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Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine
NASCAR says goodbye to the wing
Standing on pit row Friday morning at Bristol, a handful of fans stood behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit stall and watched his crew as it checked the security of the just-mounted rear wing on the 88 Chevy.
"Hey, Lance!" One blue-garbed fan shouted to crew chief Lance McGrew. "When you get done with that, can I take it home and burn it?!"
And that, race fans, pretty much sums up the end of NASCAR's wing era.
When the checkered flag is thrown on Sunday, it will close the book on the 93rd and final race with the carbon fiber aero device, which was introduced at this very race in March 2007 with the rest of the bigger, boxier Car of Tomorrow. The winner of that event was Kyle Busch, who promptly climbed out of his Hendrick Chevy in Victory Lane and oh-so-delicately described the new cars by saying, "They suck."
From that point forward, people opened fire on the new car. To many, the wing became the symbol of everything that was supposedly wrong with the Cup car. Fair or unfair, the big, black wing became a big, red target, an unwitting shelf that held all the ire being piled on the new machine.
Drivers said it blocked the view from their rearview mirrors and even through the windshields of the cars ahead of them. Jeff Gordon said it wasn't mounted the way a race car wing should be mounted. Others, including Purdue engineering alumnus Ryan Newman, said the instrument designed to create downforce in one direction was causing lift in the other, launching the car into the air whenever a driver was turned around backward. NASCAR says wind-tunnel tests have disproved that theory, but after Brad Keselowski's sky ride at Atlanta two weeks ago, the league conducted another battery of tests just to make sure.
Said Michael Waltrip, only half-joking: "Eventually, someone's going to figure out a way to blame the wing for global warming and the economy."
Conspiracy theories aside, everyone from the grandstand to the garage area did share one common feeling about the accessory: It wasn't pretty.
Eventually NASCAR agreed, announcing in January that the appendage was going away, primarily because of aesthetics. "We went in and put the wing in for all the right reasons," NASCAR president Mike Helton said at the announcement. "Over the course of the little over two complete seasons that this car has been on the race track, the general acceptance of the wing didn't grow past the point we thought it should have."
Translation: It pretty much didn't grow at all. Young street racers didn't take to it, and old-school oval racers thought it looked out of place. The opinions were underlined by the lack of tears being shed over its farewell this weekend.
"Will I miss it?" Elliott Sadler paused and contemplated the thought. "Has anyone else said they're going to miss it?"
No, not really.
"It just never really looked right," Greg Biffle admitted Friday afternoon. "You think of stock cars, and you think of a spoiler, not a wing. When we've been testing the spoiler on the car in advance of bringing it back [next week at Martinsville], you just look at it and think, 'OK, now this looks like a stock car.'"
As opposed to a drifting car or something you might see Paul Walker racing against Vin Diesel.
"I think it was definitely pointed at bringing in a new audience," Clint Bowyer said. "I don't know if it did that or not. But there do seem to be a lot of people happy about it going away."
Well, for now, anyway. Some drivers, even those who have led the complaining charge, may end up begging to bring back the wing if their performance starts to suffer.
Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson has led the wing era with 21 victories in 92 races, a 22.8 winning percentage. Second among all wing winners is Kyle "They Suck" Busch with 13 victories. Carl Edwards is the only other double-digit winner with 11.
But even with those big tallies, the wing has seen some pretty significant parity with 22 different winners, including 14 who made multiple trips to Victory Lane. Johnson also leads in top-10s (tied at 59 with Jeff Gordon) and has an average finish of 10.2 to Gordon's 11.3.
"Oh, wow," said the four-time defending Cup champ when those numbers were read off. "Then I guess I'd better tell my guys not to throw all the wings away after this weekend. If I end up sucking with the spoiler, then I may end up lobbying NASCAR to bring them back."
"No, not really."