NASCAR determined to police Car of Tomorrow.
SONOMA, Calif. -- NASCAR is determined to take any guesswork out of its new Car of Tomorrow.
With a new system of templates and sensors to measure the parameters of the taller, wider and reputedly safer car, NASCAR chairman Brian France said the sanctioning organization wants to leave no doubt that it will come down hard on infractions.
"We have to lay down the law," France said Sunday at Infineon Raceway, where the Nextel Cup cars raced in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
That doesn't bode well for the teams of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who were parked for Friday's practice and qualifying after NASCAR inspectors found front fenders on their COT Chevrolets had been illegally modified.
The two Hendrick Motorsports drivers were allowed to practice Saturday and race Sunday, starting from the rear of the field, but it is expected that NASCAR will follow up in the next few days with more severe penalties, possibly including the loss of drivers and owner points, six-figure fines and suspensions for the crew chiefs.
Asked if NASCAR is taking all the creativity away from the teams, France said, "There will always be room for imagination and ingenuity in the sport. But we don't want this thing to revolve around technology. It's important to keep it in the hands of the drivers."
Gordon drove a great strategic race Sunday and wound up seventh. He leads Denny Hamlin, who finished 10th, by 271 points. Johnson was 17th and remained third in the standings, 366 points behind his teammate.
"It was a great run," Gordon said. "I thought (crew chief) Steve Letarte and everyone on our team just called this race perfectly to come from that far back to a top 10. We played the (pit) strategy the best way we possibly could and we had some cautions fall our way, which was some good fortune for us to gain some spots."
Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, wasn't as happy.
"I think I was in the wrong gear on pit road and that ended up costing us track position, which ended up costing us from getting up in the top 10," he said. "I think we had the speed. We just, unfortunately, didn't get up as high in the finishing order as we wanted."
Looking ahead to the probable penalties from NASCAR, Gordon said, "What happened to us on Friday was huge. I think it had a trickle-down affect through this garage area that they are coming down hard on this type of infraction. All of us are blown away and we don't know what's coming next.
"We are at the mercy of NASCAR and I hope they are light on us, but who knows."<
COT ON TRACK: Sunday's race is the road-course debut of the Car of Tomorrow and the drivers were generally pleased with the result.
Third-place finisher Jeff Burton said he wasn't surprised that the new car, which had only six previous Cup starts, all on ovals, did a good job at Infineon Raceway. But he noted there's still a lot of development work to do.
"You know, it has its problems, there's no question," he said. "It's not a perfect car. But this car is proving to be pretty resilient. All of the problems (are) because it's a brand new piece. But, all in all, especially considering how new it is, it's pretty tough."
"My car was really pretty good," said Greg Biffle, who finished fifth. "But it was a lot different.
"The (COT) is a lot more top heavy and it's a little harder to get slowed down because it wants to pick the inside up all the time, whichever one it is depending on the way you're turning. So you need to be real careful about not skidding the tire.
"It really, really looked like it was very hard to pass here today," Biffle said.<
FUEL FAILURE: Robby Gordon started second and led a race-high 48 laps, including the first 34 on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn circuit. But he wound up 16th after his team's fuel strategy let him down late in the race.
"It's pretty disappointing that fuel strategy makes that big of a difference," Gordon said. "It's disappointing that we had a car as fast as we had, started on the front row and not just get beat but finish 16th.
"We need to figure out why we're getting a quarter of a gallon less fuel mileage than the other guys."<
KEY RECEIVER: NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice was feeling the pressure Sunday morning.
Named the Grand Marshall for the race, Rice, who caught so many clutch passes in tight situations during his football career, was nervous about delivering the traditional "Gentlemen, start your engines" line.
"I'm truly just looking forward to the race right now and saying those four famous words," Rice said. "I have brought out so many coaches to work with me, I don't want to blow this. I have so many guys depending on me."
On a more serious note, Rice said he was enjoying meeting some of the drivers this week, particularly Gordon, whose wife, Ingrid, gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter named Ella Sofia Gordon, last Wednesday.
"He had a beautiful little girl," Rice said. "For someone that you would think would have been a little frustrated because he couldn't get on track (Friday), he was very relaxed. I think it just shows his confidence and that he really believes in himself."
Gordon told Rice he was a San Francisco 49ers fan.
"He said he has a helmet with my signature and (Joe) Montana's," Rice said. "That's from way back in the day right there. We just talked and had a great time."<
SPARKPLUGS: Juan Pablo Montoya is the third foreign-born driver to win a race in NASCAR's top series. The Colombian driver joined Italian-born Mario Andretti, who won the 1967 Daytona 500, and Earl Ross of Canada, who won on the short oval at Martinsville in 1974. ... Montoya also joins Andretti and Dan Gurney as the only drivers who have won races in NASCAR, Formula One and American open-wheel racing. ... A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 turned out Sunday, a clear, breezy day with temperatures reaching into the mid-80s.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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