Door-To-Door: COT splitter could be trouble

The splitter on the front of the Car of Tomorrow could be a problem. Why did Ricky Rudd really come back? Are we watching the dawning of a new "official" era? See what Marty Smith says in Door-To-Door.

Updated: January 16, 2007, 3:00 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Door-To-Door opens this week with a question I've found to be of considerable concern to Nextel Cup teams entering 2007:

Marty,

I keep hearing COT [Car of Tomorrow] complainers fussing about the possibility of the splitters and wings being irreparably damaged from minor contact. The trucks have run splitters for ages and they haven't been a problem.

The only time I ever saw splitter damage that wasn't part of the overall damage from a wreck was when the thing was set too low and got ground off against the track -- obviously the team's own fault for setting it too low.

What's the real truth here about the COT splitters and wings?

-- 3KillerBs, North Carolina

First, quickly: Cup crew chief Jimmy Elledge tells me the Truck splitters are Kevlar pieces built into the nose of the machine, so it's essentially apples and oranges when compared to the more fragile COT splitters. However, Nextel Cup director John Darby says they're conceptually similar. (That was a Labonte-ism -- speak in a circle until thoroughly confused.)

Clint Bowyer and Car of Tomorrow
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesEarly tests with the Car of Tomorrow included a splitter -- the body part extending from wheel well to wheel well below the front bumper -- made of wood. A composite model which is designed to be less fragile is now in use.

Moving along ... here's the real deal, 3Bs:

If you ask Nextel Cup teams, developing the Car of Tomorrow is akin to a weight-training regimen: tear it down to build it up.

"We'll purposely tear some stuff up during testing," said Todd Berrier, Kevin Harvick's crew chief. "How else are we supposed to be prepared to fix it? You hate to do it, but there's really no choice.

"When the splitters get damaged -- and they do get damaged -- it really hurts your car. So to be sure we're ready with crash carts come race time, we have to do real-time preparation."

In other words, break equipment on purpose.

So substantial is the concern that Lance McGrew, crew chief for Casey Mears' No. 25 Chevy, said it might be time to change the points system.

"We were looking at that the other day in the shop, and it makes me wonder if they shouldn't go ahead and change the points system to where 30th on back just gets the same amount of points, so they're not trying to repair [damaged splitters]," McGrew said.

"Because I'm telling you, it's a major, major ordeal to try to put a splitter back on a car after it's got front damage."

The front splitter was introduced on the Car of Tomorrow as an easy, inexpensive means to adjust aerodynamics. The initial model was made of wood, and was quite easily damaged. A newer composite version, similar to carbon fiber, is tougher. But is it tough enough?

"When you're on the bigger tracks and you hit the ground with [the wooden model], when it bottoms out, it'll break," said Elledge, crew chief for Reed Sorenson. "The composite one they have is definitely a lot stronger than the wood we were messing with.

"The wooden ones you'd destroy really easily. It's a gray area right now. We hit the wall at Bristol with it, and it knocked the splitter and the wing off, so it's going to be an area NASCAR's definitely going to have to define -- do you have to have it or not?"

Elledge makes an interesting point, there. Postrace inspection. Will an intact splitter be required therein?

"We'll probably go through a process of understanding the height of the splitter and making sure they're not too high off the ground," Darby said.

"That's going to be kind of a critical area, there," Elledge said. "NASCAR needs to decide whether we have to have it or not. I think we ought to have it, but that's going to be a bad thing if you do knock it off at Martinsville and have to spend time in the garage fixing it.

"We need to do more testing with that composite one to see how tough it is, because we had a tire failure at Nashville and hit the wall with it, and it was damaged but not broken."

A damaged splitter and/or rear wing wouldn't be a huge setback at Martinsville. But at Atlanta?

Park it.

"If you have damage you can forget about having any downforce," McGrew said. "It might not come into play as much this year because we're running the shorter tracks, but in the future, for sure, it's going to be a really big deal. You won't be able to drive the car without it."

Darby said teams might be overreacting a bit. Theoretically, shock travel will be reduced and go back to more conventional setups.

"There are reasons to be concerned on how to protect the splitter as best you can, because obviously without it, especially at a larger track, you've lost a good portion of your front downforce," Darby said.

"So what will happen is we'll go through an evolution of quick repairs like we have today where you see cars bring out a half-nose, and suddenly a completely damaged car is back to what it was, and it's close enough that the aero losses are gained back with a simple repair."

Martdawg!

I have a question. I need to attend my sister's wedding in India in February, so can you tell me where I can find TV schedules of NASCAR worldwide? I know NASCAR says its races are telecast in 150 countries, so please help a fellow fanatic out.

-- Vivek, Atlanta

I got nothing for you on the worldwide front, Vivek, but I got your back in India, brother. NASCAR is broadcast in India on Zee Sports. And not just the race broadcast. You can also get your daily fix on Zee Sports' daily NASCAR program, "NASCAR Mania." For more information check out www.zee-sports.com. And congratulations to your sister.

Marty!

The Party Boy story was classic. I cried! Gotta meet this guy. Anyway, why would Ricky Rudd ever want to come back to Yates? They're a lower-level team these days.

-- Jason Johnson, Chesapeake, Va.

Party Boy is a total rock star. Can't believe I haven't heard from him after such a stellar endorsement.

Anyway, Rudd's decision: Many pundits posed a similar question when his return was confirmed. Does he really want to ride around? Well, he doesn't think he's going to ride around. In fact, he thinks his influence will be key in returning RYR to prominence.

It's happened before, after all.

When Rudd joined RYR the first time, prior to the 2000 season, the organization was unbalanced. The No. 88 was fresh off the 1999 championship, but the No. 28 had experienced three difficult years with young Kenny Irwin Jr. at the wheel.

"Kenny Irwin tried hard and had a lot of talent, but wasn't really probably ready for that Cup ride," Rudd said. "He had as much talent as anybody in this garage, but it just never clicked.

"When he stepped into that [situation], yeah it was a two-car operation but & you had the 28 in a separate building. And the 88, at that time, had the big budget. As an owner you shored up where the money was. He didn't take the money from one operation and put it in the other. He kept them separate. So the 88 outgrew the 28."

Enter Rudd. He brought experience, grit and much-needed personnel. Suddenly the 28 was running with, and sometimes outrunning, the 88.

"When I came on board in 2000 over at Robert's, the 88 just won a championship, but with the 28 the performance wasn't there," Rudd explained. "And [Yates] didn't know what he was going to do with the 28. He'd seriously thought about possibly shutting down. He wasn't getting the results and it wasn't what it used to be. Then I came in and it started clicking."

That past experience partly led to this decision to come out of retirement.

"I saw Robert in a very similar situation this time around," Rudd said. "The difference is this time both teams weren't performing the way he wanted them to be. Robert could have bailed out and that'd have been the easy way out, but he chose to fight and build back up again.

"That's the fight I saw in Robert when I met him. That's why I'm here. I see the same thing I saw when he was trying to get that 28 going again. It's not a question of if it will rebound. It's a question of when."

Hey Marty!

After doing a research paper on NASCAR and its distinct eras during its history for my English class, I have a question that has been bugging me. What is the new era of NASCAR going to be called?

The "Golden Era" is from 1949 to 1972. The "Modern Era" is from 1972 to present. The eras have typically been defined by the cars on the track. With the COT, what is the name of the era that we are going be starting when the green flag drops at Bristol in the spring?

Thanks for your time. Just wondering what's going to happen with the new era.

-- Nicole Wall, Rockford, Mich.

Great question, Nicole. Let's take a poll. Send your suggestions to ESPNsider@aol.com.

I'll throw out the first idea: the Back to the Future Era. Why? The COT is the most advanced machine in the sport's history from a safety standpoint, but it looks like a 1991 Pontiac Grand Prix.

Marty,

Regarding schedule length, what about this idea: The season stands at 36-38 races, but ... -- Drivers competing for the championship must run 25, but no more than 30 -- Drivers must compete at least once at each track in the series (no twice at Charlotte, no ducking Sears Point)

There would need to be some other specific tweaks to make sure the top competitors at the marquee events, but doesn't this open the door to more sponsors (fewer races per sponsor) and more drivers? The PGA doesn't have every player at every tournament.

-- Bill, Boston

Interesting concept, Bill, but I personally think it'd never fly. Too many fans want to see too many drivers, and the sport owes it to its fans to have as many opportunities to see his or her driver of choice as possible.

I live in Charlotte. If Tiger's not playing in the Wachovia Championship, I have no desire to attend.

Lastly this week, thoughts and prayers to Bobby Hamilton's family. He was a great man, gruff and tough on the outside but innately chivalrous, honest and forthright. He was old school, didn't take anybody's crap and called it like he saw it.

And he kept it fun. To a man, everyone I spoke with about him this week shared an anecdote about a golden sense of humor, one that offered laughter and hope when all seemed bleak. May he rest in peace.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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