While many in the media (yours truly included) were raving about Dodge's impressive showing at the Daytona 500, many were looking to this past weekend's Auto Club 500 in Fontana, California as the true test of how the Car of Tomorrow would perform this season. The 1.5+ mile "downforce" tracks make up the bulk of NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, and over the last several years — with the previous iteration of stock car — aerodynamics, not handling, were the key to how a driver would finish. But with the new machine, its common template, and non-offset body, much of any aero-ingenuity has been engineered out of the cars, making mechanical grip the moving target for which teams will take aim at.
A look through the finishing order following the conclusion of Monday's event reveals another welcome reality of the new car: parity. While parity in other sports makes for poor competition and a perceived weak product, it is a wellspring of publicity for auto racing. There was a time when fans cheered for their preferred make of car as much as they did their favorite driver. While the rabid following may not be what it once was, it is still a component to promoting this sport and keeping fans — particularly the core fans — interested in what many say is beginning to resemble a spec-racer series.
The box score will show that Carl Edwards won the race, but the late race tussle between the two was actually a pretty good battle. Edwards waiving the Blue Oval flag to Johnson's Bow Tie banner was a traditional and fitting end to the first race on a high-banked unrestricted track with the new car; Chevy versus Ford, Roush versus Hendrick. The finally tally of Top-10 machines from California shows two Fords, two Dodges, two Toyotas, and four Chevrolets.
Compare that to 2007, where seven Chevrolets finished in the first nine positions.
So, it was also important to show that there is still some room to work with these cars if you're suffering in one area or another. The bodies are all similar, but the real speed comes from what sits under the fenders, not just between them. Many raised concern last week at Daytona when it was reported that following the Gatorade Duels, Toyota's Sprint Cup entries were producing superior power numbers to Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge; up to 30 rear wheel horsepower more, in fact, as they have proven to make in the Craftsman Truck Series. Toyota now has some key engine development personnel on the Cup side, too; chief among them is Mark Cronquist, who brings some secrets from the Chevrolet camp to Toyota. Hendrick power is legendary, and the Dodge motors have never hurt for grunt either. Ford engines were thought to be the furthest behind, as they are by far the oldest and most antiquated design of the four car makes. Even so, Carl Edwards' No. 99 Fusion with Roush-Yates power made enough steam to slide past Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Impala with 12 laps remaining. All this does is further accentuate another old maxim in autoracing that remains true today:
All the power in the world isn't going to help, if you can't get it to the ground.
What we do know is that there are two things that are going to make the difference with this new car: The driver and the setup. Many may argue that most of the "setup" is the result of engineering hours (and dollars) back at the shop. The 7-Post Shaker Rig is held by many to be the Holy Grail for NASCAR, with teams attempting to extract the last hundredth of a second out of the Car of Tomorrow. In fact, Greg Biffle remarked after finishing second at Dover last fall that his set up was taken exclusively from data gleaned from their shaker rig testing. But while this may prove to be true in some instances, the loose nut behind the wheel still has the final say in what direction the tires are pointing, and how far the throttle is open.
That pedal in the middle can still come in handy, too.
Relief may also be at hand for those that held to the fear that Toyota was going to be a monster to deal with come 2008 and beyond. A company with an open book policy and cooperation among all teams, coupled with a racing budget that can sustain the financial demands of Formula 1, and the recipe for disaster had all of the ingredients at hand for what has been an all-American form of racing. Homogenized race cars that are heavily dependent upon engineering and technology to find speed, operating in an even tighter box than with the previous car. Factor in Toyota's aligning with a super-team like Joe Gibbs Racing this season, and many were concerned that Toyota could stand NASCAR on its ear. While that may still happen, they look to be as capable of a team as before — but not the dominant force that some had feared may overrun the sport.
As it has been with virtually any change in NASCAR, the cream always seems to find a way to rise to the top. Edwards' win in his Dish Network Ford Fusion should not come as much of a surprise. Roush-Fenway Racing has a most impressive record at California ever since the series started running here in 1997. From that first event in June of 1997 to 2008, Roush-Fenway Racing has compiled six wins and a total of 22 Top-5 finishes. Old car or new car, Thunderbird, Taurus, or Fusion, Roush cars simply get around that track in a great big hurry. Take a look at the teams in the Top 10: Roush-Fenway, Hendrick, and Gibbs. All familiar teams with familiar faces and names. The same group that finished in the Top 10 this weekend will likely be slugging it out through Homestead for the Championship come mid-November.
The Car of Tomorrow is clearly a work in progress. It is not prefect, and it has a way to go before the teams are able to make them drive more to the drivers liking. The comfort level is not quite there yet; a rule change or two could be coming early this year to help provide some much needed balance and grip. It has been rumored that there may be an extension allowed on the front splitter, in an effort to generate some more downforce to help the cars turn, and offer some more feel and feedback to the driver. While I am not completely sold on the new machine (it's a handful, but at least it's ugly), it has accomplished three very important goals: Improved safety, kept a certain manufacturer in check, and helped to provide parity amongst the four automakers.
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