Cars aren't exactly interchangeable, but Shootout was enlightening

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson drove the car that won twice at Richmond last season in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. Jeff Gordon drove the car that won at Darlington. Kurt Busch drove the car he used at Martinsville.

When NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow, one of the benefits it touted was the ability to use the same car on a short track, road course, intermediate track and superspeedway because the chassis and body were so closely defined.

When Johnson, Gordon, Busch and several others wrecked their cars for the Shootout during a Friday night practice, teams were forced to put that theory to the test in order to save their backups for the Daytona 500.

The results weren't bad, as Johnson finished third, Gordon finished fourth and Busch 18th after a late crash.

That doesn't mean teams are producing fewer cars, thus saving money on inventory, which was NASCAR's goal outside of safety.

That also doesn't mean the cars Johnson, Gordon and Busch drove were better than ones specifically prepared for a restrictor-plate track.

"If that was the case, you wouldn't need to qualify," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "You would draw numbers from a hat and say this is where you start because all the cars are the same. If they were all the same and you could take any car from any track, the same team that built a car on that side of the garage would run the same speed as this side.

"That's not the case. Cars are different."

Knaus said Hendrick Motorsports continues to prepare cars for different size tracks just as it did with the old car. While the differences are more subtle than they were before with templates and tolerances tighter than ever, they're still different enough to demand special cars.

Busch's crew chief, Pat Tryson, said it's the same way at Penske Racing.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "That's what they want to hear, that everyone brought their Bristol or Martinsville car here. But that's not realistic. If they can get their Bristol car to run as fast as their
speedway car … We tried it. It just doesn't work."

Jimmy Makkar, the competition director at Joe Gibbs Racing, said there has been an effort to use the same cars for short tracks and intermediate tracks.

"But until they prove there's not an advantage to having a special car for each track, we'll continue to build them just as we always have," he said.

Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, said without a doubt it's now easier to run the same car at more tracks. But he agreed that won't keep inventory down as NASCAR hoped.

"Definitely, the old type of car there was no way you could have brought this car and run it, so from that aspect, absolutely the car is more flexible," he said.

"It will be kind of hard to predict what will happen in the long run. Teams are still a little on the ignorant side as far as production because they're still building them like the old car. There's so much more room for mass production and so much less room to move stuff around, we can't really predict that until we do a better job on our side to produce cars."

Letarte and Knaus said there's one reason they chose the cars they did for the Shootout.

"It's the only one we had painted," Letarte said.

Letarte said in past years he and Knaus would have seven superspeedway cars to choose from. Each had only two for Daytona, one for the 500 and one for the Shootout. Neither wanted to waste the 500 car on a non-points event.

John Darby, the series director for the Sprint Cup, understands. While he'd like to hear teams say they're building fewer cars, he's realistic enough to know that won't happen.

He also understands that the schedule, which demands teams keep six to eight cars ready at a time for travel and testing purposes, also will keep inventory up.

"From a practicality standpoint and realistic standpoint we know that doesn't happen," he said of using the same cars at all tracks. "Like here, they spend so much more time detailing the restrictor-plate cars. The frames are polished. Nothing goes untouched. But in the case of what happened last night, part of what we're realizing is teams can bring an intermediate or short-track car to a superspeedway.

"What we know is it would have been impossible to do before this car, so there is a value to that."

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