Bristol COT debut big, but it won't be too telling

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Too bad Neil Armstrong isn't giving the command to start the Food City 500. Who better for such a historic moment?

"One small step for drivers, one giant leap for NASCAR. So gentlemen, start your engines."

It's not quite a trip to the moon, but Sunday's debut event for the Car of Tomorrow is a bold move to a new era in Nextel Cup racing.

"This is a huge mark in NASCAR history," driver Kurt Busch said. "It's a big deal."

The tiny half-mile oval in the hills of Tennessee is where NASCAR births its new baby, a revolutionary car officials hope will change things for the better in many ways.

Improved safety, reduced costs and closer races -- those are the goals. How much success NASCAR has in achieving them is up for debate.

All the answers won't come from 500 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it will be an interesting day, to say the least.

People will watch with a studious eye. The Monday morning quarterbacking will reach new heights, because many fans will view this race more closely than any other Cup event this season.

Drivers, crews, team owners, NASCAR officials and millions of fans want to know what this car is all about.

"There are so many unknowns," driver Kasey Kahne said. "It's just all new to everybody."

The COT has its critics. Its physical changes -- bigger, boxier, front splitter and rear wing -- have been discussed, often with heated rhetoric, ad nauseam for months.

If you don't know anything about the car by now, you haven't been paying attention.

Everyone will know a little more about it after the checkered flag flies Sunday, but most drivers think some inherent aspects about Bristol racing won't change.

"It's still Bristol," Busch said. "It's going to be the same bumping, banging, cars on top of each other we always see here."

Aerodynamics doesn't play a big part in racing at a short track like Bristol, so we won't learn much about how the car works in the air. Bigger tracks down the road will answer those questions.

But this race does have issues to resolve for teams adjusting to the new machine.

"You need to give another foot to the guy outside of you or you will squeeze him into the wall," driver Jeff Burton said. "Just think how often we come off a corner and have our quarter panel next to the guy's door outside us. Another few inches will put him in the wall."

"You're still in a race car. You try to figure out how to get it around the track quicker than anyone else."
-- Matt Kenseth

Many a race at Bristol has been won with a tap from behind that has often led to angry confrontations. Can a driver still make that move in the COT?

"Who knows?" Busch said. "If you do the bump-and-run on someone, are you going to knock a hole in the front nose? We'll see."

Teams are going off a blank slate in determining the proper set-up. Some will get it right, some won't. Busch has five victories at Bristol, including this event in 2006.

But the old Bristol data didn't help his No. 2 Dodge team on Friday in practice and in qualifying. Busch starts 42nd, having to use owner points to make the field.

Busch feels he lost his advantage, but other teams feel the new car gives them a chance to gain ground. The Toyota teams have five cars in this race, the most they've had all season.

Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots is what NASCAR wants to see from the COT.

"It's a huge step toward that more than anything they've ever done before," driver Matt Kenseth said. "Is that good? I don't know."

Nobody knows for sure how things will play out, but almost everyone agrees on one thing: The COT is a homely contraption.

"It looks like a half-truck, half-car," Kahne said. "That's why it's weird looking."

That's not a coincidence. NASCAR wanted to make the Cup car more like the pickups used in the Craftsman Truck Series.

The trucks produce the best racing in NASCAR. It's easier to make passes up front because the trucks are less aero-dependent.

"Everybody wants to compare these cars to the truck," Jeff Gordon said. "I can tell you the trucks have 10 times more downforce than these cars."

That didn't keep Gordon, one of the biggest COT critics, from winning the pole for the first COT race.

Despite all the complaining, griping and worries, everyone will put on their firesuit and do what they always do.

"You're still in a race car," Kenseth said. "You try to figure out how to get it around the track quicker than anyone else."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.