- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Each of the 43 cars in today’s Daytona 500 weighs 3,450 pounds, carries 17.75 gallons of fuel, employs a four-speed transmission, is 74 inches wide and 53.5 inches high and is powered by a 358 cubic-inch engine.

Four manufacturers and 20 race teams will have entries, a diverse group of automotive companies and ownership groups.

But they all will have the same car.

Whatever it’s called — the Car of Tomorrow/Car of Today/new car/car — it’s here to stay. After being used 16 times last year, NASCAR scrapped a three-year play to phase in the CoT and today marks the full-season debut and the first time the car has been used at Daytona International Speedway.

With anything new comes several things that are unknown and Daytona is no different. The 150-mile qualifying races Thursday raised more questions as to how the cars will handle on the bumpy surface, how the tires will hold up and how much passing will be produced.

“The cars are more similar and they’re more competitive than they’ve ever been,” Ryan Newman said.

But as Newman and other drivers said during the week, the teams that have excelled will continue to excel; the cars that have been fast will continue to go fast. Which makes Hendrick Motorsports the favorite.

Besides having three superstar drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and two-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — Hendrick was ahead of the curve in CoT races last year, winning nine times.

At Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. has won the Budweiser Shootout and his qualifying race. Johnson will start first, Earnhardt Jr. second, Gordon eighth and Casey Mears ninth.

“You look at what Hendrick did last year, and it’s clear they figured it out,” Jeff Burton said. “The more we have this car and the longer we run it, the more equal things will become. But let’s be clear — I don’t care what NASCAR does, the teams that have the best-run organizations will have the best equipment and therefore will go the fastest.”

The biggest difference in the new car is the rear wing and a splitter along the front of the car. It is a product of a seven-year project by NASCAR to make the cars safer. Additionally, the fuel cell is nearly 5 gallons smaller.

“It’s going to be different,” veteran driver Kyle Petty said. “We could [complain] and moan all day. It… is… a… different… car. It’s like you’re driving a Challenger or a Caravan — they’re both Dodges but they’re different and are built for different purposes. The car is doing exactly what NASCAR designed it to be multipurpose. We’ll have to play out whether it’s the proper direction we want to go in.”

Tire wear was a concern on Thursday and even though a full-fuel run is about 40 laps, cars were forced to pit before running even 30 laps. Prematurely worn-out tires produced handling problems.

“These cars were designed and built to not drive as good as the cars we used to run,” Tony Stewart said. “I can’t say it’s a surprise that they don’t handle as good. It’s still our jobs to try and figure out how to make them drive.”

Said Kurt Busch: “It’s frustrating in a way because the car has the ability to go 45, 46 laps on fuel, and we’re not getting anywhere near that because the tires aren’t lasting. If a car goes 40 laps early, it deserves a gold star. I just don’t see that happening.”

How the CoT will react at Daytona — only the second time it’s been used on a superspeedway — and other tracks for the first time will carry the discussion for at least a few weeks.

“After the first couple weeks, you probably won’t have to hear the constant comparisons about the car,” Matt Kenseth said. “It’s still a race car, and we’re still trying to go in circles as fast as we can. All the basic stuff still applies.”

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