NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: CoT Myths – Busted or For Real?

NASCAR might as well be racing Sherman tanks.

To hear the teams, media, and fans lately, that doesn’t seem to be far from the pervading sentiment. While the new car does need to see some changes, there are also some perceptions that are simply not supported by the data we have. Some of the perceptions are also true. The bottom line is, the CoT is a mixed bag, but don’t believe everything you hear.

Myth: There’s no passing.
Reality: While the drivers may complain that it’s harder to pass with the new car, there is plenty of passing to be had. It may not be for the lead and the television cameras may not show the racing effectively, but there is passing going on.

NASCAR’s scoring loop data, which records the cars’ positions at many places on the track, clearly shows that passing is not at the premium that many suggest. While traditional data only records at the start-finish line, the loops provide a more complete picture. For example, if Car A passes Car B in turn 1, but gets passed back on the backstretch, the loop data records what actually happened on track, two separate passes for position. Traditional data would show no pass at all since Car B was in front of Car A at the start-finish line both times by.

What this data shows over the last few weeks might surprise people. Last year, NASCAR raced the old car on three of the last four tracks they have run on – Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway. The data from the Coca-Cola 600 showed 2,850 green-flag passes during the race. This does include passes made during green-flag pit stops and passes made by lapped cars, but last year’s data did, too, so that’s a non-issue. Carl Edwards alone passed 102 cars during the race. Both numbers were up over the 2007 Coca-Cola 600, when, driving the old car, drivers totaled 1,986 total passes and Jimmie Johnson had the most with 96.

Pocono and Michigan showed the same trend; more, not fewer, passes under green than with the old car one year ago. Pocono featured 3,452 passes while the first race in 2007 produced 2,406. Michigan’s numbers were 3,204 to 2007’s 2,847. In addition, there were eight more green-flag passes for the lead at Pocono two weeks ago than there were last August, and nearly three times as many cars finished on the lead lap at Michigan than did a year ago.

So while many complain about the passing with the new car, the complaints are unwarranted – there has been more, not less, passing. Perhaps the real complaint here lies with the television broadcasts for not showing more of the real race action.

Myth: The CoT loks nothing like a “stock car.”
Reality: And the old car did? The splitter is kind of strange looking (unless you want to plow snow), but at least the body doesn’t look like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. And there are many, many cars on the road with a wing – but I haven’t seen a solid spoiler on anything but a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Special Edition Monte Carlo in years. The new car isn’t really stock looking, but neither was its predecessor, so those complaints have been moot since the 1980s and big hair.

Myth: The new car is hotter for the drivers and there is more danger of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.
Reality: Partly true. The new car has shown higher temperatures of roughly 10 degrees in the cockpit. This is an area which needs to be looked at and fixed, fast. On the other hand, some teams have been successful in keeping the cockpit cooler. Other teams have not – at least in part because they’re reluctant to add any extra weight or shift the current weight. In that case, shame on those teams – a lighter car may be faster, but the health and safety of the driver should come first. Hopefully the heat in cars will be addressed not only by looking for way to dissipate the heat in the cars themselves, but by developing a better cool box for the drivers (current models only cool the air to 70-75 degrees) and a better hydration protocol for some teams as well.

NASCAR is concerned about the claims of carbon monoxide. They conducted tests of CO levels in many cars and drivers at Michigan. I haven’t seen any results, or if they did similar tests with the old car. If the results are high, especially if they’re higher than they were in the old car, this needs to be the first issue addressed. NASCAR’s data collection was a great first step, and this is the one area where I do have faith in NASCAR (something I don’t have very often!) to make changes as soon as they know what changes to make.

Myth: The new car gives Toyota an advantage.
Reality: While current NASCAR rules do allow for an engine that produces slightly more horsepower than the GM, Ford and Dodge entries due to its construction, not every team has been able to capitalize on it. The aerodynamic numbers are virtually the same due to the nearly identical bodies on all four makes.

While the Joe Gibbs Racing engine department has certainly figured out how to use that horsepower advantage to their own advantage, you don’t exactly see Dave Blaney or Michael Waltrip showing up the other manufacturers. Bottom line – there is a small advantage for the teams that can find it – but that’s no different than it’s always been. The haves at Ford, Chevy and Dodge are beating the have-nots at Toyota, and are pretty darn equal to the haves in the Toyota camp, too. It’s not so much about any perceived advantage as it is about teams figuring this beast out and making their own advantage.

Myth: The new car is safer.
Reality: Ask Michael McDowell if it isn’t.

Myth: Teams can’t make any adjustments.
Reality: Teams can’t make many adjustments. NASCAR is mostly to blame here and they do badly need to reconsider. Sure, the new car showcases driver talent – to a point. It also showcases the teams that have figured it out faster. But to equate that with saying it showcases the teams’ talents as a whole would be a mistake. While I do think the car should be the smallest part of the equation, I believe that the crew should be a bigger part than they have been this year. I love a team that can take a car that is a non-contender at the start and have it fighting for the win by then end. That is what I have missed the most this year.

To be fair, the teams also don’t have nearly the data to fall back on to make those adjustments, either, even in the areas that they can. They haven’t even raced on all the tracks. That’s tough, especially when they had hundreds of races worth of data on the old car. That part will come, and teams will learn how to fix things. If NASCAR will meet them partway and find areas to let them work, there is an opportunity for teams to shine as they did before. It just isn’t happening right now, and I miss it.

Myth: The car isn’t any good on the tire compounds Goodyear is bringing.
Reality: The car wasn’t designed for the tire compounds Goodyear is bringing. The car was meant to be raced with a softer tire, one that would allow for more grip (and therefore better passing). The smaller fuel cell has this in mind- a softer tire wears more quickly, but reducing fuel runs also reduces the amount of time the tire is on the car – a perfect compliment to a softer tire. Softer tires would force teams to think very carefully about tire management and strategy. They would also make the car handle, and race, better. This one is true – and there’s no reason to not be developing better tires for this car instead of using ones designed for the old car.

Is the new car perfect? Far from it. However, the perception of it has gotten out of proportion to the realities of racing a brand-new machine. When the last car came on the scene, people hated that one, too, every bit as much as they hate the latest incarnation. Teams complained and clamored for changes on that car right up to Homestead last year. When NASCAR changed to small block engines, people complained. When the winged Dodges and Plymouths came on the scene, people complained. They complained when bias-ply tires gave way to radials. And when NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel. Those things all evolved and contributed to the series, once teams had time to learn them correctly. There is no reason yet to believe that this one can’t come around with a little concession on everyone’s part.

Those Sherman tanks? They’d be hell on the straightaways, but making the corners would be a mess.

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