Racing beat

The No. 6 AAA Ford Fusion of David Ragan undergoes a template inspection during Car of Tomorrow testing at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Car of Tomorrow has arrived in NASCAR Nextel Cup competition, and there’s a push among series officials to implement it for the entire 2008 season.

Is it too soon?

Teams have been preparing for its use for more than a year, with mixed reviews.

After a few races in the COT this year, many drivers have said the prototype isn’t ready for prime time.

Regardless, it’s the biggest change in NASCAR in more than a quarter of a century.

“I think [it’s significant] not just for NASCAR, but for all of motorsports in every venue,” says John Darby, Nextel Cup series director. “It’s been longer since we’ve changed the racecar of NASCAR’s premiere series than most of us have been around. The last time was back in 1981.

“You can’t help but be excited, whether the excitement comes from just the enthusiasm of finally getting it on the racetrack or whether that excitement is apprehension.”

Trouble spots
The COT is designed to be the safest vehicle in motorsports, and features two adjustable aerodynamic pieces – a rear wing and front air dam splitter – that provide teams with flexibility in making adjustments at the racetrack.

COT tests were held at most tracks on the circuit, but the primary complaints about Bristol, where it debuted, have been racing in corners and speed. During the most recent session at Bristol, drivers said the left-front tire tended to bounce in the corners, and speeds have been as much as 8 miles per hour slower.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon said the car simply won’t do what the driver wants.

“It’s definitely going to be a lot different as far as getting the car set up, handling,” says Robbie Loomis, vice president of racing operations for Petty Racing. “Watching the cars the first day compared to even after the dinner break, the cars were bouncing a lot. After dinner, everybody’s car started to settle down, get in a groove and run in the bottom of the racetrack.”

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Darby insists he isn’t worried about any ill effects of the vehicle in 2007.

“I think we’re pretty confident right now that if there are any issues, they’ll be small enough that they’ll be overcome very quickly,” he says.

Inspection issues
Aside from the headache of having to run parallel programs – one for the regular car and one for the COT – teams have had problems with the inspection process. With crews flying blind as to what they can and cannot do, some vehicles have spent as long as an hour being combed over by NASCAR officials following test runs.

Darby believes the process will be more streamlined as the COT continues to be integrated.

“As much as we’ve tried to make the race teams believe that it’s another racecar, and they need to take the same approach on the racecar as they do the current car, we’re doing the same thing with the inspection process,” Darby says. “There will still be an engine inspection and a fuel cell inspection and a chassis inspection.”

While reaction to the COT has been mixed, one driver who is sold on the idea is Dodge wheelman Kyle Busch.

“Overall, I think the car is a resounding success for all the teams and for the way it’s going to put on a good show when we race here,” Busch says. “It’s a clean slate, so whoever works the hardest and is the most determined and still continues to keep an open frame of mind will succeed in the end.”

In all there will be 16 COT races in 2007. NASCAR will determine at the end of the season whether or not to move up the program for all of 2008 or simply increase the number of races for the year. Originally, plans called for the COT to replace all other cars for the entire 2009 circuit.