NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow makes debut Sunday
by Pete McCole
March 25, 2007

The Petty Racing Dodge Car of Tomorrow
Dodge/Getty Images

The future of stock car racing has finally arrived as NASCAR’s technological showpiece, the Car of Tomorrow, makes its competitive debut in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Seven years in the making, the new design is the most radical change to happen in NASCAR’s premiere division since the early '80s. NASCAR plans to run the CoT in 16 races this season, adding an additional 10 events in 2008.

Designed to promote more competitive racing, reduce costs and improve driver safety, the new car incorporates a number of safety innovations and aerodynamic features, including a rear wing and new front air dam design called a “splitter”.

Yet despite thousands of hours in testing both on the track and in the wind tunnel, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to how the car will perform once the green flag flies on Sunday.

The Evernham Racing Dodge Car of Tomorrow
Dodge/Getty Images

The biggest challenge facing drivers will simply be getting used to the feel and handling characteristics of the new car as opposed to the current model cars.

“It's no Monte Carlo,” said Jeff Gordon, who like other Chevrolet drivers will be campaigning an Impala in the CoT races. “There is no way you're going to get the car to feel like our current car. Our current car has twice as much downforce. It doesn't have the limitations that (the CoT) car does. The new car is harder to adjust and it definitely creates some more challenges from a drivers' standpoint.

“Any time you have something that feels good, it's hard to step backwards. But as far as the racing, and as far as competition, it's still my hope that it does everything that NASCAR set out for it to do.”

Setting up the car has been the biggest headache facing teams this weekend. Besides having less downforce than the current cars, the CoT also have less spring travel and fewer adjustable features, making it challenging to set up the car to handle Bristol’s bumpy concrete surface.

“The stuff we use to set the cars up is totally different,” said Jimmie Johnson. “Springs don't do what they used to; the main focus is to keep the splitter on the ground and maintain the perfect attitude around the race track. Bristol is a true challenge to that car. It's a rough track and a tough place to set a race car up."

"We are so limited on the front downforce,” said Gordon. “And because of that big roof,
that just takes all the air off the car anyway, that when you're behind a car it's punching such a big hole. I'm not saying this combination won't be good. It might be.”

One of the hallmarks of Bristol is its reputation for bump-and-run racing and sheet metal crunching wrecks, bringing up the question of whether or not the new car will be able to take the punishment the drivers are likely to dish out.

“The front splitter - there's a question mark of what's going to happen,” said Kurt Busch. “Whether it's the bolts from the underside and supports getting ground off -what
do you do with them if they're hanging there? Is NASCAR going to make you run a front splitter at all times? I don't know.”

“It’s all unknown,” said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart. “We’ve never run a car 500 laps. We’ve never gone out and banged wheels. We’ve never gone out and ripped the splitter off and seen how bad it drives and how hard it is to fix it during race conditions. That’s all something that we’re going to have to go through and figure out as time goes by.”

As is typical in short-track racing, aerodynamics aren’t like to play a major role this weekend, nor are they likely to in the next CoT race next week at Martinsville, leaving teams looking to future CoT races at Phoenix, Darlington and Dover as a better true test of what to expect from the car.

“I don't think you can totally judge off this race because this is a very unique race track,” said Matt Kenseth. “By the time we get to Darlington and probably Dover, when we get to those kind of tracks, we'll probably have a better idea of what we're up against.”

"I think Dover will be the place where it really shows up,” said Carl Edwards. “I think Dover is fast enough. I think that it's finicky enough to get the handling just right and that's where this car is gonna be really tough. I think that's gonna be the track where the aero stuff shows up and where a lot of teams are gonna struggle with handling.”

If there’s anything that’s certain about Sunday's race is that no matter what type of cars are on the track, it’ll still be typical Bristol – “Racing the way it ought to be”.

“The bottom line is you're still going to have the same Bristol atmosphere of the bumping, the banging, the long runs, the short runs, the pit strategy, just cars on top of each other, rookies making mistakes,” said Kurt Busch, a five-time Bristol winner. “You'll see the same cats with the same results…I hope.”

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