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Matt Kenseth took a slow lap around his number 17 Ford in the garage at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last Friday morning, looking at the back end of the car as if he were gazing at a first love. "The car looks really cool now," Kenseth said. "But the spoiler could really shake things up."
At Martinsville, for the first time since 2007, NASCAR ripped the rear wing off the race cars and replaced it with the traditional spoiler, a 4 × 64.5-inch aluminum blade that's pitched at a 70-degree rearward angle on the back end of the car. The spoiler is as much a part of NASCAR history as Pettys, Yarboroughs and Earnhardts—the device made its first appearance at Daytona in the Firecracker 400 in 1966—and die-hard NASCAR fans never warmed to the funky-looking wing that replaced it in March 2007, their antipathy made clear in several NASCAR-conducted polls. The permanent switch back to the spoiler is an acknowledgement by NASCAR that the wing (which was developed with the intention of making the cars more stable and thus safer) was not such a good idea. "We had reasons to go to the wing," says Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, "and some of those things may not have panned out."
The biggest problem the wing created was that it made the cars hard to handle in traffic. The wing, contrary to expectation, didn't produce as much rear downforce as the spoiler, and drivers consistently complained that the cars bobbled and wobbled—or, in racing parlance, "got loose"—when trying to make a pass. This prompted drivers to become more conservative, which in turn often made for less-than-thrilling racing. Only Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus solved the aerodynamic riddle of the wing, winning 22 of the 98 races in the Wing era.
Will the switch to the spoiler end the dominance of Johnson, who already has three victories in six races this season? Possibly, because whenever the aerodynamics of the car change, it only takes one shrewd engineer or crew chief to discover a competitive edge. "This is an opportunity to maybe gain some ground," says driver David Reutimann. "We just have to see who can adapt the quickest."
Don't read too much into the fact that Denny Hamlin won the first race with the spoiler in the rain-delayed Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 on Monday, because Martinsville is the shortest, slowest and therefore least aero-sensitive track on the circuit. The more telling race will be on April 18 at Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval where cars reach 195 miles per hour. Drivers who run well there should have the upper hand at other high-speed intermediate-length tracks, which form the backbone of the Cup schedule.
One driver to watch in Texas will be Jeff Gordon. Unlike his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson, Gordon rarely felt comfortable with the wing. Gordon has won 82 races in his Cup career but only two with the wing. At 38, Gordon is still in his prime, has access to as many resources as Johnson and has won more titles with the spoiler (four) than any current driver. In other words, he could be the sleeping giant in the sport who is about to be awakened.
At Martinsville, Gordon was asked about the spoiler. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, he said simply, "This is a great opportunity."
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