NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France made a bold assertion Sunday, specifically that the racecar introduced to the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 as the Car of Tomorrow has met the three benchmarks established by the sanctioning body.

"We're very happy with the three principles we set out, which (were) safety, cost containment and competition," France said during a news conference at Phoenix International Raceway.

There's no argument on the safety front. Michael McDowell closed that case in April when he walked away from a mind-blowing qualifying crash at Texas Motor Speedway - and cracked jokes about it the following morning in the media centre.

As to the second two benchmarks, the jury's still out.

"Do you need less cars?" France asked in addressing the issue of cost. "Do you need less engineering - another big cost - and have we made a bunch of progress in that area? And the answer is we have."

As restrictive as NASCAR has designed the rules for the new racecar, it's a fair assertion that teams can get by with fewer cars, and that means fewer fabricators are needed to build them. But with team owners barely two years into the COT programme, it's also fair to say they have yet to recoup the cost of converting their fleets from the old cars to the new ones.

As to engineering, that can be as expensive as you want to make it. As tight as the rules are, teams must find extra speed in minutiae, and that means sophisticated, expensive technology that ranges from computer simulations and modelling to seven and eight-post shaker rigs (which simulate suspension dynamics) to extensive wind tunnel testing.

The teams that have the money to buy speed will spend it. That was true when NASCAR sanctioned its first race nearly 60 years, and it's true now. It's no coincidence that the four strongest teams in the Cup garage each placed three drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year - and no one else did.

Paradoxically, France is right when he asserts, "Most of the teams are up to speed on this car."

The problem is that most of the teams, particularly the perennial front-runners, are up to the same speed. Given the aerodynamic characteristics of the COT, passing between two relatively equal cars is an adventure, if not an impossibility.

Witness Carl Edwards' slow-motion run from 15th to fourth in Sunday's Chase race at Phoenix. Edwards' crew gained far more positions for the driver on pit road than Edwards could on the racetrack. In general terms, the driver has become a less important variable than clean air and track position - and that's certainly not what NASCAR intended with the introduction of the COT.

In difficult economic times, it borders on the heretical to suggest changes that cost money.

"We got a lot of pressure back in May to make changes on the Car of Tomorrow, because it wasn't driving as well as it could and all those things," France said. "And we're very pleased that we didn't cave to that pressure, because that would have done two things.

"It would have cost the teams a lot more money, because we would have in theory moved the rules around - right? - and made them chase something else. That costs money every time we do that."

True. But the long-term goal is to put a product on the track that fills the seats in the grandstands, and to do that requires memorable racing. Aside from an electrifying race at Dover and Edwards' banzai bounce off the wall in the closing laps at Kansas, this year's Chase hasn't provided the sort of indelible memories that could help fans forget that Jimmie Johnson is winning the Chase by a landslide.

France revealed Sunday that NASCAR hasn't made a firm decision on implementing its spoiler version of the COT in the Nationwide Series, even through drivers began testing the new car at Richmond in September.

Here's a suggestion. Why not incorporate work already done on the Nationwide car into the Cup series? Replace the wing, which isn't exactly a fan favorite, with the traditional spoiler. Jettison the bump-stop front-end suspensions of the Cup car and substitute the spring suspensions used in the Nationwide version.

Substitute forgiveness and adjustability for the extreme sensitivity of the Cup car and make it more difficult for a team to hit on a subtle nuance in the setup and run away with a race.

As France says, there are short-term costs involved with any rules modifications. NASCAR also would have to achieve a delicate balance between incorporating changes and saving money by minimising testing at tracks that host Cup events.

The bottom line, though, is that it's time to think about the long-term costs of inaction - and that means it's time to change the car.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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