AVONDALE, Ariz. - Ask NASCAR Nextel Cup Series director John Darby a question about the car of tomorrow these days and he gently, but firmly, corrects you.
“Do you mean the NASCAR race car?” Darby says.
The car of tomorrow term, of course, never made sense after it was first used at Bristol this spring. But with two different cars being used in NASCAR’s top series this year, there had to be delineation.
There’s only one race left this season with each car. The “new” car will be used for the 16th and final time in Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway before the “old” car – called the “spoiler car” or, affectionately, the “Twisted Sister" cause of how teams had turned and bent the car’s body in recent years – is run at Homestead in the season finale.
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So with practically all of the first year in a two-year phase-in of the new car now complete, how has it done?
“There is just no way for me to give that car a good grade,” four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.
“The (old car) does things that you want a race car to do. The COT doesn’t do any of those things. And that’s why you hear a lot of us talk about it. So, once we stop comparing it to this current car, I think we’ll actually start to see some real progress and have some fun with it.”
That will start to happen next year, when the new car is introduced to the 1.5- and 2-mile family of intermediate tracks and the old car is no more.
Generally, teams have complained that it is hard to get the new car’s handling adjusted so that it turns well in corners. It remains to be seen if that characteristic has more to do with the fact that it has been used mostly so far on the shorter tracks with tighter turns.
Teams have also said the car, which is taller and wider, has a higher center of gravity and that has caused issues with finding the right balance.
There’s also the fact that NASCAR’s tight rules regarding the car’s body, its rear wing and the splitter on the front that’s designed to send more around the car instead of over it are all giving teams fits.
“The front splitter height needs to be adjusted,” Kurt Busch said. “I think if you asked all the teams in the garage, 99 percent of them would say to raise that thing up an inch and that would aid in making the car more drivable and put on a better race.
“That is one thing I hope NASCAR takes into consideration during the offseason to help the whole process of making the sport better.”
But Darby tells the teams not to hold their breath. He said NASCAR is determined to see the second year of the phase-in through before making any major changes.
Gordon said he hopes that Goodyear will have a productive offseason.
“A key is giving Goodyear the amount of time to build the proper tire for it, and I hope that they can do that,” he said.
“If they can’t, then it’s going to fall back on NASCAR to make some changes to that car to give it the tools that we need to adjust it.”
Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon’s team, got off to a great start by winning the first five races with the new car this spring. Overall, Hendrick has won eight COT races, with Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing winning two each and Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and Richard Childress Racing winning one each.
“At the beginning of the year, I really hated the car of tomorrow, just because we weren’t competitive with it,” said Edwards, who won at Bristol and Dover in the fall in the new car after Roush Fenway got its COT testing program up and running.
“Now we seem to be competitive. I think we’ve kind of figured some things out and it’s a lot more fun. Anything is fun to race if you’re running well.”
But Edwards said he doesn’t really know what to expect as the car moves to bigger tracks in 2008.
“I’m a little nervous about next year, just like I’m sure everybody is, because you never know,” he said.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be like when we unload at Las Vegas and California, we don’t really know how it’s going to go. There’s got to be somebody who’s got it figured out and goes out and hauls the mail.
“I hope it’s us. We’ve been working really hard at it – but it’s just a pretty big unknown there.”
Busch said he thinks the important thing for next year will be to remember that there will no longer be an alternative to this car.
“You have to feel positive about it,” Busch said. “I think that’s what our job needs to be – to accept this car and to say that it is the future of our sport,” he said.
“Anything that is out there that’s wrong with the car needs to be addressed, needs to be talked about, in a positive manner because this is what we have. It is what it is.”