This was it. The Daytona 500, the biggest stage in NASCAR to proudly show off the new Generation 6 car which brought with it sparkling reviews for bringing the stock back into stock car racing. Appearance wise, you were hard pressed to find a fan not impressed with how much Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet SS looked like the Chevy SS that was recently unveiled to the public and available to them later this year. Same was true for the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry resembling the production models.
Chevrolet did choose the bright spotlight of the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s Super Bowl – to unveil the production model of the SS and Danica Patrick couldn’t have served up a better introduction. She capitalized on the first opportunity to put a Gen-6 car in the public spotlight by winning the Daytona 500 pole position and in the process capturing America’s attention by becoming the first woman to ever win a pole for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Johnson then continued the Chevy momentum winning the prestigious season-opening race Sunday afternoon.
“It is just awesome. There's no other way to describe it,” Johnson said after winning this race for the second time. “To be the first to win in a Gen-6 car, and that car is a Chevy SS, just a very proud moment.”
Getting this car ready to race has certainly been a labor of love. With limited testing opportunities, there have been many unknowns as to how this car would perform in a true racing environment and that has led to many sleepless nights for crews around the circuit.
“We put a great product out there. I'm telling you, I know we worked at least 35 days straight on the car that we raced in the Daytona 500,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “I know I put in personally one day of 38 hours straight. I actually sent Jimmie a text, saying I've seen 6:48 three times today and haven't been to bed yet.”
Out of that perseverance, they developed a game plan where the Lowes No. 48 team bypassed several opportunities during race week practice sessions to participate in drafting sessions, opting instead to work on single-car speed.
“We had a bunch of things we wanted to try to work on for single-car speed and not really get in the draft and tear up the race car and Jimmie did a great job of following that plan,” Knaus said. “It's difficult as a driver when you see all these people trying to get out there and draft, it's tough to hold back and he did a great job. “
Testing that single-car speed, Johnson saw how well that car performed in the top groove of the 2.5-mile, restrictor-plate superspeedway, especially the momentum it got off the corner. Most of the drivers found that to be true and kept their fast cars up top and that played in Johnson’s favor as he had the late lead and other drivers found it difficult to pass down low.
“With the side drafting being as effective right now, you could really choke down the bottom lane and pin a guy against the line and slow him down and then get away and have that long line of cars to surge you past,” Johnson said. “The game's changed a little bit. It used to be defend the bottom, now it's defend the top. I learned a lot through the course of the race with the new Gen-6 car.
“At the end when it was time to go, I knew we had a straight race car with no scratches on it. We worked real hard; we had a game plan down here every time. Even though we were in single-car drafts, we had an agenda and things we worked on and made the car a little bit better each day, kept perfecting it. I had one heck of a race car today.”
It will be interesting to see how the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crews set up this new Gen-6 car for Phoenix’s one-mile oval in the Arizona desert Sunday afternoon for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. This new car hasn’t tested at a short track yet and crews are unsure of what tire will give them the best grip for Phoenix International Raceway. In addition to the change in tires, they will also lose the restrictor plate for this race so with the car already being lightning fast with the plate in Daytona, look for some track records to be challenged over the weekend.