A bump, but no run for Gordon

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2007

By Staff
By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE — Two races featuring the new Car of Tomorrow — two thrilling drag races to the finish line.
Both finishes, however, came at the expense of the rough-and-tumble short-track racing that fans desire, leaving many to wonder if this new NASCAR-designed car might have inadvertently robbed drivers of the ability to pull off the beloved bump-and-run pass.
That or Jeff Gordon has gone soft.
Gordon certainly will receive his share of the criticism, particularly after he failed to move teammate Jimmie Johnson out of his way in the closing laps of Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon tried lap after lap, finally pushing Johnson slightly aside when the checkered flag was in sight.
But Gordon couldn’t get past his door as Johnson beat him to the finish line for his third victory in six races.
Gordon, meanwhile, settled for his third second-place finish this year.
That’s not the Jeff Gordon of old, a driver who used his share of bump-and-runs to rack up four championships and 75 victories.
So why didn’t Gordon just bash Johnson out of his way and scoot on by for the victory?
The short answer is he tried, hitting Johnson over and over in the final few laps.
When they all failed to move Johnson enough, Gordon knew he was in trouble.
But Johnson wasn’t convinced Gordon could have done any more.
The long answer is the Car of Tomorrow hindered Gordon’s ability to execute a maneuver that had rarely — if ever — failed him before. See last July in Chicago, when he bumped Matt Kenseth out of the way. Or in 1997 and again in 2002 when he used the move on Rusty Wallace at Bristol.
The difference now is in the design of the COT, which debuted two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway. The rear bumpers on the new cars have been lowered, while the front bumper has been raised. When a trailing car hits a car in the back now, the contact is square, and the leading car isn’t lifted off the track.
That’s going to take some getting used to by everyone, including Gordon, who learned the dreaded ‘‘aero push’’ might have returned with the COT.
That term is a dirty word in NASCAR, where drivers spent the better part of the past five years complaining that it ruined the races. An effect of a lack of downforce on the front of the car, the aero push guides it to the wall and spoils handling — particularly in traffic.
The COT was supposed to eliminate the aero push via its adjustable front-end splitter and rear wing, both designed to better control the air flow between cars.
But drivers have struggled with handling in the first two COT events.
There’s plenty of time for that, as the COT will be raced in 14 more events. NASCAR’s watching how it reacts in different situations and won’t shy from making necessary adjustments.
The sanctioning body changed height and weight requirements following the first race. After foam padding in Kevin Harvick’s car melted Sunday, NASCAR plans to mandate use of a steel plate to protect the foam from heat exposure.
The carbon monoxide leaks that plagued the Bristol race were fixed when NASCAR advised teams to use sturdier — and heavier — materials in their exhaust systems.
So expect more adjustments as the season progresses. Some might help and some might hurt. Some might even bring the bump-and-run back into play.