When Earnhardt speaks, NASCAR community listens
by Pete McCole
May 8, 2007

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Pete McCole

When NASCAR’s most popular driver talks, people listen.

At least, that’s what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is hoping.

As teams struggle to catch up with the new Car Of Tomorrow, Earnhardt is hoping his clout will be enough to get NASCAR to look into improving how the new car handles and turns, and hopefully level the playing field that has skewed slightly after four races with the new car.

In the four races since the Car Of Tomorrow first took to the track at Bristol in April, Hendrick Motorsports teams have dominated the field, winning all four races.

Heading into this weekend’s race at Darlington – another CoT race – Junior expects more of the same.

“I'm not looking forward to driving the Car of Tomorrow at Darlington, Earnhardt said. “People say the cars are ugly - well, I don't care what they look like but they don't drive as good as they should.

“In this day and age with all of the knowledge and technology we have, it's ridiculous that these cars are so bad. That's my opinion, which may not mean much, but I hope NASCAR listens to the drivers and teams when we say these cars don't drive worth a damn.”

So far Junior’s best finish in the CoT – and this season – was a fifth-place showing at Martinsville, but along the way his team has had their share of difficulties trying to figure out how to make the car work.

He’s hoping NASCAR will hear the driver’s complaints – and act on them.

“NASCAR was pretty open to suggestion when they were building it, hopefully they’ll be open to suggestion on how to improve it,” said Earnhardt. “They can’t assume that it’s a finished product.

“The cars don’t turn that great and everyone’s struggling with how to get the cars to turn.  Even when they’re running in second and third position you’re just the best of the worst handling cars out there. You’re just trying to be the guy with the least amount of problems when it comes to handling. It’s going to take a lot of time to figure it out, but right now it’s about the most frustrating thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”

A.J. Allmendinger
Pete McCole

Frustrating still is that some teams, such as Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing, seem to have the car figured out.

Junior’s theory on why that is? Deep pockets.

“I hear rumors that they have (former F1 and Champ Car driver) Max Papis and road race guys at Sonoma testing and testing and testing the car,” Earnhardt said.

When asked if his team could keep up with a level of testing like that, Earnhardt’s direct answer was “No.”

“There’s not many teams that could do that.”

A least one other driver agreed with Earnhardt.

“They say that Hendrick has almost 100 days of testing in the COT car,” said Ford driver Greg Biffle. “I don't know if it's true or not, I have no idea. I do know that they've done a tremendous amount of testing and have spent a lot of time working with that car.

“Everybody said that this car was going to level the playing field for everybody, that's the whole key to this COT car, that it's going to level the playing field and put everybody on the same even keel. It hasn't done that to this point. It has although, raised up a few of the other teams, which it's intended to do. But it's not the great equalizer that everybody suspected it to be to in the beginning.”

Earnhardt does see certain benefits to the car, which was designed primarily to improve safety, reduce costs and ultimately promote better racing.

What drivers have learned so far from the four races that have been run, mostly on short tracks, is the car can take a lot of punishment.

“I had fun (at Richmond), because I could beat that thing up against anything and it wouldn’t fall apart,” said Earnhardt. “They’re tough, tough cars.”

Bobby Labonte
Pete McCole

What’s clear to Earnhardt is that before the Car Of Tomorrow can live up to its billing as the cars of the future, the car needs changes, and no matter how it gets fixed, it’s the drivers and teams – not NASCAR – that are going to have to make it happen.

“It’ll get fixed eventually, but you can’t expect things to happen overnight,” said Earnhardt. “Drivers are going to complain, but NASCAR is not going to seek you out. That’s not their job. You have to go to them and tell them – if you have some suggestions, give it to them. They were open to suggestions when they were building the cars, and they implemented them.

“If I knew what to do to fix it, I’d be in that trailer right now telling them ‘this is exactly what I’d think would work’, but I don’t have that knowledge. I can just tell you what it does and doesn’t do, hopefully over time it will have a lot of changes and NASCAR will work to improve it. Hopefully it will be a good driving car when it’s all said and done.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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