'Flying Brick' Takes Off

Gordon had the fastest lap at 125.453 mph in NASCAR's new racecar.
Gordon had the fastest lap at 125.453 mph in NASCAR's new racecar. (By Wade Payne -- Associated Press)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

BRISTOL, Tenn., March 23 -- Jeff Gordon can't say that he likes the looks of NASCAR's much ballyhooed "Car of Tomorrow" any better now. But after ripping off the fastest lap at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday, circling the high-banked oval at 125.453 mph to win the pole for Sunday's Food City 500, Gordon admitted, "It has grown on me a little bit."

Same for Tony Stewart, who blasted NASCAR's radically revamped racecar as a "flying brick" when it was unveiled months ago. After locking in a fourth-place starting spot in his No. 20 Chevrolet "brick," Stewart conceded, "I am feeling better about this car."

Success tends to make life's annoyances easier to bear. So it was for the NASCAR drivers who figured out how to wring more speed than most out of the boxy, bulkier racecar during Friday's qualifying session.

Dodge teammates Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler qualified second and third in their new Avengers. And even Toyota had something to crow about, a welcome change after the Camry's abysmal start to its maiden campaign in NASCAR's top ranks. Five Toyota drivers qualified for Sunday's race, the most this season. And all five earned their spots on their qualifying speed rather than having to rely on provisional entries. That means Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger will start their first race this season, having missed the first four.

"I feel like we won the race," Mayfield gushed. "I really like the Car of Tomorrow because this is the first race we've made all season, so I love it!"

But Michael Waltrip, whom Toyota tapped to be the face of its entry into NASCAR racing, missed the cut for a fourth consecutive race. Waltrip's continued struggles are no doubt straining his relationship with Toyota and his sponsor, NAPA -- particularly after he opened the season by getting caught with an illegal additive in his fuel during qualifying for the Daytona 500.

But in all, the coming-out party for the Car of Tomorrow was a success, with nothing calamitous happening on the track and no drivers hurling expletives in the garage.

NASCAR's new racecar represents a bold experiment on the part of stock-car racing's sanctioning body. It's the first time in the sport's history that NASCAR engineers have actually designed a racecar, usurping the role traditionally played by Detroit automakers and savvy race-team mechanics.

The result is a body that is four inches wider, two inches taller and has half the down force of the traditional stock car, which makes it more difficult to control through the corners. To add down force, teams can adjust two tuning elements of the car: the rear wing and the front "splitter," a two-tiered shelf that protrudes from the nose. But even with the angle of the rear wing set at its maximum, and the splitter fully extended, the car lacks the degree of down force most drivers say they need to feel comfortable.

Gordon attributed his fast lap Friday to his team's decision to set the car up so it turned extremely easily in the corners, a condition that's referred to as "loose," as if the rear end wants to swing around and smack the wall. It takes enormous courage to race a loose car at top speed, but Gordon was more than happy to do it for one lap in order to win the pole.

"You aren't going to be able to run a car that loose all day long in the race," Gordon added.

So that's what Gordon and his team will work on Saturday in practice: figuring out how to get the car to feel more stable over the course of 40 or 50 laps around the high-banked oval.

At slightly more than one-half mile around, Bristol is a small mixing bowl that drivers circle in just 15 seconds. In Sunday's race, they'll make 500 of those 15-second laps. And with 43 cars in the mixing bowl, it's a guaranteed crash-fest.

That's why no drivers are falling in love with their cars just yet. Regardless of its ungainly looks, the cars are bound to end up wrecked on Sunday.

"It looks like half-truck, half-car," said Kahne, commenting on the extra height. "That's what makes 'em look so weird."

Said Gordon, "The look of the car is the look of the car."

Still, some teams have already found a silver lining to the Car of Tomorrow.

The new car's rear wing represents more sheet metal "real estate," in effect, to display the logos of corporate sponsors. NASCAR officials have prohibited teams from selling space on the wing itself but will permit logos on the flat metal end plates on either side of the wing. Only a handful of teams have seized the opportunity so far, including all three Dodges fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Its end plates feature Target's bull's-eye logo, the Texaco-Havoline star and the Energizer bunny.

"Because of Chip's [Ganassi] background in open-wheel racing, he knew to put something on there because it is a fine piece of real estate," said John Fernandez, the team's managing director. Asked if the wing could end up as a new source of revenue, Fernandez said, "Right now we're giving it to sponsors we already have on board, but who knows in the future?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company