Ready or not, Cup drivers will have to get used to Car of Tomorrow soon

Posted: March 22, 2007

"COT" has been a buzzword in NASCAR for the last few years. It's an acronym for Car of Tomorrow, not Caught on Turnpike.

Now, COT means Car of Today. The new cars, designed to be safer for drivers and less expensive for owners, will debut Sunday in the Nextel Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Following several years of development at its Research and Development Center, NASCAR provided the Car of Tomorrow blueprint for the race teams. The good news for racing fans is, they still will be able to identify their favorite car manufacturer. In fact, NASCAR says the COT will look more like the Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota street cars than the current Cup cars do.

The big question is, how will the COT race? Following testing at Bristol a few weeks ago, reviews have been mixed.

Appearing at Monday's annual Urban Youth Racing School awards dinner in Society Hill, Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet, offered a terse criticism when asked how the COT handles.

"Terrible," Busch said. "It pushes. It doesn't want to turn at all. Reed Sorenson [who drives the No. 41 Dodge] said he went off in the corner one time and said he went straight into the fence."

Informed that Dale Jarrett said recently that because the COT handles like Cup cars from the late 1980s and early '90s, he thinks veteran drivers will have an advantage, Busch smiled and said, "If their cars drove that way back then, I give them props for not hitting the wall every time."

Tony Stewart's initial impression of the COT was unfavorable. The first time he drove it, on a short track in Lakeland, Fla., he described it on his Sirius satellite radio show as "a basket of junk."

"It drives like a station wagon, an old station wagon, an old Oldsmobile station wagon, green, with wood panel trim on the sides," he said.

Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are more positive.

"When tested at Bristol, it wasn't too bad," said Mears, the No. 25 Chevrolet driver who also attended Monday's dinner. "We got it running pretty good."

After the Bristol testing, Earnhardt, driver of the No. 8 Chevy, said: "It has really exceeded my expectations at this point. I really do feel safer in this car."

Drivers should be safer because their seats are closer to the center of the car. The roof is 2 1/2 inches higher, giving drivers more room.

Energy-absorbing foam between the roll-cage door bars and door panels also will protect drivers from side-impact crashes.

On the financial front, the COT will save owners money, because they won't have to build different cars for superspeedways and short tracks. With adjustments, the COT will be used at all tracks.

Why switch now?

NASCAR president Mike Helton said before the racing-school dinner that several times in NASCAR's nearly 60 years, there have been times "where NASCAR has taken basically a clean sheet of paper and said, 'Here is a major adjustment.' This is another one of those big timelines. This is a big moment."

Helton said he would be surprised if the COT racing at Bristol and next weekend at Martinsville is disappointing.

"Race cars are race cars," he said. "As long as everybody has the same one, you're going to have a race."

NASCAR is introducing the COT at smaller tracks before moving to the faster venues.

Surely, some teams will figure out the COT more quickly than others. Cup series director John Darby said the last time these cars were significantly changed was 1981. It's time.

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Food City 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol, Tenn.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV/radio: Fox/WXTU (92.5-FM), WNPV (1440-AM)

Race course: .533-mile oval

Race distance: 500 laps

Last year's race winner: Kurt Busch

Last year's pole winner: none; qualifying was rained out

Track qualifying record: Ryan Newman, 128.709 mph (March 2003)

Track facts: Kurt Busch has won four of the last eight races at Bristol. He and Jeff Gordon are the top winners among active drivers at the track, with five victories each ... Points leader Mark Martin is skipping this race, ending his streak of 621 consecutive starts. His limited schedule this season doesn't include Bristol. Rookie Regan Smith will drive the No. 01 Chevrolet. The next longest Cup streaks are Jeff Gordon, 477, and Bobby Labonte, 476 ... Kevin Harvick was runner-up in last spring's race at Bristol; Matt Kenseth was third. Kenseth won the August race at the track ... Pole winners have won 21 Bristol races. That's runner-up only to Daytona's 23.

Up next: Goody's Cool Orange 500, April 1, Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Va., 2 p.m.; TV: Fox.

POINTS LEADERS

1. Mark Martin 629

2. Jeff Gordon 621 -8

3. Jeff Burton 618 -11

4. Jimmie Johnson 601 -28

5. Matt Kenseth 567 -62

6. Tony Stewart 507 -122

7. Kevin Harvick 482 -147

8. Denny Hamlin 480 -149

9. Clint Bowyer 479 -150

10. Carl Edwards 471 -158

11. David Stremme 463 -166

12. J.J. Yeley 462 -167

13. Elliott Sadler 456 -173

14. Kyle Busch 449 -180

15. Juan Montoya 443 -186

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Send e-mail to fleiscb@phillynews.com.

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