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Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News
Grandstands of fans \— usually exceeding 150,000 \— stretch beyond the activity of the pit, where much of the competition preparation takes place.

LAS VEGAS — Aside from the paint and the decals, it was impossible to tell one car from another running on the 1 1/2-mile track in the Sprint NASCAR UAW-Dodge event.

That's because they were all the same. When introduced they were tagged the "Car of Tomorrow." The identical shells are now being called the "Car of Today" or the "New Car."

They were previewed last year in 16 races. This year they will be running all 36 NASCAR races. They will be the only cars allowed on the track.

It took NASCAR's experiment lab five years to come up with the new-car design.

The purpose was threefold:

• Cut cost

• Level the driving field

• Safety

What was required is that owners had to dump the old NASCAR body, which took on a reasonable semblance to the manufactured model it was named after, and buy all new ones, something Jack Roush, owner of one of the more success race teams wasn't exactly happy about and thought was wasteful.

He said he had to get rid of up to 20 racing bodies per team and 15 show cars per team, "and replace them with the new cars. Of the 20 (bodies), drivers found at least four were possessed with demons, so we ended up with 16 cars that were now all the same. It was a huge, huge cost. I'm against wasting things that still have a useful life ... but I knew it would happen."

The new body design is supposed to make it possible to use fewer cars, thus save big money in the long run. Some teams, as Roush pointed out, were running upward of 18 to 20 different cars on the 23 NASCAR tracks in order to find "just the right one."

Not all drivers find the car that much better, however.

Greg Biffle, who finished third, complimented Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second, for using his head in a slower car.

"I know we had the faster car than he did, and he drove a great race and ended up finishing in front of us because he used his head and he drove his car as fast as he could get his car to go, kept his track position. So, that's the kind of people it takes to run well in these race cars."

He has also been frustrated, as have other drivers, over the fact that the cars have not responded as he had hoped, but he admitted the setup for the Las Vegas race made the car "drivable from the green flag to the checkered flag."

Fans have been less than receptive to the change. A quick canvas of those attending the Las Vegas race drew mixed comments, but the one common thread was the word "Why?"

The old cars seemed to most of those quizzed to have been just fine.

Several fans who found brand identity important complained they now can't tell the difference between a Chevrolet and a Toyota, which diehard fans were able to do when the old bodies were racing. Now the identifying marks are the paint, number and sponsor decals.

Even successful drivers have been less than excited about the new cars.

Earnhardt said this was only the third race of the season and that there were still bugs in the car.

So, is he comfortable with the new car? "Not really ... We need more time. I think you'll keep getting it better and better the more time you have with it. They need to explore softening the left side tire. Just a tiny bit of left-side work would help out a bunch and keep people from complaining so much."

The big difference in cars now comes in what's under the hood of the molded body, and that's what's winning races right now. Biffle was convinced he had the fastest car but didn't have his head together.

The new bodies allow for very little "personal" engineering by crews. And, in fact, even the slightest of alterations can draw harsh penalties.

The new body is said to be less aerodynamic, and so regulated crews are still trying to sort through what they can and can't do.

All of this, of course, is intended to make racing more competitive by putting all drivers in identical cars and crews able to make limited alterations to the body. It has also caused a lot of confusion among drivers and crew chiefs.

Robby Gordon has appealed a penalty —100 points, a $100,000 fine and crew chief Frank Kerr's suspension for six races — for what officials said was an unapproved front bumper cover on his No. 7 Dodge during opening-day inspection for the Daytona 500. The loss of points dropped him from ninth overall to 40th.

Carl Edwards, a back-to-back winner in California and Las Vegas, was docked 100 points, which pushed him back from first to seventh in the overall standings, and his crew chief was barred from tracks for six weeks, because a lid to an oil reservoir was missing at the end of the Las Vegas race. The reasoning was the missing lid made his car more "aerodynamic," which gave him an edge over other drivers.

The new bodies are identical in design. They are longer and have more space in the cockpit for safety purposes. They have double frame rails on the left side for better protection in car-to-car accidents, and there is also more foam in the doors and larger windows for quicker escapes.

One common complaint that surfaced last year and continues to be heard deals not so much with the cars but with the Goodyear tires used by NASCAR.

Drivers last year at Las Vegas complained that between the newly resurfaced track and the harder tires, driving was hazardous. There were, in fact, a record number of caution flags flown after accidents at last year's race.

This year the track took few hits from drivers, but the tires continued to be a target. Several drivers complained the tires were too hard, which make them slippery in the turns, and that they lost traction when they were cold.

Two drivers — Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Stewart — blew right front tires and rammed into the wall during the race.

And how much "adjusting" did drivers require to get somewhat comfortable with the cars?

Roush said he was an early critic of the cars because he was late getting his drivers involved, "which was my fault."

He said he waited until NASCAR released the bodies, only to find out later that other teams had already had thousands of hours of practice time, "so we were behind and had to catch up ... and I think we're about caught up now," he said.

One thing is certain: The cars are here to stay and, as Earnhardt said, given time the drivers will adjust.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com