Editor's note: This story is the second of a weekly series about the Gen-6 debut.
The statistics alone are impressive.
This season's debut of NASCAR's Generation-6 race cars in the Sprint Cup Series produced 19 track qualifying records by 11 different drivers. The total of 127,306 green-flag passes is nearly 17,500 more than last season and the second most since 2005.
There were 17 different winners -- only two off the modern-era record. And the blink-of-an-eye 1.267-second average margin of victory is the lowest in eight years. Twenty times races were decided by less than one second.
The reviews from those behind the wheels of the sleek, street-true Gen-6 Ford Fusions, Chevy SSs and Toyota Camrys are just as impressive.
"I'm telling you, whoever designed this new car, we should kiss 'em every weekend," Toyota driver Clint Bowyer said earlier this year. "It's creating drama. We haven't seen racing like this in years.
"When you leave a race track and there's people in tears because they won and in tears because they got crashed, that's what brings us to the race track, that kind of racing and determination and passion."
And that's coming from a driver that didn't win a race in 2013.
Ford driver Greg Biffle called the cars "fun to drive."
His Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards -- a two-time winner in the Gen-6 Fusion this year -- went even further.
"The plan was to start by making it really different. At the end of the day, it drives great, looks great and is an awesome race car."
From the outset, fans and competitors praised the representative look of the cars, which more closely resembled their street-car counterparts.
Fans' perception that the cars looked like showroom cars increased from 28 percent a year ago to 83 percent with the Gen-6, according to the NASCAR Fan Council -- an important credibility boost for car manufacturers, who have long held to the "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" mantra.
But no one was blind to the most essential aspect of the Gen-6: its performance on-track, in-race.
The cars were durable -- 83.1 percent were running at the checkered flag, up nearly 10 percent from a year ago.
They were safer, and Loop Data such as green-flag passes and lead changes per race (19.4) saw quantifiable upticks.
"Every weekend is a big weekend now for this sport and this car," said 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. "We've seen some compelling racing and great battles."
Now NASCAR considers it a matter of tweaking a good thing and making it better. Tests throughout the season and another coming the week of Dec. 9 will be important in finalizing and evaluating.
"That's why NASCAR, I think, has a reputation and is known for throughout its history is to continue to work on its product, and next to making it safe, the next biggest topic we've got is making sure it's competitive, and we'll continue to do that," NASCAR President Mike Helton said just before the season finale.
There are many different opinions from the 43-car starting grid on what the sport should do going forward.
Some drivers warn about making massive changes to the cars, wondering if outside variables such as tires could create even closer racing, while other drivers have suggested aerodynamic modifications, including completely eliminating downforce.
There are those that think an easy drive makes for better competition and an equally vocal contingent that thinks making it more difficult for drivers adds an exciting and essential component to the competition.
"I think we've just barely begun to scratch the things that we can do with this car," Richard Childress Racing crew chief Gil Martin said. "Sometimes it takes a long time to find huge changes along with the car, but I think as the season has progressed, we've gotten much better with the car, and I think the garage has.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of upside for what's going to happen with the future of this car. I think the racing is just going to continue to get better."
Newly crowned six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson certainly enjoyed success in the Gen-6 car, considering his six wins and series-best three qualifying records. He has taken a more philosophical approach to the process.
"There's a lot going on within the NASCAR offices and all the competition side and then what takes place in the garage area and the race shops," Johnson said. "In December there's a big test session and we'll know a lot more at that point as to the direction of the rules package and where it's going.
"Over the years I've learned to not stress about things. There's only so much I can contribute to in this decision-making process. When I'm asked questions by whatever NASCAR official it is, I'm more than willing to give my opinion and try to sound off and be a part of that process. They've got to manage so many different angles and now we're using a lot of data, some of it's new data that they're using to make these decisions.
"I'm just sitting back patiently waiting where things go. I always look at change as an opportunity, and the No. 48 has taken advantage of those opportunities over the years."
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