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Backing into the future

When most entertain the idea of a car of tomorrow, gull-winged time machines and Firebirds that talk are often the first thoughts to spring to mind. NASCAR, however, envisioned something far different for its Car of Tomorrow: something safe and boxy that wouldn't look, what's the word, Swedish.

After a seven-year gestation, the stock car of the future debuts this weekend at the Ford City 500 in Bristol, Tenn., in what will be the first of 16 races for the COT during the 2007 season. While that seems like plenty of time for curious gearheads to call their local box office for an up-close look, prepare to be underwhelmed. The Car of Tomorrow looks very much like the car of today. It's slightly wider and taller than its predecessor -- making it kind of a drag in terms of looks and speed, concessions NASCAR says were made in the interest of safety. To compensate, teams will have to find a happy medium between the features that help them and the features that don't.

Some of the features that likely will help:

• A wing. Often confused with a spoiler and previously thought to be reserved for the sports car set, the spoiler bolts to the rear decklid, cutting a wider swath of air behind the car, thus making it easier for the Cup series' many tailgaters to pass one another.

• A splitter. This flat shelf below the front bumper catches the air closest to the track to keep the car planted firmly on pavement.

The negatives? How about a windshield that's notably more upright and a front bumper that catches more air than a windsock?

While many drivers have already voiced their objections to the changes, the pleas to reverse course are likely to fall on deaf ears at NASCAR. The way the suits see it, they'd rather kill a buzz than kill a racer. (See Earnhardt, Dale, whose fatal crash seven years ago catalyzed this series-wide initiative).

"Driver safety was our No. 1 goal," says NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson. Hence the bigger roll cage, sturdier seat, reinforced driver's side and a smaller gas tank with an anti-ballistic bladder.

NASCAR also hopes the new car brings some sense of sanity to the skyrocketing costs of racing. In theory, the new car's myriad adjustable parts will make it easier to adjust and tune to specific tracks -- from the short, to the superspeedways and road courses -- saving teams the expense of customizing the hundreds of cars they typically stockpile in a given season.

(Of course, there'll be a new 220-point chassis certification process to keep setups more standard and help teams keep their, ahem, noses clean among other things.)

With fewer cars to buy, goes the thinking, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will narrow, occasioning (again, in theory) closer, more competitive races. Now a guy like Boris Said, a co-owner of a startup team, SoBe No Fear, with designs on racing a full schedule next year, has a better shot at trading paint with a guy like Casey Mears, whose Hendrick Motorsports team is among the biggest spenders in the sport. With their spending options limited, the giants will have to target their money toward research instead. "At the end of the day," says Mears, driver of the No. 25 National Guard/GMAC Chevy, "the big teams are still gonna have more money, more resources to perfect that product."

Like most changes, this conversion hasn't been without its share of kinks to work out. Early reviews panned the COT's more generous proportions. ('07 Daytona champ Kevin Harvick initially likened it to a school bus.) The new cars also are a bear to build -- taking four weeks, as opposed to the usual two, says No. 25 Chevy crew chief Darian Grubb. "Unless they just start stamping out body pieces and selling them to everybody," adds Mears, "that process right now is definitely more tedious than the one we currently have."

Also, the cost of running both cars of today and tomorrow is crippling. "For us, it would be better if they said the Car of Tomorrow is at every race in 2008," says Said, whose first COT race will be at Sonoma in June. "Then we're not investing money in something that's going to be worthless in a year." (A word to production Monte Carlo owners: prepare for your resale value to plummet; the changeover to the Impala chassis doesn't look good for the future of your precious Chevy.)

It's doubtful this weekend's Bristol race will lead to many calls to speed up the conversion timetable. The 1/2-mile oval's steeply banked turns and short straightaways will have COTs relying less on aerodynamics than centrifugal force.

"The places where we're really going to see a difference are when we start getting to Texas, Charlotte, Atlanta, California and Michigan," says Mears, noting his early test times at Bristol were a tick slower in his new Impala SS than the ones he logged a year ago. "Once we get to the one-and-a-half tracks, it's gonna be a whole new different ball of wax. The setups are going to be completely different and that's when you start getting into the effects of what these new bodies are really going to give us aero-wise. Bristol is the best track they could've taken it to and not get many negative reactions."

Which leaves the field wide open for Sunday. I still like a big team winning it (the No. 48 Chevy is riding quite the hot streak), but the chances of a mid-major driver stealing the checkers -- maybe Penske's Ryan Newman? -- are just as good.

"It's still going to come down to feel," says two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. "If you're comfortable, you'll push it to the limit and go fast. If you're not, you won't."

Either way, it'll have to do until they start outfitting COTs with flux capacitors, satisfying our want for both nostalgia and progress in one fell swoop. Until that fine, fine day embrace your future, gearheads. Tomorrow is here.

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