A daylong rainstorm kept NASCAR's teams mostly confined to their garages Friday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Several drivers felt the rain was also the only thing protecting the track's speed record from the new Gen-6 race car.
Although Denny Hamlin's criticism of the new car drew heavy attention and a hefty fine from NASCAR this week, most drivers think it's too early to make any negative judgment about their speedy new rides. In fact, this weekend is the Gen-6's first real chance to show what it's got — and the drivers are eager to get rolling.
"I think as we learn more and more about these cars and what makes them work and drive better, things can only get better as far as the product we put out there every week," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday.
While Hamlin correctly pointed out how many adjustments still must be made to the car, many more drivers seem intrigued by the possibilities and potential in their eye-catching new vehicles. What's more, NASCAR and its three manufacturers built the new car largely to improve racing on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks like the tri-oval in Vegas, where Brad Keselowski will start from the pole on Sunday.
The first race in the Gen-6 was with restrictor plates at Daytona, a high-banked, 2.5-mile track. Its second outing was at Phoenix on a fairly flat, 1-mile track with few of the challenges drivers will face elsewhere. While Phoenix featured little passing or side-by-side racing, most drivers seem to think the quality of racing will improve on the intermediate tracks that make up most of their schedule.
"For a new car, I thought last week was a really good debut for it," Tony Stewart said. "I personally think it's off to a great start, and it's got a lot of potential. We had good racing, we had a good finish, and everybody is going to keep learning. Everybody has their piece of the equation that they will figure out. You have to start somewhere, and for it to debut the way that it has, I think, has been a very positive start."
Although Hamlin's pessimism got headlines this week largely because NASCAR spotlighted it by fining him $25,000, Earnhardt and Stewart are among the drivers who are encouraged by their early experience in the new cars — and Danica Patrick certainly isn't complaining after winning her historic pole at Daytona.
"We're still learning a lot, even by ourselves, in trying to understand the race tracks and how the car wants to be set up," Jimmie Johnson said. "Then at these higher speeds, downforce-wise, this will be our first exposure to it (in Las Vegas). I tried to get around some cars. Things seem stable at least catching one car, but when you get all 43 in a big pack and the air is really swirling around, then the cars drive a lot different. There will be a lot of learning going on come Sunday."
The new cars are lighter and more aero-sensitive, but they're definitely fast, too: After Patrick and Mark Martin barely missed the track speed records in qualifying for NASCAR's first two races of the season, many drivers said they expected a Vegas record to fall Friday before the session was scrapped by rain. They barely missed the record during Thursday's open test, a valuable resource for teams tweaking their cars for the season ahead.
"It's a new car, there's a lot of things to learn, and that's what everybody in the garage is trying to do, is trying to get an advantage on the rest of the competitors out there," Earnhardt said. "We had a good opportunity yesterday. ... I was kind of glad to see it rain today, because I practiced enough. I was ready to race."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, is urging drivers and fans to show a little patience while the teams figure out the cars. He expects teams to use the Easter break to evaluate data from the first few races, but describes the adjustment process as "a long-term deal here, years and years and years for this car."
Pemberton defended NASCAR's decision to fine Hamlin, who furiously stood up to the governing body by vowing to appeal and refusing to pay the fine. His team, Joe Gibbs Racing, issued a statement Friday saying it "will fully support Denny in his appeal process."
The garage had mixed feelings over Hamlin's stand. While Jeff Burton and other drivers suggested NASCAR had overreacted in fining Hamlin, Keselowski and a few other drivers were more circumspect.
"It's been an interesting story for somebody to challenge that authority," Jeff Gordon said. "That's fine, but at the end of the day, I know whose sandbox I'm playing in. I like the sandbox. I like to play in it, and I want to have the best opportunity to have the most fun in that sandbox. Sometimes while you don't always like it, you have to bite your tongue and just go out there and race."