NASCAR’s car of tomorrow came full cycle with Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, completing its first year of competition in the Sprint Cup Series.
The car has been used in 21 races – 16 of last year’s 36 events and the first five races of its first full season. So as the Cup Series takes its first weekend off of 2008, it seems like a good time to take stock of where the car is and where it might be headed.
“There’s been a lot of progress with the new car,” said Kyle Busch, who won the car’s inaugural race at Bristol on March 25, 2007 and then complained about it in his Victory Lane interview.
“It’s still an animal to drive,” said Busch, who is one of only four drivers to win more than one race in the new car. “It’s definitely making us earn our pay. That’s what we’re here for and that’s why we’re the professionals and the best in the world, supposedly.”
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Jimmie Johnson won five times last year in the car and is second only to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in points scored in it. But Johnson is off to a slow start in 2008 as the car moves to the circuit’s bigger tracks.
“On the easier tracks where grip is not all that difficult, the short tracks where aero (dynamics) is not all that important, the racing has stayed very similar,” Johnson said. “When you get on the bigger tracks it really puts everything to the test.
“Darlington, I remember last year was just a pain to drive and it was ridiculous how slow we had to go to stay on course. I think at tracks like Darlington, Atlanta, Michigan, Pocono, you’re going to hear a lot complaining. It’s going to be a tough, tough process to get the car right.”
Cup teams continue to work with shock absorbers, springs and the handful of other things NASCAR allows them to adjust on the car.
The car is still evolving, but the question lingers how much change NASCAR will allow and how fast it will allow that to come.
“There are a lot of things about it that still need some work and hopefully the window is still cracked open for some slow change,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
“Maybe there will be some slow, methodical evolution for this car over the next two to three years because it is obviously here to stay.
“I would hate to think that this is exactly how this car is going to be three years from now. Hopefully we aren’t too bullheaded to not want to build them the right way.”
But Gordon said NASCAR’s reluctance to change the car’s basic package has been a good move.
“The thing I really give NASCAR a lot of credit on is that a lot of teams and drivers said, ‘We need to change this, we need to change that, we need to do this, we need to do that,’ ” Gordon said.
“Everybody was giving their opinions on what needed to happen with this car and NASCAR stuck to its guns. They believed the more time that the teams spend in competition and testing and all those things that they are going to get this car to do what they need it to do.
“I think that we’ve gotten about 80, 90 percent of that out of it. That they were right on that. But there’s that other 10 or 20 percent.
“I think the racing has been surprisingly good because I thought this car aerodynamically wouldn’t really be able to make as many passes. The first time I drove this car at Michigan I was like, ‘Oh boy, we got our hands full here.’
“Just by working on the car, driving the car more we’ve made big improvements so hopefully we can continue down that same path and continue to make this car what it needs to be. All I care about is putting good racing on out there.”
“If it drives great, doesn’t drive great, if we’re putting good racing on and we’re competitive that’s what matters most to me.”
Kevin Harvick drives for Richard Childress Racing, which put all three of its Cup cars in the Chase last year and has all three – Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer – in the top nine so far this year.
“We have had a very open mind to it,” Harvick said. “It has taken all three teams to help progress things faster. We have worked hard as an organization and still have a lot of work to do to continue going forward.
“That is the hard thing about it. You can’t stop working because it is going to be a constant progression for a long time.”
After struggling last year with the car, Kasey Kahne has four top-10 finishes in five races so far this year.
“I’ve figured how to drive it much better, I think I do a better job with the car,” Kahne said. “As far as the team, they’ve done an excellent job figuring what that car likes as compared to where we started.
“We’re still not the best car by any means – but we’ve figured out a lot about what that car likes and how that makes me feel and how I drive it.
“We’ve come a long way and still have a way to go.”