By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
May 22, 2007
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- NASCAR will use the Car of Tomorrow exclusively in 2008, a year earlier than planned.
The COT was scheduled to run 16 races this season and be phased into competition during the next two years. But costs skyrocketed while car owners tried to maintain two programs -- the current car, and the COT -- and NASCAR said Tuesday it will move up the date if teams agreed.
``The majority of car owners actually came to us and said 'Now that we are up and running the car, it doesn't make sense to have two parallel programs moving forward,''' competition director Robin Pemberton said. ``It seems to us that everyone is working on the Car of Tomorrow now and ready to use it exclusively.''
The COT was a seven-year project by NASCAR to design a universal car that is safer, less expensive and better for racing. It's been used in five events this season, all won by drivers for Hendrick Motorsports. The next COT race is June 3 in Dover, Del.
Most drivers have been critical of the COT, complaining about its handling and calling it difficult to drive, but they preferred going to one program.
``I don't like doing two different cars -- it's one or the other,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said this month. ``I'd go full time to the COT right now. Why not? We're all struggling with it. We might as well get all the time we can with it week in and week out, even if it drives us all crazy.''
Smaller teams have been satisfied with the results and think the COT has helped them compete with the big-budget operations.
``I think it does help level the playing field somewhat for the smaller teams,'' said Jeff Green, whose two top-10 finishes this season came in COT races.
``NASCAR is able to keep a tighter lid on some of the trick things teams can do, and I think that will benefit the teams that don't have the depth of resources some of the bigger teams have. I see it as a positive move all the way around.''
But Jeff Gordon, winner of two COT races, is hesitant because the car has yet to race on a 1.5-mile track.
``Without being on a mile-and-a-half track, I don't see how we can just go completely forward with it,'' Gordon said. ``I'm pretty optimistic about the way things are going right now. Obviously we're running good with it. But I still think there are things that need to evolve with this car that are not there yet.''
Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, estimates the COT will save teams $1 million per car annually, thus helping smaller teams compete.
``While we will probably never again see the day when a young rookie like Ricky Rudd or Bill Elliot shows up at a track with a car they built in their home garage, we may see a return of the successful one-car operation,'' Wheeler said. ``The end result is that in a couple years the playing field will be more level.''
After two consecutive COT races, NASCAR returned to the old car for Saturday night's All-Star race -- a snoozer that saw just three lead changes over 80 laps. The old car will be used again at Lowe's Motor Speedway for this weekend's Coca-Cola 600.
Wheeler thinks races will be more exciting once the COT is fully developed.
``The Car of Tomorrow will eventually create the most dynamic change in racing in the long history of Nextel Cup,'' he said. ``As drivers and crews continue to adapt, the racing will be more competitive and we will see a significant increase in side-by-side racing.''
NASCAR has been pleased with the car through its first five events and cites an average margin of victory of .505 seconds -- compared with 1.286 seconds in the same five races last season -- as proof the car has improved racing.
It also says there have been six fewer did-not-finish results through the same race sequence, and 13 teams have used the same chassis for three of the five races.
NASCAR recognizes the car is a work in progress. Series officials had hoped teams would want to use the COT full time in 2008 because more use produces more information on how to make improvements.
``We feel like making this decision now gives teams an idea of what is coming and lets them put more resources into the new car,'' Pemberton said. ``Teams can work on program for next year and everyone will be able to get a better grasp on the entire project.''
The Toyota teams have been the loudest proponents for going strictly to the COT because focusing on one program could alleviate many of the manufacturer's struggles. Toyota's teams have struggled to make races this season, the automaker's first in the Nextel Cup.
``It will help us tremendously because we're a startup organization and it would help us streamline our efforts,'' said Michael Waltrip, who is running a three-car team. ``It will save everybody money. It will be more competitive going forward and I look forward to it being all-in right away.''