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ALAN GUSTAFSON was slowly circling Kyle Busch's number 5 Chevy Impala SS, deep in thought, studying the shiny new car parked on pit road at Bristol Motor Speedway. Five hours remained before the start of Sunday's Food City 500, but already a dozen race fans had gathered around, aiming video cameras at Gustafson, Busch's crew chief, and the blue-and-yellow Impala with the unfamiliar rear wing and front splitter, recording the moment for posterity. But the dawn of a new era in NASCAR ultimately wasn't worth all the worry and wonder: On Bristol's high-banked .533-mile oval, despite some handling problems, the Car of Tomorrow essentially raced like the Car of Yesterday.
That's actually a small victory for the CoT designers, though the true test for the race-worthiness of the new vehicle is still three weeks away. In the meantime, Bristol made clear that one of NASCAR's stated goals in introducing the new car—to hold down costs and in the process narrow the gap between the wealthiest teams and the rest of the pack—was already proving elusive.
"The Car of Tomorrow isn't going to level the playing field like NASCAR hopes," Busch said, after holding off Jeff Burton over the final three laps to win the Bristol race and climb to sixth in the Nextel Cup points standings. "The big organizations who have the money and the best personnel are still going to run in front."
Indeed, on Sunday the four superpower teams of NASCAR—the same teams that have poured more time and money into developing and testing the CoT than the others—dominated the race. Drivers from Hendrick Motorsports finished first ( Busch) and third ( Jeff Gordon); Richard Childress Racing came in second ( Burton) and fourth ( Kevin Harvick); a Roush Fenway driver wound up fifth ( Greg Biffle); and two drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing ( Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin) combined to lead 434 of the 504 laps before their fuel pumps failed. Though Busch vehemently complained that the CoT "sucked"—he said it was hard to control through the turns—even he recognizes that to win the championship this year a driver will have to master it. After all, five of the 10 races in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup will be run with the new car.
NASCAR rolled out the CoT at Bristol because aerodynamics play only a minor role on such a short track. Along with increased driver safety, the wider, boxier CoT was designed to alter airflow over the car. The adjustable rear wing is expected to reduce the so-called aero push, which occurs at one-mile to two-mile tracks when the air off one car's spoiler hits the car behind it and pushes the trailing car to the side, making it difficult to pass. But the rear wing's impact won't be seen until April 21 at Phoenix International Raceway, a one-mile flat track on which aero push has traditionally been a problem.
"We'll have to wait to get to a bigger track to see how this car actually performs when aerodynamics matter," said Biffle, whose Ford Fusion was seized by NASCAR after it was found in a postrace inspection to be too low in the rear. (A penalty was pending when SI went to press on Monday.) "The racer in me wants to be using the older car because it went faster, it had more downforce and it looked sexier. But the CoT is definitely safer. Bottom line, that's the most important thing. And, hey, we'll get used to it in time."
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