500 with 43 cars, a long 200 laps with championship points on the line. And what happens in the Daytona 500 isn't indicative of how the cars will race anywhere else except Talladega.

But this car has plenty of positive vibes going in.

"It's a great car," Earnhardt said Thursday. "It's a step in the right direction, but there's so much to learn. Over the year, we'll learn what the car likes and doesn't like. I think everybody needs to just be patient. Let the car kind of come to us. Let us sort it out. The potential is there for us to really enjoy this car."

That's what everyone is hoping. Saturday is the first step, the coming-out party for the Gen 6. It's the red-carpet stroll in a designer gown that everyone wants to critique.