CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There's a comfort level behind the wheel of your own car, a familiarity that sometimes makes it easier to break the speed limit, blow through a red light or cut off another driver.
That feeling often disappears in a borrowed car. It takes time to adjust to the vehicle, so the driver is a bit more cautious.
Maybe that's how the top talent in NASCAR felt Sunday when the Car of Tomorrow debuted at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The car was big and boxy, some might even say ugly. It looked different from their normal cars and felt nothing like what they were used to. And it turned what's normally a rough-and-tumble race into a rather ho-hum affair.
"I can't stand to drive them," race-winner Kyle Busch said after beating Jeff Burton in a last-lap sprint to the finish line. "I didn't see any highlights out there."
"The car was terrible," he added. "It's hard to set up and it's hard to drive. I don't remember anyone complaining about the old ones. I told my team before the race that I hoped I could win it so that I could tell everybody how bad it is."
There was initial skepticism when NASCAR chose Bristol as the first venue for the CoT. Because the 0.533-mile oval is so tight, the beating and banging typically begins the moment the green flag flies.
Because teams worried the CoT would fall apart on impact, everyone believed the track would be littered with splitters and rear wings.
But as NASCAR closed in on the debut, Bristol actually began to make sense. Since the track routinely produces such thrilling racing, would anyone even notice the CoT was out there?
Initially, no. When the race began, everything appeared rather ordinary.
Then Tony Stewart humiliated the field, opening an insurmountable four-second lead as he dominated the first half of the race.
Big, bad Bristol suddenly became a snooze-fest.
There was no swapping of sheet metal, no bump-and-runs and very little banging. Of the 15 cautions, only three were for multicar accidents.
Even Mark Martin, who ended his streak of 621 straight races to watch Bristol from his living room, noticed how calm things were. "I thought the CoT handled poorly enough that the guys actually didn't run over each other because they didn't have good control of their car," Martin said. "It was a cleaner race than what we normally see because the cars were so hard to control, they weren't able to get in there and mix it up. "It's hard for me to understand how they are ever going to get this car to race well consistently." Opinions differed across the garage.
"I may be wrong," Burton said, "but from my point of view, it seemed like just another race at Bristol."
And noted CoT critic Jeff Gordon had softened his stance after a third-place finish.
"There were positives," he said. "We made passes on the outside I was surprised by. I'm still not crazy about this thing, but it's growing on me."
But Gordon also explained that his main beef with the CoT is that it's different from what he's used to. Chevrolet rolled out an Impala SS for the CoT, which will be phased into competition over the next year, and Gordon prefers his old Monte Carlo.
"The current car drives better, it's got more downforce, it's got more grip, it has better feel," he said. "So if you compare (the CoT) to that car, you're not going to like it.
"But if NASCAR sees the results that they want to see on the racetrack, then we need to get rid of the Monte Carlo and just go to this thing because you're never going to like it compared to the car that we have."
NASCAR seemed pleased after the race. Competition director Robin Pemberton praised the way the CoT held up in accidents and helped midlevel teams compete.
"Probably 99 percent of the time, you have really good races here. From the tower, I thought it was a good race," he said. "We had a couple of hard impacts, and the car did what it was supposed to do and absorbed energy."
The CoT now goes to Martinsville Speedway, another short track that will make it difficult to determine the car's impact. So it will take at least another month, when the car goes to Phoenix and Darlington Raceway, to understand this new era of NASCAR.
Until then, everyone will just have to try his best to get comfortable with the new car.
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