Critics Of COT Out Of Ammunition After Competitive, Thrilling Daytona 500

Charlotte, NC – Okay, all those who thought the ?Car of Tomorrow? sucks, how do you like it now?

Despite all the teeth grinding that has accompanied the introduction of the new racer, the car has proven to be a worthy replacement to the old model almost everywhere it has competed. The latest example of that came Sunday in the 50th-annual Daytona 500.

All the dire comments about how bad the car is/was were swept away in a thrilling 500 that ? like most of the 500’s that preceded it ? came down to a last-lap shootout with Ryan Newman scoring an unlikely victory in the historic event.

Not that Newman (below right) didn?t deserve the win. His was a victory for the ages for a Penske organization that has won just about everything there is to win in global motorsports with the exception of a NASCAR restrictor plate race. Let?s face it ? with the old car, Newman and whatever Penske teammate he had, including the great Rusty Wallace, were usually also-rans.

In the era of the aero car, the potent Penske organization never sniffed Victory Lane at a plate race. With a more level playing field thanks to the COT, they hoisted the special gold version of the Harley Earl Trophy Sunday night.

The level playing field that the COT has created was evident early in practice for the 500 as several unlikely single-car and non-factory backed teams flirted with the top of the speed charts. Sure, you still had the super teams up there too, but it was obvious the strict construction and template rules mandated by NASCAR had done their job. Suddenly, guys like Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace were in the hunt and the Dodges were getting some interesting practice performances by Reed Sorenson, Newman, and Kasey Kahne. Things were shaping up differently for a change.

Even though it was obvious to all that the Toyotas had the most steam under the hood, the rest of the field wasn?t skewed by big-money aero rockets. This time, the Toyotas, Dodges, Chevys and even the Fords were on even par aerodynamically.

Now the cars are not only equal body wise, but they are darn side safer too, a fact that has been lost on a lot of critics of the COT. If the safety initiatives were the only advantage to the old car, those alone would make the new car worthy.

The equality of the COT’s certified chassis and body templates has given the racing back to the mechanical side of the sport. Now, it?s back on the engine and chassis folks ? the way it?s supposed to be ? instead of the aero engineers. The cars are so equal aero wise now that when several drivers crashed in practice prior to this year?s Bud Shootout, some teams transported short track cars previously run at Bristol and Martinsville last year as back-ups to their Daytona primary cars.

That?s incredible.

Finally, the onus is also back on the drivers, who have had to ramp up their car control skills with the boxier and more skittish racers. Fortunately, when one does lose control of the new car, it is much more forgiving and drivers are finding they can steer their way out of slides and spins better than they could in the old cars.

While the uniformity of COT’s body and chassis rules have distanced NASCAR from 1959 when a Ford, Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Dodge, Mercury, DeSoto, Studebaker and Edsel all started the 500 and made brand loyalty special for racers and fans alike, it has kept the sport true to its roots of solid racing and thrilling finishes.

Put it all together and it?s no longer the Car of Tomorrow ? it?s the COT, the Car of Today ? and from the looks of things at Daytona these past two weeks, it?s a winner in every way.

Toyota Stump Pullers ?

With the cars now relying on engine and suspension components to make them go fast, you really have to give it to the Toyota engine department.

Triad/TRD engine guru John Dysinger and his staff tweaked up a bunch of stump pullers that were the fastest iron on the block from the time they fell off the trailer. In case you missed it, a Toyota won the ARCA race, took all four top spots in the Truck Series event, and won the pole and finished 1-2 in Saturday?s Nationwide event.

Only superior drafting strategy in the final two laps by the Penske twins of Newman and Kurt Busch denied Toyota a sweep of the week?s events as Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart were clearly the class of the field on the straight aways.

Some of the have not whiners (see Chevy teams) at Daytona were claiming the chassis dyno numbers showed a 30 horsepower advantage for the Toyotas. Hard to believe it was that much ? especially on a restrictor plate engine.

We?ll see just how fast the Toyotas really are now when the series heads for California this weekend where the restrictor plate gloves are off. In the meantime, expect everyone attending the annual Toyota NASCAR driver/team/manufacturer party in Torrance this Wednesday evening to be celebrating the engine work technological accomplishments and the string of successes they produced in Daytona.

Missed A Couple –

While there was plenty of hoopla surrounding the former winners of the Daytona 500 this week, a number of people behind the scenes of ?The Great American Race? went relatively unnoticed. Two of those were Barney Hall and Bob Moore.

Hall is the voice of NASCAR, toiling in the Motor Racing Network booth as an announcer since 1970. Hall has attended all but two of the 500s since working the first race in 1959 at the request of Bill France, Sr. who sent him a ticket and a press kit prior to the event.

Now 75, Hall continues to be the benchmark that all NASCAR announcers are measured against not losing a step behind the microphone. Still a fixture in the garage area and always quick with a joke or story, Hall, an Elkin, NC native, is a treasure to all NASCAR race fans.

Moore, meanwhile, worked the first Daytona 500 as a reporter for the now defunct Tampa (FL) Times. Since then, Moore has missed just four of the Daytona classics crafting countless stories on the race and the sport.

Today, Moore pens stories for the Sports Exchange, a service that provides NASCAR content to multiple venues including USA Today.

Both Hall and Moore have transitioned from the 1959 Daytona press box ? where there was room for all of 10 or so reporters, most of who couldn?t see the action when the fans stood up ? to the current day 500 where the media crush rivals that of the Super Bowl.

It?s an honor to salute them ? and their outstanding career accomplishments ? here in this column.

Cool Stuff ?

Kudos to Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR for a great fan experience at the 50th-annual 500. The infield Fan Zone was rocking around the clock with tons of live music, television and radio shows and cool exhibit.

It was neat to see the Chevy (left) that Junior Johnson won the 1960 500 with, as well as Pete Hamilton?s 1970 500-winning Petty Superbird. Then there was Bobby Allison?s 1988 Buick 500 winner and Dale Earnhardt?s victorious 1998 Chevy.

Totally cool stuff.

Best of all, fans in the Zone had viewing access to the Cup garage area from an elevated catwalk and from windows on the side of the garages. Along with the Neon Garage in Las Vegas, the Daytona Fan Zone provides the top fan experience in NASCAR. If you didn?t visit it this time, make sure you catch it if you attend next year?s Daytona 500.

More Lousy Luck ?

This reporter got killed in his fantasy football pool this season. I was toast by Week 6 of the NFL season. I haven?t had much luck in the NCAA basketball pools in recent seasons either.

I guess that carried over to my pick of Matt Kenseth (shown right with team owner Jack Roush) to win the 500 in last week?s column. My recent lousy wagering luck spilled over on Kenseth?s chances to drive a Ford to a win in the 500 since Davey Allison in 1992 when he was crashed out by his Roush-Fenway Racing teammate David Ragan late in the race.

Kenseth was right where he wanted to be ? with the leaders ? when the incident killed his chances of winning this time around. It?s a familiar story for Kenseth, who seems to be right in the mix for the win at Daytona every year only to be swept up in a late crash not of his making.

One day, Kenseth will win the 500. I just have to stop picking him.

Sorry Matt, my bad.

Looking Forward –

Next up for all three NASCAR top divisions will be California Speedway this weekend.

After as much as two weeks on the road in Daytona, teams will now have to make the quick turnaround and travel all the way across the country to Los Angeles for this week?s race. The Cup field is sure to be full, but look for some ?start and parks? (teams with limited budgets just starting the race and pulling out after a couple of laps) in the Nationwide race and perhaps a short field of less than 36 starters in the Truck Series race.

Ticket sales and general interest in NASCAR have been a tough sell to date at California, so this time around, they?ve added a twist giving a fans a ?two-fer? doubleheader Saturday when the Trucks will go green at 3 p.m. Eastern (noon local) followed by the Nationwide race later in the day.

Can?t imagine why you?d want to miss that show.

On Sunday, the COT will make its California Speedway debut. Given that fact, and that any race has to be better than some of the recent snoozer events with the old car at California, it?ll be worth a look see.

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