Consternation reigns as Car of Tomorrow race looms

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is realm as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition … and it lies between the pit of man's fear and the summit of his knowledge.

"This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call … The Twilight Zone."

Bobby Labonte can almost hear Rod Serling's opening narration as he looks toward Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday's debut of the Car of Tomorrow.

Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do.

"It's like entering 'The Twilight Zone,' " the 2000 Cup champion said. "You just don't know what you are getting into and where you could end up."

Some say the new car looks like something created by Serling instead of the top engineers at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.

The car is definitely a throwback to the era when "The Twilight Zone" was a hit in the early 1960s, with a boxy shape, front-end splitter and rear wing. Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart called it "prehistoric"-looking last week at Atlanta.

Others have called it much worse.

Like it or not, the much-debated, often-criticized COT is here for 16 races this season and likely will be implemented for the entire 36-race schedule in 2008.

This is the culmination of a seven-year project that began with safety as the primary motivation.

Since then it's evolved into a project that NASCAR officials hope eventually will save teams money because the same car used on a half-mile track such as Bristol can be used at a superspeedway such as Daytona.

Officials also hope this will level the playing field between large organizations such as Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing and smaller ones such as Bill Davis Racing and Petty Enterprises.

The latter is up for debate.

"I don't see this car making this more even for everyone," said Labonte, who drives the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises. "I still see the larger teams getting a handle on it quicker than anyone else. It's the way it is right now and it's going to stay that way."

Labonte said if NASCAR wanted to level the playing field it would mandate that no team have more than two cars.

"As long as you have four-car teams competing against two-car teams and two-car teams against four-car teams it's going to be difficult for the two-car teams," he said.

Doug Richert, the crew chief for Brian Vickers and Toyota's new Team Red Bull, agreed.

"It's not equalizing for us," he said. "We're just getting some of our cars. We've been doing some testing, but not as much as a lot of others. Those companies like Hendrick have probably tested 20-something times."

But nobody has tested the car for a 500-mile race, fueling the uncertainty heading to Bristol. At least Bristol is 267 miles, or 500 laps around the .533-mile oval.

Crew chiefs aren't sure about setups or how to get maximum performance from adjusting the wing and splitters. Drivers haven't gotten a complete handle on the aerodynamics of the machine that in theory will allow more passing.

They also don't know if the splitter will hold up to the normal banging at Bristol or if it will remain intact when coming off the track.

"There's certainly been an effort to control the bodies and chassis and find things out," said Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last two races, at Las Vegas and Atlanta. "I don't think we'll have a true feeling of that until a year or two gets under our belts with the car.

"Right now, it's a rat race to figure out what that car wants and the first team that finds it is going to have a nice advantage."

Johnson isn't sure how the car is going to make the field more level than it already is, noting the difference in speed between the top and worst car is closer than ever.

"Actually, we're pretty equal as it is," he said. "So we'll just have to learn with the car and try to help get things sorted out for '08."

Dave Blaney of BDR expects the difference in speed between the first and 43rd cars to grow wider.

"But it's still a race car and a lot of smart people are working on and driving these cars, so they'll get it worked out," he said.

Jeff Burton expects there will be no more gloom and doom at Bristol than there was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the wreck-marred race many predicted on the new surface with harder-than-rock tires never materialized.

"Going into the Vegas race the sky was falling and the world is coming to an end and everything as we know it is going to end today," he said. "Of course, somebody won the race and somebody finished fifth and somebody finished 10th.

"For 12 months, there's been this big aura of terrible things coming with the Car of Tomorrow and when we get there it's going to be a race and somebody is going to do it better than the other people."

"Hopefully, it will be a successful weekend for NASCAR and the competitors. We'll have a better understanding of the car after we get through a weekend of racing."
-- Jeff Gordon

Burton's biggest concern after last month's test at Bristol was the inspection process, and that hasn't changed.

"We left the Bristol test with as many questions about the inspection process as we went there with," he said. "To be quite honest, I suspect NASCAR did, too. As many things as they are trying to inspect, it's going to be a learning process and we're nervous about that."

NASCAR has tried to alleviate those concerns by opening the inspection process on Thursday instead of Friday. Officials will spend six to seven hours the first day making sure every question is answered.

If a major problem occurs, teams will have time to take the car back to the Charlotte area and correct it by Friday's first practice.

Stewart still doesn't like the look of the new car. If he had his wish all the cars would crash at Bristol "where we don't have to drive them anymore."

"But I think it will be a normal race," he said. "When it comes to it, drivers are going to race like they are used to racing. I don't think any of us are worried about crashing cars. We drive cars every week."

Points leader Mark Martin, who goes into the part-time phase of his schedule while rookie Regan Smith takes over the No. 01 Chevrolet for Ginn Racing, will be a more-than-interested spectator while watching the race on television.

He'll be most curious to see how the car handles under race conditions.

"When I came up on cars [in testing] that had been out for a while on hot tires and were slower because of that, I wasn't comfortable when passing them," he said. "You're not real comfortable in a regular car up there, but the Car of Tomorrow is less comfortable yet.

"It's going to be a real challenge to put 43 of them out there and keep all the drivers under control."

Martin said NASCAR could eliminate that if it would raise the splitter, which can be a maximum 4½ inches from the ground.

"There's nothing wrong with the car other than the splitter height," he said. "They're trying to take away 50 percent of the front-end suspension travel.

"If they didn't do that, it wouldn't really be a big deal for the teams to get used to the rest of it. The rest of the car is just a car."

While Kurt Busch is preparing for the unexpected, he said the goal remains the same.

"And that's to survive," he said. "You have to have the car that has the least amount of marks and dings and scratches. That's going to hold true with the Car of Tomorrow."

Five-time Bristol champion Jeff Gordon agreed, although the wider car -- about four inches broader than the current car -- will make racing on an already tight track even harder.

"It's a one-groove racetrack that's difficult to pass on," he said. "One shouldn't see too much of a difference unless teams are way off on their setups."

Gordon has been one of the COT's harshest critics, but he's going to Bristol with an open mind.

"Hopefully, it will be a successful weekend for NASCAR and the competitors," he said. "We'll have a better understanding of the car after we get through a weekend of racing."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.