Though I continue to keep an open mind concerning NASCAR’s decision to develop and introduce the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) into weekly competition, the schedule for 2007 seems certain to create an inconsistent and disjointed season for fans. Instead of the 16 scheduled CoT races slated for 2007, the sanctioning body would have been better served to postpone the debut of the car until 2009, when the CoT will supposedly be prepped to handle all racetracks.
The rationale behind the two-year phase in of the radically different racecar has been lost on me. Had teams been notified early on during the developmental stage of the CoT that the debut of the racecar would be at the start of 2009 and that the present cars would, at that time, become obsolete, it seems that teams would have had ample time to adjust their inventory of racecars accordingly. As things stand now, shops will be attempting to produce both the present-day cars for 20 points races this season, as well as another 10 in 2008. Teams making earnest efforts to win races are going to be hard-pressed to not only put top-notch racecars of today on the track week in and week out, but also the racecars of tomorrow. As it stands now, the demands put on teams to divide their efforts between two different projects will tax even the most able of teams, resulting in teams with limited resources having to decide in which cars they will expend the greatest amount of their energies towards over the next two years.
What fans can expect to see are some teams doing well until the fifth race of the season at Bristol near the end of March and then having their performances falloff dramatically during that race, which will be the debut of the CoT. It’s a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the rest of the season between CoT and non-CoT events. There will be teams that will pretty much concede the CoT races, interspersed throughout the schedule, including five of the 10 season-ending Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship races. Their reasoning is, of course, that rather than split their time and wherewithal between the two projects, they should concentrate, for the time being, the majority of their energies to the majority of the races, which will be run with the traditional racecars. Then, in 2008, they will redirect their focus towards the CoT, and the 20 races it will run at that time.
Unfortunately, all this is bound to create a watered-down version of the foremost stock car series in the country, as fans will not be seeing the best of the best at every event. Quite often, what I think will be displayed are greatly compromised efforts. There will be small teams conceding races in an effort to build for the 2008 season with the scheduled 26 CoT races, and beyond. There will be large teams carving up their substantial efforts in two different directions, and still other teams believing that their best tact is to concentrate on the CoT at a later date, after more races have been ran and a clearer understanding of the cars in race condition has been gained, observing teams that have put all-out efforts into the development of the new racecars.
Particularly disconcerting will be the championship Chase, as five of the 10 races in the “playoff” will be ran using the CoTs. Not only will NASCAR at that time still be analyzing the results, and pondering changes to the car from the previous 11, the new cars will be competing for the first time in race conditions in a superspeedway restrictor-plate race at Talladega, the fourth race into the Chase. It does not seem wise on NASCAR’s part to debut, on very much an experimental basis, the car in the midst of such crucial races. Certainly, there will be unforeseen “bugs” in the car that will require further “tweaking.” At the forefront of the uncertainties are how the cars are going to react under radical aerodynamics inherited at Talladega. Yet, this race, and the other four CoT Chase races will greatly impact how the 2007 championship pursuit will play out.
If, in the end, NASCAR is correct and the CoT does live up to all of the claims that they have made as to its superior safety, creation of better on-track racing, and being considerably less costly to owners, the sport will be better for it. And though there is no possible way to make such a huge transition without some short-term negative effects being felt by the competitors, a longer test period to avert any major flaws in the cars before its official introduction would have been advisable. There needs to be a certainty that there would be no major problems experienced that might adversely affect the outcome of races, allowing all teams to start the season on a more level playing field, as well as concentrate on one vehicle and one crew, all season long.
Fan loyalty to NASCAR will be tested this season. It is without a doubt that the inconsistencies created by the phase-in schedule of the CoT will lead some to, at least temporarily, lose interest in Cup racing through sheer frustration. Hopefully, NASCAR in the end will demonstrate that their gamble on the Car of Tomorrow was warranted and that those fans, after the transition is complete, will return.