Getting used to New Car

NASCAR Nextel Cup teams have the weekend off to celebrate Easter with their families, but there is still plenty of racing going on.

As usual, I'm writing this before the Saturday Busch race at Nashville, so I don't know what happened there. And I wasn't up at 2:30 this morning for the Formula 1 race from Malaysia, but I'll be watching it over breakfast on the DVR.

Judging from qualifying, it's going to be a duel between the Ferrari and McLaren teams, as I expect it to be all season. One positive change is that they have added a white stripe around the circumference of the weekend's "soft" compound tire, making it easy to identify.

This afternoon at 3:30 the Champ Car series' debut on the streets of Las Vegas airs on NBC-TV, with 17 cars set to take the green flag. Just this past week a number of drivers were announced for the race: Katherine Legge and Bruno Junqueira will return to the series driving for Dale Coyne, rookie Matt Halliday has signed a three-race deal with Conquest Racing, and Mario Dominguez has a similar agreement to re-join the Forsythe team after being fired from the organization last year for taking out teammate Paul Tracy too often.

I have never seen such scrambling and apparent confusion at the beginning of a season in any major professional racing series. Aside from the Newman-Haas team, with Sebastien Bourdais poised to win a fourth championship, and Forsythe's entry for Tracy, there seems to be little continuity and few familiar names for fans to get excited about.

I hate to say it, but the open wheel war may be in its last throes, with the rival Indy Racing Series the last sanctioning body standing. Unfortunately, the only real winner in the conflict appears to be NASCAR.

Speaking of NASCAR, Nextel Cup goes back to the Old Car for next weekend's race at Texas Motor Speedway before returning to the New Car (formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow) for Phoenix. This will give the teams a chance to make modifications mandated by NASCAR to the cushioning foam installed in the doors of the New Cars.

After problems at Bristol, NASCAR firmly stated that it was "impossible" for the foam to catch fire. At Martinsville, billowing smoke from the door of Kevin Harvick's car was too evident for even NASCAR to deny, so teams now must remove a 23 inch by 8 inch section of foam nearest the exhaust pipe run on the right side of the cars, and install a heat shield in the area.

Although several teams (including Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammates) have not experienced the problem, NASCAR is making the change mandatory across the board. NASCAR has assured the teams that smoke from the melting foam is not toxic, but remember it also said it couldn't burn.

The first two races with the New Car were interesting . . . not only for the fires, but for driver reaction. Kyle Busch's comments after winning Bristol are a case in point. He won the race, but hated the car!

My theory, shared by a lot of observers, is that the New Car is harder to drive than the old one. A young driver like Busch, who has never known anything else, doesn't like the feel.

The final laps at Martinsville pointed out another quirk of the New Car. Coming off the final turn to the flag, Jeff Gordon hit teammate Jimmy Johnson hard enough that with the old car Johnson would probably have slid up the track and left an opening for Gordon to take the win. But the new car didn't react the same way, and Johnson hung on to take the checker.

So these guys are going to have to recalibrate the force of their "rubbing" with the new piece. One thing for sure, the new car puts more of the race's outcome in the hands of the driver.

Unfortunately, a certain element among race fans wants the drivers to wield that as a club. After Bristol, many complained about Jeff Burton's sportsmanlike driving, and likewise castigated Jeff Gordon for not taking out his teammate at Martinsville. Folks, NASCAR isn't the WWE . . . at least, not yet.


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