Will the Car of Tomorrow level the field? Not likely

A level playing field? After one race with the Car of Tomorrow, it appears the same teams that won in the old cars will win in the new ones, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 26, 2007, 3:31 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Robbie Loomis glared at the giant needlelike scoreboard in the middle of Bristol Motor Speedway late Sunday afternoon.

Richard Petty, right, and Robbie Loomis
AP Photo/Bob JordanPetty Enterprises director of motorsports Robbie Loomis, left, and Richard Petty are used to checking telemetry data. Now they have the burden of doing it with two different types of cars.

At the top were the numbers 5, 31, 24, 29 and 16.

"It doesn't look a lot different than it always does," said the director of motorsports at Petty Enterprises. "If the 20 [Tony Stewart] hadn't had problems, he'd have been up there, too."

No, the Car of Tomorrow wasn't the great equalizer many predicted before its inaugural race.

Hendrick Motorsports had two of the top three cars, first-place Kyle Busch and third-place Jeff Gordon. Richard Childress Racing had two of the top four in second-place Jeff Burton and fourth-place Kevin Harvick.

Greg Biffle rounded out the top five, giving Jack Roush four of the top 12 finishers with Jamie McMurray ninth, Matt Kenseth 11th and Carl Edwards 12th.

Had Stewart and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing not run into problems, they would have been up there as well. Stewart led 257 of the first 290 laps before fuel-pump problems left him 35th.

Hamlin led 177 of the next 196 before several late situations left him 14th.

Sure, Jeff Green of Haas Racing finished sixth, Mike Bliss of BAM 17th and Ward Burton of Morgan-McClure Motorsports 18th. But for the most part, the top 20 was the same cast of characters in the new car as in the old one.

"The best teams are always going to be up front," said Chad Knaus, the crew chief for reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "That's why Mr. [Rick] Hendrick pays Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.

"That's why they pay Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs. They're going to do the best job. That's the way it is."

That's the way it's been for a while.

Since 2005, NASCAR's top three organizations -- Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing -- have won 54 of 77 races, or 70 percent of all events.

They've won four of five this season, with Hendrick Motorsports claiming the past three.

It never was more out of whack than in 2005, when those teams combined for 28 wins in 36 events.

It's no different in the points race. The big three have won every title since 1995 but one, in 1999 when Dale Jarrett captured first with Robert Yates Racing.

They own the top four positions and five of the top six this season, with Gordon leading the way.

They win because they have the best drivers, engineers, crew chiefs and fabricators. That NASCAR suggests things will be different because the new car saves money and eliminates many of the gray areas all these specialists were able to take advantage of is ludicrous.

That's why Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so thrilled with his seventh-place team. As a member of one of NASCAR's second-tier teams at Dale Earnhardt Inc., he knows how hard it is to keep up.

"Hendrick and Childress, those teams did the most testing and learned the most [about the COT]," he said. "Hendrick studies hard. Childress has to work twice as hard to learn as much as the Hendrick teams learn in a week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/John RussellDale Earnhardt Jr. said it takes a lot more work for his team to stay on top of the Car of Tomorrow than it does for power teams like Hendrick Motorsports.

"It's quadruple for us here."

That's not to suggest the second-tier teams won't win their share of COT races just as they have in the old car. Richard Childress Racing won seven events last season with Harvick and Burton, and Harvick opened this season by winning the Daytona 500.

Evernham Motorsports' Kasey Kahne led all drivers in wins a year ago with six.

But to suggest that the COT will allow the third- and fourth-tier teams to compete for wins on a more consistent basis is a stretch.

That's because they still can't compete with the money and resources of the power teams.

The COT didn't change anything there.

Even new manufacturer Toyota, which is supposed to have bottomless pockets, realizes it'll be an uphill struggle to compete with those teams.

Lee White, the general manager for Toyota Racing Development, pointed out that Hendrick Motorsports had 35 days of testing on short tracks by the time Toyota came to Bristol last month for its first test.

How does that translate into track performance? Brian Vickers was the highest-finishing Toyota driver at 15th. Dave Blaney was next at 23rd. The rest were 34th or worse.

Maybe one day that will change. Maybe if the COT truly saves money -- as NASCAR says it will -- the teams won't have to build as many cars and the smaller teams will be more competitive.

In all likelihood they won't because the big teams, as in big business and almost every other aspect of life, have the big advantage.

"The winners are going to always be winners," Loomis said. "It's the people in the organization and the drivers.

"The COT is good. Hopefully, a year and a half down the road it might save us some money. Right now, it's going to take us working overtime, double time to work on both cars at the same time for us to keep up."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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