Forget the past and race like there's no tomorrow
Racing a full slate with the COT created uncertainty and heightened expectations, so here's a look at the new car's impact a quarter of the way through the season.
Updated: May 6, 2008, 1:00 PM ETBy Bill Borden | Special to ESPN.com
In an article at the end of the 2007 season I made some predictions and also raised some questions that were yet to be answered concerning the "NASCAR Sprint Cup race car" that, at the time, was known as the Car of Tomorrow.
All references to the "COT" have been eliminated from the NASCAR Rule Book and it is now known only as the "Sprint Cup" race car, said NASCAR competition administrator Jerry Cook. He was adamant that we should quit calling it COT because it is now the "Sprint Cup" race car and nothing else. Among the questions that I raised last season were: 1. Will the new Sprint Cup race car prove to be safer? 2. Will the teams save money with it? 3. Will there be a shakeup in the rankings as some teams figure it out but others don't? 4. Will Goodyear give the teams a better tire that works with the new car? 5. Will NASCAR hold the line and not allow any changes? 6. Will the fans get a better show? 7. Will the smaller teams gain back some of their current disadvantage? 8. Will the open-wheel boys have a more equal playing field with the new car? 9. Will some drivers rise in performance while others falter while learning the new car? 10. Will some of the "stars" struggle to adapt? I also will review some predictions I made at the end of last season. At least those that have proven to be accurate. Some others have led to surprises that I did not anticipate at the time. But first, let's review the 10 questions and see how the "Sprint Cup" racer is performing against its expectations. 1. The first question on safety really needs no elaboration if you have been watching the Sprint Cup series this year. Jeff Gordon's crash at Las Vegas and Michael McDowel's qualifying crash at Texas should erase all doubt about how much safer the new car is over the old car. While the SAFER barrier played a mitigating role in McDowel's crash at Texas, Gordon's crash was straight into a solid concrete wall. Both walked away with no discernable injury so the new car did its job admirably. As Cook has pointed out, the new "Sprint Cup" race car has many new safety features that simply could not be installed in the old race car because of its relative size. The new car is taller and wider so features such as additional roll bars and roll bar padding, etc. could be incorporated into the design. The added interior room makes it safer for the bigger drivers who used to have to wedge themselves into their seats. Basically there is more "sequential crunch" built into the new car. 2. The question of whether the teams will save money is still being answered but it appears that even though a wrecked car is harder to return to its original state to fit the tighter NASCAR surface plate inspection/certification process, it can be fixed economically and will save money in the long run. Also, teams will not have to build as many specialized cars -- short track, road course, intermediate track and superspeedway -- because the new car's frame and body is the same for all of them. There is no benefit or advantage in building specialized cars like there was in the past. In fact, the rule book no longer allows it. The new car has no more gray areas. Teams should end up with race car fleets half the size of what they had in the past. There is simply no reason to build as many identical cars. 3. There has definitely been a shakeup in the points standings from last year at this stage of the season but, as the teams progress through races at the various tracks and rebuild their notebooks, you should see the cream rise to the top by season's end. If it doesn't then that will be a major story. 4. Tires have been an issue at several tracks this year as Goodyear struggles to figure out the new car just like the teams are doing. Overall I would give Goodyear an A-minus for their efforts so far. Remember, they are having to build a tire that is acceptable to 43 different drivers and crew chiefs. How you set up a car plays a major role in how it will handle on a particular tire compound. A good driver can adapt and overcome some problems and still be competitive. All you have to do is listen to their radio conversations during a race to figure out which ones are better at adapting than others. Kyle Busch, for example, will be leading a race and pulling away from the field while at the same time telling his crew chief how badly his car is handling. 5. So far NASCAR (to its credit) has held the line on changing the new car even though they have been getting serious pressure from some of the teams to let them have more leeway in their setups. NASCAR has expended a tremendous amount of money to regain control of the technology curve so don't look for them to give up any of that control easily. 6. You can debate about whether we are having better shows this year over last year but I personally think that overall the shows have been more exciting to watch. For one thing the drivers are having to work harder to be competitive so there can be some exciting moments like when they get loose or perhaps overdrive into the corner. The shows at the tracks where the car ran last year seem to be providing some good racing, so as the teams adapt better to the new car the shows should get better as well. 7. Unfortunately it appears that the smaller teams have not benefitted from the new car as much as many had hoped they would earlier in its development. This is probably because the smaller teams are financially strapped and cannot do the research and development needed to figure out the new car even though areas in which the teams can play are very limited. The manufacturers can help them to a certain degree but they still have to figure things out on their own. I was hoping the new car would help veteran teams such as the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises get back in the game but, at this point, it appears they are going the wrong way in the process. 8. I thought that the open-wheel boys would make disproportionate gains on a more level playing field with the new car because everyone was starting with a clean sheet of paper. But so far they are struggling to adapt even more than the NASCAR veterans. It could be something as simple as crew-driver communications. Stock cars are not easy to drive. That is being validated with the struggles of the open wheel boys who, collectively, have a long and strong list of credentials as drivers. 9. There has definitely been a shift in who is leading races, showing up in the top 10 and performing better than last year. One of the biggest contributors to that phenomenon has to be the better performances by the Toyota drivers. The addition of Joe Gibbs Racing to the Toyota stable has certainly improved the manufacturer's plight but last year's Toyota teams are also performing at a much higher level than one might have reasonably expected at this point in the season. Brian Vickers is a good example. 10. The fact some big name drivers seem to be struggling while some of the younger ones are adapting rather quickly to the new car is a little bit surprising to me. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are two who come to mind. Although some of their struggles can be attributed to bad luck, they have not dominated the races this season like I had anticipated that they would. Vickers has been much better this season over last so he is a good example of a younger driver adapting quickly.
John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCARWith seven top 10s through nine races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. have adapted nicely to the changes in 2008.
As I wrote last year, NASCAR's goal was to provide a safer race car that could be built and raced in a less expensive manner for the teams while providing the fans with a better show and making NASCAR's policing of the rules easier and more effective. It would appear that they have made significant strides toward achieving those goals. While the teams are still complaining about the handling characteristics of the new car and claiming that it is not cheaper to operate I think they do protest too much. After all, they are still trying to gain concessions from NASCAR to allow them more leeway in their setup packages, etc. so some of their crying might be crocodile tears. As one NASCAR official pointed out to me recently, the teams used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on specialty cars for specific race tracks where now they are limited to spending their money on just one design that is the same for all tracks. One example given was that Kevin Harvick raced the same car on a variety of tracks last year versus having several different cars specially built for those various tracks. That sounds like there is a strong potential for racing to become a lot cheaper to me. From what I have seen to date, the new car has performed quite well on the small tracks and the larger tracks but the jury is still out on the intermediate tracks where nobody seems to have figured it out just yet. Rest assured that once a team figures something out they will have a short window of opportunity to exploit it before the other teams discover whatever it is they are doing. There are several reasons for that. One is that some team members simply like to brag and cannot keep a secret. Another is there is a lot of crew member movement amongst the teams so when a crew member moves his tool box from team A to team B he also moves what he knows about what they are doing. Another is when someone like Jack Roush leaves some of his top secrets laying around in the open in the garages at races and is surprised when they get "borrowed." There have been several surprises with the new car for me so far this year. Probably the biggest is the fast rise of Toyota in its second year of Cup racing. Another is the early struggles the Hendrick teams are having with the new car this season after their dominance last season. Kyle Busch posting the first win for Toyota was a mild surprise for me. I believed Stewart would be the driver to post the first win for the brand. Stewart''s ups and downs this season are also a mild surprise. Who would have predicted that he would be the only Gibbs driver without a victory even though he is traditionally a late starter? When you look at Stewart's and Gordon's trials and tribulations so far this season you have to be at least mildly surprised that the two drivers -- who many consider to be the best in Sprint Cup -- are winless so far. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson may supplant Stewart and Gordon as the cream of the crop before the season is concluded. Michael McDowell walking away from his crash was a surprise to me too. Not that he survived but that he climbed out on his own power just seconds after his car stopped flipping and seemed to suffer no serious effects from a very spectacular crash.
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesTony Stewart and his crew have had their share of difficulties adapting to the COT this season.
So it would appear that while the new car has not totally leveled the playing field for all those who participate in the Sprint Cup series, it has taken a major stride forward in the effort to achieve that goal. The new car has to be considered a success for improving safety for the drivers. Drivers who prefer a loose car over a tight car will do better in the short term until the teams figure out how to achieve a better balance. But in the meantime it is creating some exciting competition. The shows should improve as the drivers get more comfortable with each passing race. NASCAR has stressed from the very first day that the new car is a work in progress and will continue to evolve as everyone learns more about its good points and bad points. And finally, I believe one of the best things about the new car is that it has put the steering wheel back in the hands of the drivers and taken it out of the minds of the engineers. That alone makes it a winner for me. It takes me back to the days when you could walk down near the fourth turn at the old Atlanta track layout and watch a Cale Yarborough or a Harry Gant saw on the wheel as they blasted through the corner. Or you could just stand there and study how each driver's hands were positioned and how much they were moving them when they were coming through the corner and predict who was going to win based on how well their cars were handling on that day. To me that was NASCAR at its best and we are getting back to that with the "Sprint Cup Race Car." Remember, don't call it COT anymore! Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.
RacingOne/Getty ImagesThe COT puts the steering wheel back in the hands of the drivers, just like in 1969 when Cale Yarborough took the checkered flag at Atlanta.