Drivers not confident they know much about COT

4/2/2007 - NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Stay tuned.

That's the general consensus about what was learned in the first two races with NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow.

"We're wasting our time even trying to comment on the Car of Tomorrow at Martinsville and Bristol," Jeff Gordon said after Sunday's second-place finish to teammate Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville Speedway.

"You can't tell anything really about this car right now until we go to [larger] race tracks."

That's a bit overstated. Teams learned the safety foam in the right door panel will melt under intense heat from the tail pipe if the metal is too thin or the foam is not properly installed.

The situation was so extreme in Kevin Harvick's car on Sunday that he had to climb out while safety crew members extinguished the wires from an in-car camera that caught on fire during the meltdown.

Teams also learned that a driver can bump the car ahead of him hard -- really hard judging by the way Gordon hit Johnson over the final laps -- without causing a wreck because the bumpers match up better than the old cars.

They learned that Hendrick Motorsports is ahead of the game after a 1-3 finish at Bristol with Kyle Busch and Gordon and a 1-2-4 finish at Martinsville with Johnson, Gordon and Busch.

They learned that aero push, which normally isn't a problem at short tracks, might be a bigger factor than expected.

Yes, aero push is back.

Not that it ever went away.

"Yeah, it was a little bit harder to pass," said Gordon, who leads Jeff Burton by 26 points in the championship chase. "Yeah, I couldn't drive in as deep [into the corners], but those are all the things you expect with this car. We just got to get used it.

"I was still able to pass certain guys, but just wasn't able to pass the leader. When we get to Darlington, we definitely [will learn more]."

Aero push occurs when there isn't enough downforce on the front of the car to provide enough tire grip to hold a line. The car pushes towards the wall. That makes handling more difficult back in the pack, and it was a constant complaint with the old car. NASCAR hoped the COT would alleviate that with the front-end splitter and rear wing that directs the air flow differently than the spoiler.

That apparently hasn't happened. Johnson felt the same frustration trying to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead before a rain delay.

"I didn't really feel like I had a chance to run with the No. 8 car or win the race right before the rain," he said. "It does seem like you do lose a little bit of front grip in traffic as you're racing people. Clean air does help these cars a lot."

Earnhardt Jr. loved the COT in clean air, saying he had more front-end bite than ever at Martinsville. He struggled like everybody else back in the pack.

"It didn't really tell us whether we're going to really like the car at Michigan and places like that," Earnhardt said. "We've got to go to the Phoenixes and Michigans.

"Short-track racing, you can put four tires and a steering wheel on anything and figure out a way to get it to go around there pretty good. But Michigan and other places, that'd be another answer there, another deal for that Car of Tomorrow. We'll see how it goes."

The next COT race is at the one-mile track in Phoenix in three weeks. While it's a half-mile longer than Bristol and Martinsville, teams still might not get the total picture of the new car until they get to the 1.366-mile surface at Darlington in early May.

They might not learn totally about it until they get to the 1.5 mile and 2-mile tracks in 2008, when if all goes according to schedule the car will be fully implemented.

"What we learned from Bristol was it is very aero-dependent, a lot more than we thought it was going to be," Elliott Sadler said. "It's a lot harder to manhandle and bump your way around the racetrack.

"It was very unusual at Bristol, we never had that there. The big telltale will be Phoenix, if it's bad there."

Denny Hamlin, who finished third to prevent Hendrick Motorsports from taking the top three spots, said track position was everything just as it always is at Martinsville.

"For the most part our car was just really inconsistent back in traffic and a whole lot more consistent once we got towards the front," he said after leading 125 laps.

Nextel Cup Series director John Darby is more concerned with melting foam than he is with aero push.

"You could probably take the bodies off these cars, and someone still would feel there's an aero push," he said. "If a car is tight, it's tight. You can argue all day if it's tight whether your springs and shocks aren't correct or if it's an aerodynamic issue.

"With the size of the track and the slower speeds, I would have to believe that aerodynamics doesn't play a huge effect."

In other words, stay tuned.

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