It's safer, more cost-effective and is virtually interchangeable to race on everything from a short track like Bristol to the behemoth that is Talladega. Such is NASCAR's so-called Car of Tomorrow, which as of the Feb. 17 season-opening Daytona 500, will officially segue to become the Car of Today for each of this season's 36 races and for many seasons to come.
It's safer, more cost-effective and is virtually interchangeable to race on everything from a short track like Bristol to the behemoth that is Talladega.
Such is NASCAR's so-called Car of Tomorrow, which as of the Feb. 17 season-opening Daytona 500, will officially segue to become the Car of Today for each of this season's 36 races and for many seasons to come.
As a fan, even if you hate it, you might as well get used to it – because there will not be any Sprint Cup racing without it.
Likewise for drivers.
Kyle Busch may say it still sucks, and Tony Stewart may still call it a flying brick, but the COT is what it is – and we're struck with it, whether we like it or not.
So, it's now time to accept it for what it is and go forward with it – even though it's still ugly and drives like a semi.
"The Car of Tomorrow is what NASCAR has given us and we need to make the best of it," said four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon. "The teams that accept and embrace it sooner than other teams will be the ones that will be more successful with it."
Indeed, as part of its uncanny overall domination of last season – 18 wins in 36 races – Hendrick Motorsports won nine COT races, including five by eventual Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and three others by runner-up and HMS teammate Gordon.
What made that figure more outstanding is that the COT was only used in 16 of last season's races.
But the COT becomes an all or nothing proposition in 2008. Here's a primer on how we see the season playing out:
- The biggest surprise will be the Toyota Camrys of Joe Gibbs Racing. Having switched from Chevrolet to Toyota for this season, one of Gibbs' drivers – Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin or newcomer Kyle Busch – will likely become the first Toyota driver to put the Camry in victory lane since its introduction at the beginning of last season. While many doomsayers say JGR will regret and struggle in its highly publicized shift from Chevrolet to Toyota, if any team can make Toyota go almost overnight from an also-ran last season to a competitive machine, capable of winning at virtually any track on the circuit, it's JGR. In fact, we'll be so bold to predict that a Gibbs driver wins the first COT race for Toyota by the sixth race of the season this year: Martinsville.
- Don't look for Hendrick Motorsports' domination in the COT – and the entire season, for that matter – to end anytime soon. While it may be difficult for Johnson to repeat his 10-win overall performance from last season, there's also the possibility that his success in the COT last season could lead to even greater supremacy this season. We can just hear some opposing teams shudder at that thought. What's more, with the addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the Hendrick camp, don't be surprised if HMS wins 20 or more races this season. Our prediction: Johnson wins eight, Gordon wins six, Earnhardt wins four and Casey Mears wins two.
- One of the main reasons for the design of the COT was to give parity to smaller teams and put them on a level playing field with the big boys. We'll find out if that truly is the case this season. A car that was supposed to help the likes of organizations such as Petty Enterprises, Yates Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Robby Gordon Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and Bill Davis Racing – among others – will likely do just that. In fact, given how some of those teams, particularly BDR and Petty Enterprises, performed in several of last season's second-half COT races, don't be shocked to see the likes of Dave Blaney or Bobby Labonte wind up in victory lane this season behind the wheel of the COT.
- Even though many fans, team owners and drivers still dislike the COT, one thing you won't get much of an argument about is that the new car is as state-of-the-art and technologically advanced as humanly possible when it comes to safety. Plus, NASCAR continues to look at ways to further refine and enhance the car's design. To show the safety worthiness, consider that no drivers suffered any serious injuries in crashes that occurred during COT races last season. In fact, the biggest injury – a separated left shoulder that sidelined him for several weeks – was sustained by now-retired Ricky Rudd at California Speedway last September in the old-style race car that is now also retired, thankfully.
- While the COT has taken away much of the latitude for changes and alterations that crew chiefs have built much of their careers upon – "exploiting the gray area," as Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, likes to call it – that lack of latitude should actually serve as a challenge to crew chiefs to find ways of winning by thinking INSIDE the box, and not outside of it.
* While we've established that the car's looks probably rank it a minus-10 on a 1-to-10 scale, it has other deficiencies that are greater than just skin deep. The cars are markedly slower than their predecessors, continue to be one of the most difficult set of four wheels to drive on any racing surface, are much more difficult to pass other cars on the race track with and have a rear wing that is almost unanimously disliked by everyone in the Cup garage. Still, the car has proven fairly solid when it comes to sticking to the racing surface and has not yet proven to be as squirrelly as its predecessor was.
Last but not least, the Car of Tomorrow is now, officially and full-time, the Car of Today. It is what it is, and we have to accept it for that.
Now if we can only finally stop calling it the Car of Tomorrow and just call it what it is in the most simple race terms: a race car – nothing more, nothing less.
How good it will be in its first full season, however, is a whole different story. Maybe we should give it a different type of acronym.
Let's call it the WIP: work-in-progress, for that is what it truly is and will continue to be for the next few seasons as NASCAR gets all the kinks and bugs worked out, while adding some refining touches and additional safety enhancements, as well.
But as Jeff Gordon remarked last season, it's still a "butt-ugly" car – and that's something that can't be changed for now.
Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.