Commentary

Car of Tomorrow may not be passing muster in Chase

There's plenty of passing in the Car of Tomorrow. Unfortunately little of the passing is for the lead. That could be a problem in the Chase, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 20, 2007, 4:37 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Half of the races in the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup are in the Car of Tomorrow, which isn't producing the best racing shows of today.

Sunday at Dover is Act II of the 10-race Chase and the third consecutive COT event. Recent races in the new model have left drivers and fans scratching their heads and hoping what they see isn't what they get in the long run.

Is the COT safer? Absolutely. More cost-efficient? Probably.

Producing better racing? Uhhh, we'll get back to you on that one.

First-time winner Clint Bowyer was so far ahead when he took the checkered flag last weekend at New Hampshire that second-place Jeff Gordon couldn't see him.

Officially the margin of victory was 6.469 seconds, an eon of time on a 1-mile oval track.

Dover has more banking, but it's another 1-mile oval. Martin Truex Jr. earned his first victory there in June, covering the field by more than seven seconds in his COT Impala.

Jimmie Johnson won at Richmond two weeks ago by more than three seconds in the COT event that decided the 12-man Chase field.

This is not what NASCAR had in mind after seven years of research and development on the COT, a bigger and boxier car that was supposed to bring more side-by-side racing.

"It's frustrating," Matt Kenseth said at New Hampshire. "You can be running two-tenths [of a second] faster than the guy in front of you, but you just can't pass him."

This car was built to try to alleviate that problem. The old model, a much more aerodynamic design, is plagued by what drivers call "aero-push."

When you pull up on the bumper of the leader, the trailing car becomes difficult to turn and drifts out toward the wall. The leader could be a tick slower, but stays in front because of the aero resistance on the trailing car.

The COT was designed to reduce that aggravation. Its size and shape make the car displace more air. In theory, that should result in easier passing up front.

It's what happens in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The upright shape of the trucks makes passing easier.

But we aren't seeing the same results in the COT. Why not? No one really knows. The verdict is still out, but the concerns are growing in the Cup garage.

"They're always evil," Kyle Busch said last weekend about the COT. "We're still trying to make it better. I guess it just doesn't fit my driving style. But I'm trying to get accustomed to it."

Nextel Cup director John Darby is convinced the good outweighs the bad.

"From what I've watched, I would say [the COT] is becoming widely accepted because of the competition benefits we've seen from it," Darby said on a recent conference call. "The drivers understand that the new car is a little more robust, which allows them to approach the race a little differently. They can race a little harder."

The initial COT races this year produced some exciting finishes. The short-track events at Bristol and Martinsville in the spring each had two drivers fighting for the victory on the final lap.

But the more the teams learned about the COT and how to make adjustments, the worse the racing got up front.

It's up front where the problem lies. Passing is plentiful back in the pack for most COT races.

Fans saw an amazing battle at Richmond two weeks ago when Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Tony Stewart were racing for position near the end of the event, but they weren't racing for the lead.

The Bristol night race in August had lots of side-by-side racing and double the green-flag passing of the spring race, but those passes weren't for the lead.

Kyle Busch
They're always evil. We're still trying to make it better. I guess it just doesn't fit my driving style. But I'm trying to get accustomed to it.

Kyle Busch

That problem, along with a lack of crashes usually seen at Bristol, was blamed mostly on the new racing surface. But the COT in clean air made the leader almost untouchable.

If it's hard to pass the leader on short tracks, how hard will it be next year on the 1.5-mile ovals? NASCAR won't race the COT on those tracks (often called the cookie-cutter ovals) until next season.

The intermediate ovals are where the racing suffered the most in recent years. It's where the COT is supposed to save the day.

But the recent COT races aren't giving teams much confidence that the aero-push woes on the 1.5-mile ovals will improve next year in the COT.

The fact is no car, regardless of its design, can solve completely the up-front passing problem with the superhard tires NASCAR now uses from Goodyear.

A harder compound is safer, but it also means the tires have less grip on the track, limiting the ability of a driver to race his way to the lead.

Many unknowns remain with the COT, including how it will perform at the Talladega event next month, the first restrictor-plate race with the new model.

The COT could provide even more excitement for the typical high drama of restrictor-plate racing at the 2.66-mile oval, but it's all a guessing game for now.

A major goal for the Car of Tomorrow was to put racing back in the hands of the drivers. So far, most drivers say their hands are tied.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter