DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Drivers gave NASCAR's new Generation-6 car a passing grade in the Feb. 16 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Scholastically speaking, this non-points race was more of a quiz than final exam. The true score of the new vehicle won't be known until teams depart the sands of Daytona Beach and head for the desert of Phoenix, the neon of Las Vegas and other such stops where intermediate-track competition will be the order of the day.
Still, it was competition -- at nearly 200 mph, no less. And it provided a glimpse of what awaits drivers when the green flag falls a week from now to officially usher in the points-racing portion of the season.
It was the first on-track, side-by-side racing for the car, which was redesigned to incorporate more of the showroom appearance of the Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota entries into the cars used on the track.
"I like the car. I like the way it drives," said runner-up Greg Biffle. "The car drives well. Maybe we will work on the aero package ? the car stalls out fast (here), it's got a lot of drag."
The Roush Fenway Racing driver led just once for two laps, but ran fifth or higher for all but eight laps of the 75-lap event.
"It seemed like some cars were better than we were," he said, "and we will work on our stuff for the 500."
Three different drivers -- Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth -- led the first five laps with Kenseth eventually spending 26 out front. Race winner Kevin Harvick was dominant, leading 19 of 20 laps in the final segment and 40 overall.
"I think you just have to be patient with it," Harvick said of the new car. "Handling was a lot less of an issue for us than we had anticipated. So that kind of caught us a little off-guard with the practices.
"? There is still a lot to be learned with a full pack of cars and we'll kind of ease into that with the Duels (scheduled for Feb. 21) and then onto the big race on Sunday."
Although the intermediate tracks were the focus for many of the aerodynamic changes instituted by the sanctioning body, the impact was still evident at Daytona.
Multi-car crashes, during preseason testing as well as practice at Daytona, kept the number of cars on the track at any one time well below the 43 spots that will be filled for next week's race. And only 15 laps into The Sprint Unlimited, another hairy incident sent seven of the 19 starters packing.
"The front bumpers ? very small contact patch as far as how you can push and how you can't," Harvick said. "When things don't line up correctly, you see what happens. You just have to be patient. It reminds me of how we raced 10 or 11 years ago with those types of cars and that type of package."
The likelihood of much warmer temperatures awaits, and it's worth noting that The Sprint Unlimited was run under cool conditions long after sunset.
"I thought the cars handled pretty well, but I still think that's a function of the temperatures and how much grip the Goodyear tires had," Carl Edwards said, saddled with a 12th-place finish that was the result of a penalty for disobeying a NASCAR request. Edwards lost a side window late in the race yet chose to sojourn on instead of pitting to replace the piece.
"I think if the temperatures are high for the 500, I think it's going to be insane," he said. "I think the last 10, 15 laps of the run, guys are going to be sliding around right up by the fence. It's going to be pretty hairy, which I think is really good. It's fun to race like that at Daytona."
"It's just all of us finding our limit," said Joey Logano, debuting in the Penske Racing No. 22 Ford with a third-place finish. "OK, how close can we get to each other, how hard can we drive these things before we lose control of them?
"I thought that overall the cars were good. I think they are cool and they look good and they put on a pretty good race and I think there might be some adjustments to be made to them to always make it better. You never stop improving.
"We got what we've got and I think we will put on a good 500."
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