Denny Hamlin's cars not so different

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- We were between practices at Michigan International Speedway, and Mike Ford didn't want to discuss whether one of his Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup cars was significantly different from the other. He became irritated when he was told that his driver and a teammate led Friday's charge that some are.

"I don't want to comment," Denny Hamlin's crew chief said before disappearing into the No. 11 hauler.

A few minutes later there was a tap on the shoulder.

"You really touched a nerve," Ford said. "They have no idea what's going on. And you can quote me on that."

What we know is that the best car and best driver likely will win Sunday's race in the Irish Hills as Hamlin did in June. If not, it'll be the team that gets the best fuel mileage at a track where that's often a factor.

What Hamlin, teammate Kyle Busch and several other drivers would have you believe is there's a significant difference between cars. What Ford wants you to know is that the car Hamlin won here with two months ago is the same one that he "couldn't sniff the top 30 in practice with" on Friday.

"Apparently, the car lost rigidity between now and then," Ford said sarcastically, before Hamlin qualified 33rd. "The cars are the same."

What changes are the conditions of the track, from cooler or hotter temperatures to more tire rubber on the surface. Setups also change, and even the slightest adjustment in air pressure can make a great-handling car seem like foreign equipment.

But to hear some drivers talk, the cars go through some metamorphosis even though all are constructed the same.

"Car 251 … we've taken to Phoenix, Richmond and the first Pocono race," Busch said. "It was fast, it ran up front, it led laps and it was good. Then we have a car like 257 or 263, I don't remember which one it is, but we take that car and everywhere we go with it, we're 13th to 20th.

"It won't go anywhere. It won't even get out of its own way. They're built identically the same, they were built on the same chassis plate and built on the same body plate by all the same guys. They are way different."

Busch says pole-sitter Kasey Kahne has one or two that run well everywhere they go and then "the rest of the fleet is just the rest of the fleet." He says Hamlin has two cars that run really well and teammate Joey Logano has one.

"We have cars that win every time out, and we have cars that after about the third or fourth race on them they just seem to go away and start performing less and less," Hamlin said.

Must be the carbon-plated, top-secret coating Ford puts on them.

"My 14-year-old has as much knowledge about the cars as they do," Ford said, tongue-in-cheek. "That the cars are different are one of the biggest myths in the garage."

Brett Bodine, who helped design the new car, can't agree more. He says the cars are built more closely the same than the old ones ever were. He laughs about a driver who complained last week that his seat had been moved because it felt different.

"The seat was in the exact same place," Bodine said.

These are among the best drivers in the world. They are paid big bucks to notice the slightest nuance at speeds most of us can't imagine. But they aren't paid to be the crew chief or to build chassis.

Some drivers have learned not to get into this debate. Carl Edwards used to with Bob Osborne.

"A long time ago Bob quit telling me which car we were bringing to the racetrack because in my mind I thought certain cars were better than others, and it seemed like as soon as I didn't know which car I was in, they all ran pretty much the same," Edwards said. "So for me and my team, I feel like all of our cars are good, and I have faith in Bob."

Four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson takes the same approach. He just hopes the car he qualified second in helps knock Michigan off the short list of tracks where he hasn't won.

Clint Bowyer, who qualified third, couldn't resist the opportunity to take a jab at his Toyota competitors when told Busch has only a couple of cars that go fast.

"Sounds like he needs to buy a Chevy," said Bowyer, who drives Chevrolets for Richard Childress Racing.

Added Johnson: "I agree. Good thinking, man. That's fantastic."

"We have tried different things over the years, but it was more of a totally different car combination with suspension, stuff that you can bolt on and off, than it was a particular frame," Johnson continued, once he stopped laughing. "Yeah, you have some favorite cars that you grow accustomed to, and we have a rotation of cars that we work through, but we're not splitting hairs anymore."

Points leader Kevin Harvick can't tell which car he brings to the track.

"I got out of that mode a long time ago, just for the fact that I didn't want to have any biased opinions on what a car felt like," he said. "I haven't run a bad car this year."

Ford hopes his drivers get with that program -- and soon.

"I can tell you this, all drivers aren't the same," he said with a smile. "Some aren't the same one day to the next."

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