Car of Tomorrow in Review: Five Races In
by C.J. Radune
on March 18, 2008 @ 15:50:30
Let's take another look at the new car, formerly the Car of Tomorrow, now that we are five races into the new season and one full year away from its first baptism by fire. After being introduced to poor competitor reviews, the car is still looking for supporters. Even after one year of development there are still growing pains. Goodyear is struggling to supply a tire that provides both safety and reliability while enhancing competition. Also, what about the fans? Do they like the new car?
When comparing the races that were held in March of 2007 and 2008 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of the significant differences between the old car and the new car was the average race speed. Some speed reduction could be attributed to the hard tire supplied by Goodyear and more cautions. Ultimately, the majority of cautions in the '08 edition were brought about by tire problems. Drivers truly struggled to keep control under the best of circumstances throughout the day.
Table: 2007 – 2008 Atlanta Motor Speedway Comparison
With the COT at NASCAR's fastest track, there were fewer lead changes, more cautions and overall slower speeds. These statistics were different from the Daytona 500 where there were more lead changes and competitive racing this year compared to the last. At all tracks thus far, the car's higher center of gravity has put a lot of wear on right front tires, causing poor performance and failures. Countless drivers headed into the wall due to tire failure this season and that is one aspect where the car, or tire, needs to evolve.
At all tracks the series has visited this year a formula has been developing; the faster the track the lower the performance of the new car, with the exception of restrictor plate tracks. At tracks where there is only one groove, the new car bears lots of complaints. Where a sound, aerodynamic car may have allowed a driver through a pass on a one-groove track in the past, the boxier new car doesn't allow for it. NASCAR, however, believes the COT has been a huge victory. They note 28 different drivers have led this season compared to 22 during the same span in '07 and that 11 races have been decided by less than a second, compared to seven races in the old car.
While the car has been met with mixed reviews from drivers and teams, there has been a mellowing of criticism lately. A year ago in Victory Lane, Kyle Busch said plainly that the new car stunk. Today, when drivers are asked about the car, some are saying that the design is better, while others flat out despise it. As the series visits tracks multiple times, teams will be able to establish baseline setups and performance barometers that will help lessen any problems. Teams are adapting, but adaptation takes time. The new car also gives teams fewer areas to adjust, making a good set up an elusive thing. With time and experience, engineers, along with designers, will find areas where they can lighten the load on right-front tires, which will enable better handling in mid-pack. As their experience builds, fans will start to see speeds increase and competitor complaints decrease.
Lastly, the fans just don't like the new car. The look is boxier. The wing is unfamiliar, and the splitter just isn't as attractive as the air dam of the old version. Looks aside, the competition at Daytona was statistically better this time around, but at other tracks, the tires and poor aerodynamics took some of the fun out of watching the race. The drivers at Atlanta were constantly fighting the cars to maintain control. Watching hands sawing left and right through the windshield just isn't as dramatic as watching two cars side by side. As the teams get used to the aerodynamics of the new car shape their suspension settings will change and grip will return. The grip should facilitate side-by-side racing, and the dramatic racing that has made the NASCAR Sprint Cup famous should return.
Since the COT was primarily used on short tracks and road courses last year, almost every track that teams head to this year is a new adventure. However, NASCAR's testing sessions revealed some early signs of what was to come. The first few days of testing in Daytona witnessed a few tire failures, while speeds at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Auto Club Speedway were slower overall.
The race winners in 2008 have been those that were able to manage their tires, keep track position and be fast. Roush Fenway Racing obviously has been a frontrunner with the new car this year. Carl Edwards won twice with the new car in '07 and has matched that number already this year. Hendrick Motorsports, however, who dominated last year with eight wins in the new car, has struggled so far, despite being fast. Gibbs again has been a strong competitor in '08 just as they were last year.
What these anecdotes tell us is that the teams that have the resources to develop a new car from scratch are doing so effectively. The true competitive nature of the new car won't be seen until other teams catch up on the development curve. Other teams will become more competitive as they compile more data by visiting tracks with the new car multiple times. While the big teams can produce a fast car right off the truck, other teams need the experience. That experience will come through the remainder of '08. As Goodyear works out the bugs, finding a stronger compound that offers better grip, other teams will likely establish better baseline setups and make strides to catch up to the current leaders.
For the immediate term, fantasy owners can expect the usual suspects to continue their dominance. Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs will continue to win races at least through the mid-point of the season. As teams return to the same tracks, they will most likely become more competitive. By the end of the season, we should see more parity, and predicting a winner might not be as easy as it currently is. It will take some time, some analysis and some long hours from the teams to really develop the cars in order to learn how to make them race just as the drivers and fans want. A new tire wouldn't hurt the equation, either.
About C.J. Radune
Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.
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