Editor's note: This story is the third of a weekly series about the Gen-6 debut.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact genesis of the current, sixth generation of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car. So clandestine were the Generation-6 model's beginnings that some secret tests with rolling prototypes only came to light long after they were conducted.
Once the wraps were off after more than two years in the making, NASCAR officials savored the fruits of many months of labor with the Gen-6 car's successful debut in the 2013 season. Watching the redesigned model make its first competitive laps at Daytona International Speedway was the byproduct of extensive development and unprecedented collaboration among the sport's three manufacturers to create a race car with a fresh look, showroom-style savvy and striking brand identity.
NASCAR President Mike Helton, during a season-ending address ahead of the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, touched on the reception of the Gen-6 car and the lessons the sport's officials have learned from its rollout. In doing so, he extolled the upswing in on-track passes and the theme of parity with 17 different drivers heading to Victory Lane in the 36-race season.
"What that taught us, the benefits of it, the outcome of it, the high praise and excitement and acceptance, the visibility of our race cars has shown us what we can do collectively at NASCAR with the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), with the race teams and other folks in the sport were able to grow a very popular product and build some strong relationships," Helton said.
While the Daytona debut in February marked a key checkpoint on the Gen-6 car's journey, it wasn't a checkered flag. Work continues at NASCAR's Research & Development center in Concord, N.C., in an effort to fine-tune the car's evolution and improve the competition in the model's second year.
"And to that point, I would tell you that in '12 and particularly continuing into '13, NASCAR continues to build relationships with the teams, certainly the drivers, the tracks, but its partners, whether it's Sprint or Nationwide or Camping World or Goodyear, Sunoco, Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, to make the sport better," Helton said. "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.
"Along the way we've learned more how to do that, and I think the Gen?6 is a big symbol of the cooperation of everybody in the industry and the result of that cooperation."
Cooperation was a trademark of the car's development. In bringing the Gen-6 concept from sketch to model to race car, NASCAR received collective help across the board from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota -- fierce rivals on the track, but dedicated participants in helping to advance the sport.
From there, teams and drivers offered their feedback in a battery of test sessions, the most extensive testing schedule since the introduction of the previous generation car before the 2007 season. The extra preparation bore out competitive statistics for 2013 beyond the variety of race winners -- 19 track records broken, 20 races with a margin of victory less than a second and a 15.8 percent increase in the number of green-flag passes compared to 2012.
The increase in parity wasn't lost on NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, who lauded the improvement at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, before the season had even hit its midpoint. But even then, France hinted at the direction the car would take in the rest of 2013 and beyond.
"Innovation is going to be a big area to us," France said. "You'll see us announce different companies that are going to come in. This is a place to validate lots of things with technology. The car manufacturers, each one has stated goals about evolving, innovating in their own space. We have a technology partner as our series partner in Sprint. You're going to see us embrace technology, embrace innovation, so long as it can make the racing tighter, better and safer."
France's remarks came just weeks after NASCAR announced the hiring of Gene Stefanyshyn -- former General Motors executive, designer and technical director -- as a key cog to NASCAR's R&D department. Stefanyshyn dove into the role of Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development this spring, working closely with Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell and Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.
The department will focus efforts on four planks of competition in an expansive 18-month project -- announced in July -- that will redevelop the NASCAR rule book and reshape the way the sport is officiated. But even as that initiative continues, the department is already at work on sharpening the Gen-6 car's aerodynamics and rules package for 2014, with a test session scheduled Dec. 9-10 at Charlotte -- just days after the confetti and champagne corks are swept from the floor of the Wynn Las Vegas after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards.
Though officials, teams and drivers have all chimed in on the car's progression, one of the most vocal groups with a positive reaction to the car's debut has been the fans, who welcomed the renewed connection with the race machines and their newfound relevance to their own vehicles.
Many have also embraced the racing. Count John Darby, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director, among them.
"I don't know if I could be much happier right now with the first five races that we've rolled out," Darby said in March, just before the first idle weekend of the Sprint Cup season. "The competition has been phenomenal. The races are just fun to watch. I mean, I don't know how else to describe it.
"I know my role in the sport, but I've got to tell you, there's a lot of race fan in me as well, and you know, I would already be buying tickets for the next race if I had seen the first five that I have this year. So yes, we are pleased and I think we can keep that momentum rolling."