Sunday’s Daytona 500 Drops the Flag on New NASCAR Gen-6 Car

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The field comes down the front stretch during the rain-delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Feb. 27, 2012.

I ran into Carl Edwards at Daytona this week. So, in fact, have a lot of people—especially other people driving race cars. Edwards has crashed a number of times during practice and qualifying rounds, leaving him behind the wheel of a backup car this weekend at the Daytona 500. “I wrecked a lot of stuff; the guys have been yelling at me,” he says. “I was walking to the gym and someone said, ‘What, are you afraid to drive?'”

What’s driving Edwards to distraction, and into other cars, is the introduction of NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, new this season. To reconnect with fans, NASCAR decided that its racing machines should more closely resemble the autos driven by the rest of us. But the Ford model, which Edwards drives, has a slightly different aerodynamic profile than the Chevys and Toyotas he races against. In the previous generation of race car, known as the Car of Tomorrow, the aerodynamics were much more aligned, but critics and drivers complained that it limited the driver’s ability to draft and pass other cars and engage in side-by-side racing. Now, the Car of Tomorrow is the car of yesterday.

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Given Edwards’s wrecks, and a few other incidents, drivers turned cautious, avoiding side-by-side duels. “Here at this racetrack the car slides around more,” says Edwards. “It doesn’t get stuck to the racetrack.” There’s another issue, too, says driver/team owner Tony Stewart of Stewart/Haas Racing: because all the cars are new, the supply of parts has been limited. “We didn’t have a spare car if we crashed our cars in the qualifying,” he admitted to TIME.

But not all racers have experienced negativity with the updated vehicle. The Gen-6 car has done wonders for one of Stewart’s drivers, Danica Patrick. NASCAR’s only female star captured the pole position last Sunday by driving the fastest qualifying lap, which didn’t require racing in traffic.

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Patrick has also captured all the attention. With her spot secured, she entered the qualifying Budweiser Shootout race needing to avoid pulling an Edwards. She employed what drivers call start-and-park: run a few laps and get out of the way. That set up an almost perfect story line for NASCAR: The most glamorous woman in racing will be sitting at the front of the pack when the flag drops Sunday. She’s one of NASCAR’s true crossover stars who can attract attention beyond the sport. “She’s getting on traditional media that wouldn’t have covered the Daytona 500,” says Joie Chitwood, who runs Daytona. “With Danica’s historic moment, it turns up the wattage.”

But she’ll then have to prove she can drive in traffic in the Gen-6 car. Drivers may have been cautious this week, but when the race starts the expectation is that NASCAR will get the side-by-side action it craves. Edwards likes his chances because the new car is harder to drive than the model it replaced. “To me, that’s perfect. I like scenarios in racing when it’s up to the driver and crew chief.” Stewart doesn’t necessarily agree. “We know Danica’s car has speed. Our cars show speed. We just have to figure out where to put them.”

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