NASCAR

Charting the Chase: COT; locked in and out

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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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We've had a lot of unknowns in 2007 — like new tires, a new track and new unleaded fuel — but the Car of Tomorrow is the biggest unknown. The COT's debut was much less eventful than we anticipated. Through a 49-car qualifying session and a full hour-and-a-half practice on Friday and two hour sessions on Saturday, we had one debris caution. We had a normal number of cautions, 15, and I can't say we had more cars torn up than usual. We had some good racing. Some teams may have had better runs with the current car. The biggest example was Kurt Busch, who surprisingly struggled all weekend long. And we may have had some teams that wouldn't have run well with the current car but ran well with the Car of Tomorrow. All in all, I did not see a tremendous amount of difference in this Bristol race. Is that an indication of what we're going to see at Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix or Darlington? I can't say because Bristol is a unique place. It's unlike any other racetrack so we'll explore new territories with this weekend's race at Martinsville, the second short track of the year and the second Car of Tomorrow race. I won't give the car an A, but I'm going to give it a B. The world didn't start spinning backwards. The sun didn't fall out of the sky. After one race at of all places Bristol, is the jury still out? Sure, it is. We're going to have more questions when we leave Martinsville, and we're going to have to get several races under our belt at different types of racetracks before we really have a feel for what we've got. It's going to take the higher-speed tracks to answer some of those questions, but we've got something we can work with. I can nitpick the major differences in Sunday's Car of Tomorrow race vs. the race a year ago with the current car, but I can't tell you there were a tremendous amount of differences. The cream still rose to the top. Teams are trying to gather as much information as fast as they can, and teammates are sharing information and trying different things. One of the goals behind the Car of Tomorrow was to close the gap between the big teams and the single-car/less-funded teams. I just don't see that happening. Mike Bliss finished 17th at Bristol, and his backup car didn't get there until Friday because they were finishing it up on Thursday night. Another feel-good story was Ward Burton, who was racing at the home track for Abingdon, Va.-based Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Like Bliss in the No. 49 car, had only qualified for one other race this year. Burton finished 18th. If you finish in the top 20 in this series, you've actually had a pretty decent day. We have a pretty level playing field now. Just look at pole day. Everywhere we go, six to seven tenths determines the pole from the slowest qualifier. If anybody thought that the Car of Tomorrow is going to be the answer to helping them compete, I'm afraid they're sadly mistaken. The cream is still going to rise to the top with this Car of Tomorrow. It's not going to open the door for teams that have been struggling to make races. If they're locked-in teams that have been struggling to run in the top 25, it won't make them top 10 teams. And it's not going to turn Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart into has-beens or also-rans.

Cup owner standings
Pos. Driver +/- 35th
31. Sterling Marlin +35
32. Kyle Petty +17
33. Ricky Rudd +9
34. Kasey Kahne
35. Johnny Sauter
36. Ward Burton -34
37. Dave Blaney -40
38. Brian Vickers -43
39. Dale Jarrett -45
40. Ken Schrader -45
41. Mike Bliss -78

All three groups — those solidly in the top 35 in owner points, those in the danger zone and those on the outside — are looking at Martinsville Speedway with a lot of anticipation. The group that's not locked in is a different group from the drivers that had to qualify for the first five races. The six to 10 teams that are just in and just out of the top 35 in 2007 owner points are looking closely at the standings heading to the Virginia bullring, where this year's owner point standings will determine who's locked into the field. On qualifying day, this locked-in, locked-out top 35 deal is the biggest story, bigger than who will sit on the pole. We follow it so closely because if these teams miss a race, it just hurts them even worse for either staying locked into the top 35 or getting into the top 35. It's like standing in a hole and shoveling the dirt out from under you. I'm all for anything that we can do to make our sport safer, more competitive and less expensive for owners. Does part of me wish I could close my eyes and this Car of Tomorrow deal didn't exist? Sure. Do I question whether it's still something we need? When NASCAR started building it, I absolutely thought we needed it. But we've come a long way since then with the current car. However, now that the COT is here, it's not going to go away, and it will end up being a pretty good thing for NASCAR. We've got some pretty darn good racing right now. You can never let down your guard on safety because it will get you in trouble in a heartbeat, but the current car is pretty safe right now when you consider David Reutimann's crash at Fontana or go back to last year and Kasey Kahne's Indy crash, Mark Martin's Lowe's collision and Jeff Gordon's impact at Pocono. Are you ever going to make a move to save owners money? Every time NASCAR attempts to make a cost-savings measure, it actually ends up costing owners more because research steps up.

Speed Mail Larry McReynolds

If things go well, NASCAR seems to be open to running the Car of Tomorrow at every 2008 race instead of making teams build two cars again next season. Considering what the teams have built, tested and tried to do to keep up with the current car, I seriously doubt any team would fight NASCAR on running the COT exclusively next year. If it's better, let's just race it everywhere.

Congratulations, colleagues

I want to congratulate Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and the people behind the scenes for NASCAR on FOX who have been nominated for Emmys. They are well-deserved accolades, and when the awards are handed out April 30, I hope everyone will be accepting those awards.


FOX race analyst Larry McReynolds has more than 25 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, crew chief and broadcaster. He and his fellow Crew Chief Club members take you behind the wall at www.crewchiefclub.com.

"How to Become a Winning Crew Chief" is on bookstore shelves, or you may order your own autographed copy from www.DWStore.com.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann, Mark Martin, Mike Bliss

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