CoT now Car of Today for forseeable future

Published 1:09 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anyone in the Sprint Cup garage still complaining about the Car of Tomorrow and hoping NASCAR is planning big changes for 2009 can forget about it.

The CoT is now the Car of Today, and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

“There is no official statement on changes to the new car, but I can say that no changes are planned,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “Over the course of the year, the teams have adjusted to the new car and have a much better understanding for how to set it up and drive it than they did back in February.

“Making changes at this point would likely cause teams to have to further make adjustments to their adjustments and that’s not productive.”

NASCAR’s research and development division began planning and designing the bigger, bulkier CoT shortly after the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, died in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.

It first competed at Bristol in March 2007 and was used in 16 races that season before running all the races this year — a year earlier than originally planned.

NASCAR’s stated intention was to build a safer car that also promoted close racing and helped keep team costs under control by requiring fewer different cars for a variety of racetrack configurations. Most of that has been accomplished, but the transition from the old cars hasn’t always been smooth.

It’s difficult to find the balance on the CoT during the races, and there have been times when Goodyear has failed to come up with a good tire match for the new car. Add in that the CoT is harder to drive and there has been a lot of dissatisfaction bubbling up in Cup.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has complained about the handling of the CoT at times, said, “The car is definitely still a work in progress.

“I think … the car isn’t a finished product. Whenever they decide to move forward and evolve and let that car change and become a better race car, we will be ready to do that. But until then, we really don’t have a choice in the matter.”

Jimmie Johnson, winner of six races and seemingly well on his way to a record-tying third straight Cup title heading into Sunday’s race at Atlanta, got off to a slow start this season as he and crew chief Chad Knaus acknowledged they were having problems figuring the new car out at some tracks.

The difficulties surfaced early in the year. Johnson’s team arrived in Las Vegas in March thinking it had a decent setup. He finished 29th after a frustrating day in which the usually consistent Johnson was a nonfactor.

The rest of the season was a series of ups and downs for Johnson, who seems to have found the right combination during the 10-race Chase for the championship.

In August, just before the start of the Chase, Johnson said solving the CoT has been difficult for Knaus, considered one of the top minds in the sport.

“It’s been tough for him, and it’s been a huge, huge challenge for him,” Johnson said. “But more importantly the go-to moves that we’ve always had with the old car do not work with the COT. And to kind of retrain (Chad’s) brain and look at things in a different way, that is the hardest part for him.”

Despite their recent success, Johnson thinks the CoT could be better.

“I think a lot of us have some ideas for changes and we’d like to see them put in. I feel that as the season’s gone on, we’ve all gotten a lot smarter and we’ve helped the car,” he said. “But there still are some things that I feel should be looked at and considered.

“At least we’re putting on good shows. The cars are easier to drive in traffic. … And the racing is going well on the big tracks. I still think it could be better.”

Kasey Kahne, who has won two Cup races this season, said he believes it would be a good idea to let the crew chiefs and team engineers have more input into the development of the new car.

“The car has come a long ways from where we were a year ago,” Kahne said. “Engineers and crew chiefs could make this a better race car if they’re allowed to.”

Jeff Burton echoes Kahne, but the veteran driver, third in the season points, said he is fine with NASCAR’s current approach to the CoT.

“There has been an effort by NASCAR to minimize the changes the teams are having to deal with because we do have a history of making so many changes that it’s very difficult to ever get a center or to get a real base line on what it is that you’re dealing with,” Burton said. “They used to cut spoiler heights off. You’d go to a race and they would put a notice out that they were cutting the spoiler height off so all the aerodynamics testing you’ve done, all the stuff you had done you had to start over. So, in many ways, I’m a proponent of minimizing changes.

“At the same time, I think we have to be careful to say, ‘You know what, if something comes up at the right time that we believe will make the car better, we will be open-minded at that,’ rather than just saying ‘No changes.’ ”

And, looking down the road, Burton said NASCAR may just be waiting for the teams to have more experience with the new cars before thinking about changes that could cost the teams big money in a bad economy.

“I think that going into 2010 we have to be looking, ‘OK, what is it that we can do better without turning the world upside down?’ You have to be respectful of when NASCAR makes a small change how big that impacts us in costs and efficiencies and testing.”