Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday March 25, 2007
Today's society is a world chock full of impulse decisions. When we wake up in the morning, we don't want our coffee in 2 minutesâ€¦we wanted it 2 seconds ago. Reading the morning newspaper has been replaced by jumping on the computer and getting the latest headlines on CNN or FOX News; if the web page takes more than 15 seconds to load, impatience trumps knowledge and we move on with our day. Breakfast on the way to work? McDonald's clocks how quickly we can get us our food; there's no use wasting precious time waiting in line when there's a full day at the office lying ahead. Of course, what do we do when we get in the office but look for instantaneous ways to distract ourselves; more than likely, you're taking up one such distraction by reading my column right now.
What the heck does this all have to do with the Car of Tomorrow? It's because some of you are coming to me today looking for an impulse reaction, an immediate judgment call that leaves you with a lasting impression on just how you should view NASCAR's newest experiment. After a project that's five to seven years in the making finally makes its on-track debut, one five-minute read is supposed to subjectively express whether thousands of hours of manpower, research, development, and money were a complete and total waste of time.
In one sense, I can see why you'd expect that, after this car has been so roundly criticized by some members of the media, including myself, that it's been nicknamed the "Car of Disaster." I'm well aware that because of that, Monday morning will be chock full of instantaneous water cooler conversations in which people will immediately write off this car based on one 500-lap race. Clearly, us media have done one of its most impressive jobs of hyping up a storm, creating an intriguing scenario in which expectations NASCAR had already fallen behind on are now clearly blown far out of proportion.
Well, while I stand by those earlier criticisms, I'm here to say don't fall victim to expecting the world in just one event. Because despite being one of its biggest critics myself, the most important thing Sunday's race proved to me is that it's critically important not to rush to a rubber-stamp judgment when a project like this one actually gets out on the track.
Now, that's not to say the race at Bristol was a bed of roses for drivers or fans alike. The vehicles were so ill-handling during the race, especially in terms of forward bite off the corners, that several drivers used the word "sucked" in their description of the new car in race conditions. That wouldn't be so unusual if these drivers were among those finishing at the back of the pack; instead, the critics included the winner of the race, Kyle Busch, while another was a driver who led the most laps, Tony Stewart. If the "good" handling drivers were ready to bail on this car, you can only imagine what the drivers who finished 27th, 29th, and 31st thought of their newest piece of equipment.
Speaking of Stewart, he had the standing-room only fans at Bristol sitting in their seats for most of the first half of the race, dominating the field before falling victim to an unfortunate fuel pump failure that opened the race back up to the masses. Certainly, the domination did nothing to assuage fears that the Car of Tomorrow's early days will cause one team or car to hit on the "perfect setup" far more quickly than anyone else, making a mockery of the field and leading to a giant snoozefest up front.
And then, there's the matter of CoT inspection; while it was started early and supposedly thorough, the final result appeared to be anything but convincing. With lax restrictions and confusing regulations leading up to the race, we may never know what cars were truly more legal than others on Sunday, and it's hard to believe any car was 110% correctly fitting the template NASCAR intended the car to have. Ironically, the No. 16 car of Greg Biffle was reported to be found too low after the race, the one penalty the sport could possibly assess without being called out on inconsistencies by the other 42 cars in the field.
Yet with all the negativity surrounding the event, the excitement surrounding any Bristol race was still just as palpable as ever during the final 50 laps. A green-white-checker finish set up an impressive battle to the checkered flag, a competition that was by no means hindered with a new breed of car driving around the track. In fact, passing did occur on Sunday, on the outside as well as the inside lane; no one was side-by-side for an extensive period of time, but really, is anyone ever side-by-side for long at Bristol?
That wasn't the only area where the Car of Tomorrow exceeded doomsday-like expectations. Despite worries of wings flying out into the stands, the tethers worked like a charm from the very first major crash, when Dale Jarrett's trunk jarred loose but stayed in place without causing a safety nightmare. And, contrary to popular belief, it turns out this is a car that can be fixed and brought back out onto the track; only three cars finished out of the race, while several went behind the wall and came back out in various states of disrepair. Safetywise, we already know the car is better, and there were no injuries on Sunday. Nor were their problems on pit road, or splitters that broke without warning, or any of the other worst-case scenarios predicted by those who clearly had no confidence in the car's ability.
That's why it's so hard to judge this race a failure, or to agree with Kyle Busch's special five second connection to his true feelings in the public eye. You can whine about perfection all you want, but when you expect an F- and get a passing grade the first time out, what definitive conclusions can you really make? Especially on a short track where handling isn't an issue.
"There weren't any catastrophic problems because of the Car of Tomorrow," said NASCAR's fill-in veteran voice Jeff Burton, considering Mark Martin was busy taking a vacation. "But the race wasn't great because of the Car of Tomorrow."
"We're going to learn and get better and smarter like we always do, but there's some things that you might not be able to fix," said Jeff Gordon. "That's why they brought (the CoT) here for the first raceâ€¦because you're going to have a good, exciting race (no matter what)."
"I think Darlington's going to be the first race that we really kind of see what this thing's going to be all about."
So, the bottom line is while we all want to send out an instant reaction, the most important thing may be to watch and wait. Clearly, Rome wasn't built in a day, but at no time did they ever consider stopping construction; the city was there to stay, and eventually it became became beautiful. It just took time, effort, and, most of allâ€¦exceptional patience. There's nothing more I'd like than to have my criticism silenced, and it's unfair to come down on the chopping block with just one race in the books. A C- is a C-â€¦now it's time to see if that grade can become an A.
Hopefully, you fans have enough patience left to stick around and wait with me.
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