Grades for what was once called the Car of Tomorrow still vary widely

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The line leading to the "claw," the template used to measure what was then called the Car of Tomorrow, seemed forever long. Crew members shuffled between the inspection station and the NASCAR hauler with a steady flow of questions from the time the Sprint Cup garage opened at 10 a.m. until it closed 10 hours later.

And this was on Thursday, a day earlier than the inspection process normally begins.

"I've never seen anything like this," said seven-time champion Richard Petty, who has been through probably more inspections than anybody in the garage.

This was the scene at Bristol Motor Speedway a year ago as the COT prepared for its inaugural race. It was a time of much uncertainty, from how inspection would go to how the car would perform.

Teams returned to Bristol on Friday to a much calmer atmosphere. Inspection took less than six hours instead of a day and a half. NASCAR officials, such as series director John Darby and vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, weren't flooded with questions.

Success? It depends on who you ask.

NASCAR officials say the first year has been a huge victory, arguing competition is better than ever. They note that of the 20 COT races run since Bristol, 11 have been decided by less than a second, compared to seven races in the old car.

They remind that during the first four races in the car this season, there have been 148 green-flag passes compared to 126 in the first four with the old car last year. And that 28 different drivers have led this season compared to 22 during the same span in 2007.

Team owners are happy that the car was fully implemented this season so they don't have to build two cars, as they did a year ago, and overall seem pleased with the direction the car is headed in terms of safety and performance.

In two or three years they believe the project will be cost-saving, although not as much as NASCAR initially hoped because teams continue to build different cars for superspeedways, short tracks, intermediate tracks and road courses.

Drivers appear to be coming around. Aside from last week's race at Atlanta, where harder-than-normal tires became the issue, complaints have subsided, and many agree the racing has been as good or better than it was with the old car.

Chad Knaus

It's not a very good car. It's not a race car. It's not easy to work with. It's hard for the drivers to drive. It's hard for the crew chiefs to adjust. It's not a very good race car.

-- Chad Knaus

Crew chiefs? Many of them still hate it and call it ugly. They say the box NASCAR created for them to work in is so small that they can do little to improve handling once they arrive at the track. They are concerned that they can't create enough downforce to significantly increase speed and give drivers the comfort zone they seek.

On a scale of 0-100, Chad Knaus gave it a 50, definitely a failure but an upgrade from what he initially wanted to give it.

"It's not a very good car," said Knaus, the crew chief for two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "It's not a race car. It's not easy to work with. It's hard for the drivers to drive. It's hard for the crew chiefs to adjust. It's not a very good race car."

Not all crew chiefs are so critical. Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Jeff Gordon who works beside Knaus at Hendrick Motorsports, has just one major beef: the way weight is distributed in the car.

Because the car is boxier and the top is heavier than the old car, it is more difficult to create balance and make the car turn.

"There are some fundamental things we may have to change, but I think NASCAR and everybody understands it's a work in progress," he said. "It's not an easy project starting from scratch.

"NASCAR is in a real tough position. People underestimate how hard their job is to keep us happy and the people in the stands. I'm not going to argue with them. For the last 10 years they've done more for this sport than I've ever seen."

Pedal on
Carl Edwards arrived a day early at Bristol last season out of curiosity.

"I'm going to sit in my car and see if it pedals right," he said.

Edwards and most of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates found the pedaling hard initially. Because team owner Jack Roush didn't test beyond the prescribed sessions, as most organizations did, they fell behind. But by the end of the season they had closed the gap significantly.

They may be ahead of the game now. Greg Biffle is second in points and Edwards has won two of the first four races. He was headed for a third straight win at Atlanta before his transmission let go late in the race.

"They've got it going on right now," interim crew chief Robbie Reiser said of Edwards' team.

There are a few things Biffle would like to change on the car, such as using carbon fiber or another material on the roof and hood to make it lighter, but overall he is pleased.

"The car is really hard on the right-side tire," he said. "It's because the
center of gravity is up high. The lower we get that weight down and the lighter you make it, the easier it's going to be [on tires and brakes]. … Easier on everything."

Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman said the car would have drawn less criticism if it had been fully implemented all at once instead of splitting last season between two cars.

"It wasn't fair to the COT racing the old car," he said. "You had [an old] car that was half-a-second faster, typically. It rode better, it drove better, it felt better, and still we had to compare this new car to this old car.

"I still honestly say this car doesn't drive as good as the old car did, but I will say we learned a lot and have done a lot of things to make it drive better, feel better and stick better."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon collected two of his six wins in the new car last year. The more he drives it, the less critical he is.

"I was very impressed at Daytona, California, Vegas," he said. "Atlanta has been the biggest challenge I've seen so far. Even with that, I don't think the racing was that bad. It's a very challenging race car. It's got a lot of positives. I am looking forward to working with it more and more and making it better."

Most agree the car is a handful to drive because it has only 1,500 pounds of downforce -- the aerodynamic force that presses the car to the track -- compared to 2,800 in the old car. This, many believe, has forced teams to bend the rules in an effort to find more.

Edwards' team was penalized 100 points and crew chief Bob Osborne was suspended for six races after the oil tank cover was discovered off during the postrace inspection at Vegas. The overwhelming opinion in the garage was it was a blatant attempt to illegally create downforce.

There is also overwhelming opinion that others are looking for a similar edge.

"The cars are all so close team to team that it has put a lot back in the driver's hand, so the teams are trying to find that advantage to give their driver a little more of a chance," said John Story, the vice president of motorsports operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Some of them are stepping over the line."

Pemberton said it's no different than it was with the old car.

"When they had 2,800 pounds of downforce, they were still looking for advantages," he said. "It's the same group. Competition drives it all. And you're always going to work to the very bitter end and to all extremes to get every advantage they can.

"Some cross over the line and some don't. Some get discovered and some don't."

"Really ugly"

Tony Stewart laughed the first time he saw the COT painted late in the 2006 season.

"I thought it would look a lot better with paint on it, and it didn't look any better," he said. "It is still really ugly. When you're used to seeing real slick race cars and you see that, it doesn't look like it's a step forward."

Some are getting use to the boxy-looking machine with a rear wing and front-end splitter. Some aren't.

"I think it's very ugly," said Todd Berrier, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick. "I've been used to looking at cars that are race cars. They are really tricked up and look nice. These things don't look nice at all."

The lack of downforce is a big reason people are all over the board with a first-year grade on the car. Kyle Petty gives it an A because the cars are safer, as promised, and because, in his opinion, the races have been better.

He laughs at all the complaints.

"Drivers complain about everything," he said. "You could give us a Cadillac with On-Star that tells us when to turn and we'd still complain about the way our stuff drives."

Count Brian Vickers, arguably the biggest surprise of 2008 at ninth in the standings, among the complainers.

"You probably don't want to hear my grade," he said. " The car has given us trouble at Red Bull. It requires a lot more engineering and telemetry and how you set it up. It is more about being set up by the engineers at the shop than it is by the driver and crew chief at the track like the old car.

"It's definitely more difficult to drive in traffic and around other cars. It still needs a little work."

Knaus said the car puts a lot of drivers and crew chiefs in compromising positions. He would like to see NASCAR not only lighten the car but also make the tires bigger in order to handle the load.

"The way the car is right now, it's so aero-dependent that anybody that gets out front has a huge advantage," he said.

Knaus and Johnson teamed for 10 wins last season, five in the COT. But they have struggled this season, particularly the past two weeks with finishes of 29th and 13th when they never were a factor.

"The car is very difficult to adjust," Knaus said. "It's on the razor's edge. It's either tight or edgy out of control loose and then you get it tight and it's tough to work with."

With time, Pemberton believes, crew chiefs will learn how to make those adjustments. He also reminds that teams have a choice.

"We've got two other national series that they can go race in," he said. "Some of them are liking it and some of them like the fact a driver can't come in on Tuesday and talk about their favorite car or the fender on their Martinsville car needs to be the one on their Darlington car.

"Yes, it's a little harder to work on, but it's only harder because it's new."

"They suck"
Kyle Busch still is critical of the new car, but not nearly as much as he was after winning the first race at Bristol last season.

Kyle Petty

Here's the way it works. Come April 15 every year, what are we going to do? Pay taxes. Come every Sunday, what are we going to do? Drive that car right there. We can complain about taxes all we want to and we complain about that car all we want to, but that's what we're going to drive. It is what it is what it is.

-- Kyle Petty

"I'm still not a big fan of these things," he said last year during the postrace interview. "I can't stand to drive them. They suck."

Perhaps, but Busch has driven them well enough this season to lead the points for the first time in his career. Many believe the car gives him an advantage because he's so talented that he can handle most adverse situations.

That definitely was the case when he won last week at Atlanta.

The bottom line is the car is here to stay. Plans already are in the works to introduce a similar machine for the Nationwide Series in 2009.

"I was around when we went from an 11-inch-wheelbase car to the 110 and everybody thought that was the end of the world," team owner Richard Childress said. "It took us probably six months to where we could get it worked out to where we could race them, but we did.

"It's the same with this car. It's met expectations."

Darby agreed. He said the growing pains are no different now than the ones he experienced when fuel injection was first introduced.

"I was scared to death," he said. "I had to go back to school. I had to read books. I had to understand. When I got my first fuel injection cars in the shop, I struggled with them. I wound up doing twice as much work as needed to be done.

"When I got two or three years under my belt, I was asking myself how in the hell did we survive running carbureted cars up and down the street."

Darby and Pemberton are constantly listening to suggestions and coming up with ideas of their own to improve the car. But they don't plan to recommend changes during the season, wanting teams to get used to what they have before throwing another curve at them.

"Here's the way it works," said Kyle Petty, trying to simplify the situation. "Come April 15 every year, what are we going to do? Pay taxes. Come every Sunday, what are we going to do? Drive that car right there.

"We can complain about taxes all we want to and we complain about that car all we want to, but that's what we're going to drive. It is what it is what it is."

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