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PADECKY: Drivers like NASCAR's new model

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 10:57 p.m.

SONOMA

To get a NASCAR driver's attention, agree with him. Throws 'em off every time. The sport is built on conflict and disagreement.

That NASCAR officials can even make these guys drive in the same direction feels like an accomplishment. Which is why this Gen-6 thing is so baffling.

Gen-6 reads like an energy supplement but it's not. It's not a herbal laxative or lawn fertilizer. Gen-6 reads ordinary, unexceptional, forgettable.

You wish NASCAR would have labeled its latest racing vehicle something a bit more catchy, like Seat Belt Scream. Or Thrill Chill. Or Whoa Daddy. Something, anything, to place Gen-6 in its unique, proper perspective.

“It's been a smooth transition,” driver Marcos Ambrose said on Tuesday. “It's been a good step in the right direction.”

In NASCAR terms, Ambrose just gave the Gen-6 a standing ovation. Ambrose, along with teammate Aric Almirola, were testing the Gen-6 at Sonoma Raceway. The Gen-6 is the sixth generation NASCAR prototype which replaces the Car of Tomorrow that didn't make it to today. Almost universally, the drivers have praised the machine. It's lighter, handles better and is safer.

It's not the COT (2006-12) which Tony Stewart called “the flying brick.” It wasn't the Gen-4 car (1992-2006), as sensitive to touch as crystal. It wasn't the Gen-3 car (1981-91), a missile with wheels. It wasn't Gen-2 (1967-80) which, to date, represents the good ol' days when cars weren't death traps and looked like showroom models.

And it certainly wasn't the Gen-1 car (1948-66) when the cars were death traps and races weren't competitive.

Like your friendly neighbor down the street who tinkers with his car at midnight, NASCAR has spent all its adult life tinkering with its cars, finding ways to make its vehicles safer, fast but not too fast and nimble to be driven, not just steered.

Through all this maturation of product, the drivers remain resolute in being critical.

There's a good reason for this.

“If you (driver) don't have something to grumble about,” said Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager, “then you have to point the finger back at you.”

For every time a driver accepts full blame and responsibility for an accident, there are 10 other times the car failed or the bull-headed pinhead next to me took me out or my team is underfunded or how can I be expected to drive well under these conditions (pick a condition, any condition).

“It's man versus machine,” said Ambrose, when asked why drivers are so cranky and hard to satisfy.

Yes, it's quite comfortable blaming a chunk of metal that can't talk back.

“It's the nature of racing,” Ambrose said.

It's the driver racing against other drivers, track conditions, his own car, his own crew and an owner watching his pennies.

That's a lot of competition entering the driver's cockpit. That's a lot of edginess just turning on the key. Into this mishmash of metal, attitude and human error is the Gen-6.

“Whoever designed this new car,” Clint Bowyer told the Associated Press after racing at Richmond, “we should kiss 'em every weekend.”

Through the first nine races of the season 1,203 more green flag passes have been raised. The average margin of victory is .634 seconds, compared to 1.759 seconds in 2012.

There are 49.9 percent of the cars finishing on the final lead lap this year, opposed to 38.2 percent in 2012.

Gen-6 is taking the races back to the drivers, not the machines. Driving skill is being emphasized more.

It's a beautiful thing, especially when the fannies in the seats can tell the difference between brands.

In their striving for uniformity, under the false assumption that every machine should look and drive equally well, NASCAR officials suffered a brain collapse when it created car of tomorrow. The COT was a box, featureless, boring, ugly for its blandness.

There was a Chevy in there somewhere, or a Toyota or a Ford. Who knew?

COTs all looked the same. For those who view a car as a bucket of bolts and little more, brand identification had little meaning. But then there is the NASCAR fan, a fan like Scott Brown of Lodi.

Brown was watching Ambrose and Almirola test Tuesday. It's a big deal for him to tell a Ford from a Chevy. In very dramatic terms Brown, 50, showed why.

“People like to go home from the racetrack,” Brown said, “and get in their Chevy, which looks like the same Chevy they just saw on the racetrack.

They like to imagine they are in the same car as Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and ... ”

Brown proceeded to completely extend his arms to grasp an imaginary steering wheel. Standing, Brown leaned back slightly to mimic the thrill of going 180 miles an hour by being pressed back into his imaginary seat in his imaginary NASCAR race. A big smile on his face, Brown was living the dream which any good sport offers.

“You know ... like that,” said Brown, satisfied he represented that Chevy ride well. Satisfied that this Gen-6 car took him there. Satisfied for now, like Ambrose and the other drivers. And that's the best anyone could ever hope to say about NASCAR and its drivers.

They are satisfied. For now.

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You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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