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car of tomorrow
y JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
Wed Mar 21, 4:48 PM ET
Tomorrow is finally here in NASCAR, which begins the most radical on-track experiment in the sport's history this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway
The Car of Tomorrow, a NASCAR-developed vehicle that spent seven years in development, will make its long-awaited debut at one of the most rough-and-tumble tracks in NASCAR.
Some like it, others loathe it. Either way, it's not going away any time soon.
Designed to improve safety, reduce team costs and improve competition, the COT will race Sunday at Bristol in the first of 16 events this season. It's scheduled to be phased in by 2009, but NASCAR officials are hoping teams fall so in love with the car that they'll ask to use it full time next season.
Right now, opinion is split.
Two-time champion Tony Stewart has blasted the car, and used his national radio show to call it a "basket of junk that drives like an old green Oldsmobile station wagon with the wood panel trim on the sides."
But teammate Denny Hamlin isn't as aware of the difference.
"It really doesn't drive that much different, to tell you the truth," he said. "Once I belt in and get buckled, I am in a car."
NASCAR has heard the comments and criticism, and isn't surprised by any of it.
"It's just part of the competitive nature," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's competition director. "There are certain people who complain about every rule and regulation, every procedure, even the way the qualifying draw goes. In the 27 years I've been here, there's always someone who complains about something."
That won't likely change after Bristol, a track that produces exciting — but crash-filled — racing. It makes the .533-mile bullring a quizzical choice for the COT debut because no matter what version stock-car is on the track, it's destined to bump and bang its way around its tiny confines.
"It's a bumpy, rough track and when you finish 500 laps there, you feel like you've been in the ring with Mike Tyson — the young, bad-ass Mike Tyson," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "The track is so rough, it will beat you up even when you're running alone, like a hammer to your organs. But you throw in 42 other cars, and it's like a cage match.
"You can't go anywhere or make a move without running into something or someone."
So regardless of what happens on Sunday, no one will be able to get an accurate read on the COT. And that should carry over into Martinsville Speedway next week, leaving Phoenix next month as the first real test for the COT.
"On the short tracks, you will probably not see any change," Pemberton said. "I'm pretty sure this weekend we'll see great racing at Bristol like you always do. It won't be until you get to Phoenix, Darlington and Dover, that's where you can start to draw some comparison."
Brandon Thomas, who helped develop the COT prototype while at Joe Gibbs Racing, believes NASCAR was smart to roll out the car at Bristol and Martinsville.
"The first two races we're going to run are very, very low on the aerodynamic supremacy scale," said Thomas, crew chief for Tony Raines. "By rolling it out at the places they've decided to, you're going to see a minimal amount of impact when a crash happens and a splitter gets ripped off. You're looking at doing a significant amount of damage to your car, but not really affecting the way it's going to drive."
That means the only initial changes fans might even notice on the COT are aesthetic — particularly with the adjustable rear wing and front splitter.
The flat splitter is located under the nose of the car and can be adjusted to change the front downforce. The rear wing, which replaces the spoiler and looks like what you'd see on a street car, can be altered to effect aerodynamics.
Because both pieces are adjustable, NASCAR said teams will no longer have to build track-specific race cars because the COT can be tinkered with to go straight from a short track to a superspeedway.
The new car also makes several advancements in safety, with a larger driver's compartment, center-located seat and energy absorbing materials through the gut of the vehicle.
"The most important thing about the Car of Tomorrow is it is safer," said 6-foot-5 Michael Waltrip. "I feel more comfortable sitting in one since it has more room."
NASCAR predicts the racing will be better with the COT, and it should equalize the field a good bit.
A handful of super teams have emerged over the last decade, as three car owners have combined to win the last six titles. It's left everyone else struggling to keep up, and the COT might give the mid-levels a fighting chance.
"When you're a smaller organization, a lot of time you're chasing what the bigger teams are doing," said Petty Enterprises vice president Robbie Loomis. "They're able to react and respond to things quicker ... where in a smaller team, seems like you're always one step behind whatever the latest, greatest thing is.
"Now (NASCAR has) drawn a little bit tighter box around a lot of areas."
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