The checkered flag that ended NASCAR's Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway waved in a new era in chassis development. NASCAR's powers that be have accelerated the full use of the Car of Tomorrow from 2009 to next year.
Seven years in the making, the CoT is meant to improve safety, boost competition and cut costs.
"The Car of Tomorrow will alter the competitive landscape of NASCAR in a very positive way," NASCAR President Mike Helton said before the start of the 2007 season. "We believe the drivers will be safer than ever. We believe the racing will be better than ever. And we believe that the Car of Tomorrow will help control costs over the long haul."
An enlarged cockpit -- the roof line is 2 inches taller -- is designed to let tall drivers escape accidents more quickly. The roll cage is constructed of energy-absorbing material, and the seat has been moved toward the center of the cockpit to add protection in crashes.
It's easy to tell the old car from the new. The CoT features a boxier body style, in part due to the larger cockpit. Two aerodynamic pieces most commonly seen on sportscars, a rear wing and a front splitter, are standard. All CoTs must conform to a universal template, which eliminates slight aerodynamic differences offered by each manufacturer. Most drivers agree this has made racing a lot tighter.
"It's been a success in that it's made the competition really, really tight," Carl Edwards said. "The difference between winning a race and running 10th is a real small margin in speed per lap. That's been good, but I still think there's going to be some things we'll figure out. NASCAR's been really good about letting it evolve and taking advice from the teams so far."
Bobby Labonte commented, "The biggest challenge we have is the fact that all cars are really close. When you're first, you can run a certain speed. When you're 25th, you pretty much run that speed, too. Until we get out there on the racetrack, 43 race cars, throw the green flag in front of 150,000 people, you don't really know what you've got."
The CoT was used in 16 of 36 Nextel Cup Series races this season. It was run at all tracks less than 1.5 miles in length plus the two road course events and at the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. The 2008 season was to expand the CoT schedule with 2009 targeted as the year the new car would be used at all tracks. That plan was scrapped earlier this year when NASCAR announced the CoT would be run fulltime next season. This came as a relief to many.
"I think it's been a distraction for everybody," Kevin Harvick said. "Basically, you're running two separate race teams. It seems like we have tested this year more than we ever have in the past, and I think everybody's ready to just race one car next year regardless of which one everybody wants to race.
"It's one of those things where everybody is ready to just kind of settle in, and I think that's going to make the racing better than it already is as the teams are able to settle in and really concentrate on one car."
There's no denying the CoT is a safer car. But many still question if it has improved competition. Hendrick Motorsports won nine of the 16 CoT races this year, with Chevrolet victorious in all but three of those events. However, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon also proved to be the dominant duo in the non-CoT car. It might have been Hendrick's year, new car or not.
NASCAR hopes the new design will save teams money by requiring fewer cars. Each team usually prepared 20 cars each season. Now, since each car is built to identical specifications, there's no need for dedicated "short track" or "superspeedway" chassis. Instead, teams could run the same chassis at an intermediate track and then turn it around for a road course the next week. Thirteen teams used the same CoT in six events this season, while two teams ran the same chassis in 10 of 15 CoT races. Although this helps small outfits compete with a few different cars, it's expected that the frontrunners will continue to build a full fleet of cars.
Drivers have given mixed reactions. Kyle Busch, who won the first CoT race at Bristol in March, said after the race that the new car "sucks." While many drivers initially had concerns with it, they've all learned to live with the changes.
"I don't think it's the best car to drive from time to time," back-to-back Cup champion Johnson said. "I know we all have a lot of complaints about it. But we thought the cars would have wings falling off them, splitters falling off, weren't going to put on good races, was going to be boring to watch.
"[But] it's far met my expectations. I think we all had major concerns and worries getting started. In the end, once we had some time to work with it, it's put on a good show."
Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said struggles with the CoT are not too different to those with the old car. "The new car [produces] overall less grip. It tends to magnify the problem more. It's just in a larger degree. If we were 30 percent too tight, now we're 50 percent too tight. If we were 30 percent loose, now we're 50 percent too loose."
During the second half of the season, teams learned more from the CoT cars with added testing. Return visits to tracks saw increased overtaking; passing more than doubled in Martinsville's fall race compared to the spring event.
"I think early on there was some skepticism," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "I think by working with the teams at the various tests we've had, and the soft roll-out, I think the teams have learned to work with it. They've seen the advantages to this car and have seen the advantages to the tightening of the rules and rulebook throughout the year. The drivers understand that the new car is a little more robust, which allows them to approach the race a little differently. They can race a little harder."
While a few minor issues have sprouted up, NASCAR is not eager to make drastic changes to the CoT for next year. Instead, they continue to keep a close eye on developments and plan to re-evaluate at the end of the 2008 season.
"We're not real anxious to make a lot of changes to the car until it's been to all of the racing facilities that we compete at," Nextel Cup Series Director John Darby said. "You don't want to make a knee-jerk reaction because the car had a tendency at Martinsville that may over time prove to be an adverse change as we approach tracks like Atlanta and Texas, and the mile- and-a-halves.
"So, we're going to let the car ride out with the package it's got. Let the best race teams in the world adjust and tweak on it to the best to their knowledge. At the end of '08, we'll have the opportunity to sit back and see if there are any changes that even need to be made."