The biggest test yet for NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow will come Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in the blocky car’s first race on a superspeedway.
Other than a two-day test last month, few of the Nextel Cup drivers have even had the chance to see what the new car will do on NASCAR’s biggest oval. And, even those who did take part in that test, only had limited drafting sessions with 10 to 12 cars.
In Sunday’s UAW-Ford 500, there will be 43 of them out there on the high-banked 2.66-mile circuit.
The COT is the result of seven years of development by NASCAR, building a taller, wider and, hopefully, safer car that can be adapted for use on different size tracks, thereby reducing the need for its teams to build separate cars for each configuration.
NASCAR, which has mandated the COT be used for the entire schedule in 2008, introduced the cars into Cup competition this season only at the tracks shorter than 11/2 miles, the two road courses and, now, Talladega.
They will have run a total of 16 COT events in 2007.
“The way the cars are set up and the big hole they punch in the air, it should be way wilder than anything we’ve ever seen (at Talladega),” said Denny Hamlin, one of the 12 Cup drivers competing in the Chase for the championship.
That’s saying a mouthful, since Talladega, the only event in the 10-race Chase at which carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep the cars under 200 mph, has a reputation for the type of two- and three-wide freight trains that produce spectacular multicar pileups.
One other factor with the COT is that the new cars are virtually identical, regardless of make. And NASCAR’s tight inspection process is intended to make sure it stays that way.
Chevrolets have won 16 of the last 17 Cup races at Talladega, including a victory by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in April. The only exception was Dale Jarrett’s win in a Ford two years ago.
But, with the new car, the General Motors folks fear that dominance might be gone.
“With the Monte Carlo SS the Chevy teams and drivers all thought they had a little bit of an edge, and that gave them the confidence to attempt passing at plate tracks,” explained Pat Suhy, GM Racing NASCAR group manager. “Now, that edge is gone.
“You still will be able to gain positions in the draft, but with the cars so equal aerodynamically, the concern is even greater now that pulling out and trying to pass alone will be completely different. Everyone is so evenly matched from a drag perspective that it will be much tougher to complete the pass to get into the lead.”
That is also likely to make what was already close racing even tighter. In turn, the possibility of a mistake that produces “The Big One” increases with each lap.
“We’re going to put on a spectacular race,” Gordon said. “I expect it to be pretty wild, pretty crazy and a heck of a show for the fans.”
Kasey Kahne, who drives a Dodge, said, “I think it’s going to be the best Car of Tomorrow race we’ve had yet.
The way the cars line up, you can do things out there and have fun. I think it’s going to be the most fun we’ve had in the new car.”
If the drivers like the result with the new COT, it’s likely the fans will, too.