By Terry Blount
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The Land of Oz became NASCAR's version of the Twilight Zone on Sunday at Kansas Speedway in the wildest race of the season.
Now things may get a little crazier.
Talladega always is a wild show -- big packs, big wrecks and white-knuckle racing on every lap. But as spooky as it is, the drivers have learned what to expect on the high banks in the red clay of Alabama.
Not this time. NASCAR's biggest and most dangerous track is a 2.6-mile asphalt mystery for everyone involved in this weekend's UAW-Ford 500.
It's a world of unknowns for the first restrictor-plate race in the Car of Tomorrow. Theories abound, but no one knows for sure what will happen when the green flag falls.
"It's going to be a little bit more scary than usual," said Clint Bowyer, who ranks third in the Chase after his runner-up finish at Kansas. "We will be closer together, so the least little mistake is going to be catastrophic."
That's one view. Jeff Gordon prefers to look at the bright side.
"It's going to be spectacular," Jeff Gordon said. "I expect it to be pretty wild, pretty crazy and a heck of a show for the fans."
The Cup drivers had a two-day test session at Talladega three weeks ago to get a feel for how things will go in the COT. But the test seemed to bring more questions than answers.
"The test was kind of up and down, but you don't have the big draft in a test," Kasey Kahne said. "It's only like 10 cars in a pack. It's going to change a lot with all the cars out there in a big pack."
But Kahne doesn't think it's a bad thing.
"I think it's going to be the best Car of Tomorrow race we've had yet," he said. "The way the cars line up [on a restrictor-plate track], you can do things out there and have fun. I think it's going to be the most fun we've had in the new car."
That's if you consider it fun racing inches apart at 190 mph, not knowing how your car is going to react in the draft.
"This new car is more violent and more dramatic in the draft," Kurt Busch said. "If you lose draft, which is easier to do, you're a fish out of water."
The COT is bigger and boxier, so it cuts a bigger hole in the air than the old car. Drivers should be able to draft on each other more easily and create more passing, but the racers have mixed opinions on it.
"I really think the race is going to be different than what we've seen in the past," Jimmie Johnson said. "The greenhouse [driver compartment] is much larger [in the COT] and we didn't realize how that extra couple of inches really made a difference in the draft. They do suck up better, but for whatever reason, they don't pass all that well."
Passing up front has been a problem in other COT races, but Busch said he thinks the car will react differently on a restrictor-plate track.
"With the old car, we did the same thing every plate race," Busch said. "But we have things we can work on this time to see how it affects the COT -- the sway bar, the track bar, the front springs. It makes this Talladega race even more of a wild card than usual."
NASCAR experimented with plate openings, wing angles and wicker size at the test. But Cup director John Darby said those things could change before the race, depending on how fast the cars are in practice Friday.
The COT enables NASCAR to use a larger opening on the restrictor plate, which should add about 80 horsepower. The additional power could give the drivers more throttle response, which could cause more passing.
But one of the biggest problems in recent Talladega events -- increased bump drafting -- could get worse in the COT. Drivers slam into the car ahead of them to get a run in the draft and try to boost both cars forward ahead of the pack.
But the practice is dangerous and can lead to the typical big wreck if the cars aren't lined up properly, or if a bump comes in the turns.
Most of the drivers believe bump drafting will increase in the COT. The cars line up better nose to tail, but it's still risky. A driver could damage the front splitter in the COT if he bumps too aggressively.
"In the test, you could push each other all the way around the track if you wanted to," Bowyer said. "But I don't think there's much of an advantage to it anymore. If you bump someone, they don't seem to go anywhere in the COT cars."
At least you can see them if you're close enough to bump someone. Not so if you're the one getting bumped, according to Johnson.
"Right now, you're driving blind out there,'' Johnson said. "The rear wing, the rear glass angle and the way the sunlight hits the back window, it's tough to see through the glass."
A driver usually waves his right hand inside the car to let the driver behind him know he is pitting. That doesn't work in the COT. You have to stick your left hand out the window.
Signaling other drivers at Talladega is critical because the cars are running so close to each other.
Talladega is all about thinking ahead, avoiding disaster, picking the right time to make a move and reacting quickly when your chance presents itself.
Many drivers believe the need for those skills is magnified in the first restrictor-plate race for the Car of Tomorrow
"I'll predict a lot more moves up front you have to react to," Busch said. "Whoever does it best has a shot at winning."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 1, 2007
By Terry Blount