NASCAR's grand experiment, the Car of Tomorrow, took the next step last Saturday night in Phoenix, and it was not a big hit with many of the Nextel Cup drivers.
Other than an exciting late-race duel between eventual winner Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the 312-lap Nextel Cup race on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway appeared to most to be a plodding affair.
The COT is the culmination of a seven-year project by NASCAR's research and development division, an effort to make a safer car and one that also provides better competition _ passing and side-by-side duels.
The Phoenix race was the first COT event on a track longer than a half-mile and what the drivers considered the first real test of the aerodynamic features of the new car.
If this is what they have to look forward to as the COT continues to be worked into the schedule, nobody is going to be very happy.
``I could see the leaders almost the whole race, and it was like we all were just out there running the exact same lap times,'' said Dale Earnhardt Jr. ``It was a parade. I was bored.
``No one could pass anybody else _ we were all equal it seemed.''
Greg Biffle, who finished two spots ahead of Earnhardt in 17th, wasn't too thrilled with the new car, either.
``I only saw what was around me, but it didn't look like a good race, really, to me,'' Biffle said. ``I didn't see a lot of side-by-side, I didn't see the big everybody equal. I saw everybody sliding all over the place.
``And NASCAR's claim to fame is they want them hard to drive. Well, it's not that they're hard to drive, it's just that they're not like driving a race car. They're like giving us Pinewood derby cars and saying, 'OK, everybody, this is what you're going to race.'''
Biffle said he thought the biggest problem was that the new COTs weren't racy.
``You couldn't race anybody _ and that's what we want to do,'' he said. ``It's our passion, it's in our blood _ we want to race them.''
Strangely, one of the drivers who complained the most was Denny Hamlin, who overcame a speeding penalty on pit road that set him back to 31st and ended up finishing third. To do that, he had to pass more than half the cars in the 43-car field at least once.
``To be as nice as I can ... it's frustrating,'' Hamlin said. ``People will say, `But you went from the back to the front.' But, yeah, it took us 300 laps to do it when it shouldn't have.
``Our car was just that much better than everyone else's. ... I don't know how we're going to run these cars on bigger tracks without changes.''
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition and a longtime crew chief, said it isn't surprising that drivers are complaining, because the COT is very different from the cars that have been raced in the top stock car series and been in development since 1981.
``We are satisfied with the progress that's been made by the teams,'' Pemberton told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. ``The races were good, with fewer DNFs (did not finish) than we've seen historically, and the finishes were close.
``And, from my viewpoint, there was more racing going on around the whole racetrack. I'm really pleased about what I see behind third place, the intensity.''
Pemberton noted that drivers such as the 26-year-old Hamlin haven't been through major changes before, which makes it more difficult for them to adjust.
``We have a lot of very, very young drivers and this is the first rule change some of these guys have ever gone through,'' he said. ``They don't understand how you work through these changes and they don't have the same feel for it as somebody like Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin, who have lived through changes before.''
The drivers who aren't happy with the new cars will need to start making those mental adjustments soon because the COT will be raced 13 more times this season and will be phased into the entire 36-race schedule by 2009 for sure, and possibly by 2008.
``I would say some of the teams, like Hendrick and Gibbs and Earnhardt, have had good cars in this race,'' Pemberton said. ``They obviously have worked real hard to get a leg up on the other teams.
``The places where all the teams are making strides is learning how to work on these cars, how to make them better for their drivers.''
And not all of the drivers are unhappy with the car now.
``If this had been last year's car, with that bumper, I would have been wrecked,'' reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said after finishing fourth at Phoenix. ``It seems like these cars are more forgiving. You can't just knock the guy out of the way; you actually have to pass him.''
And Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who won for the first time at Phoenix and equaled the late Dale Earnhardt's career record of 76 victories, was OK with the COT, too _ for the most part.
``Well, I'll be honest with you; it was better than I thought it was going to be,'' Gordon said. ``I really thought that once you got out front, all you had to do was just mirror drive and there's no way that guy (behind you) had a chance. But Tony (Stewart) got by me and then I got by him.''
``It was better than I thought it was going to be; it really was.''