NASCAR: The Evolution of the Sport (2006-Present)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2010

In 2006, the International Speedway Corporation announced that the NASCAR Hall of Fame would be built in Charlotte, N.C.

They also began introducing their "Car of Tomorrow" project to the public, which was designed to gradually move NASCAR races toward better safety and cost reduction. The new cars were to be fully phased in to all NASCAR events in 2009.

On the track for 2006, Jimmie Johnson, who had driven well since his first season in 2002, finally put it all together, coming away as the 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion. He has yet to relinquish his crown, winning an unprecedented four championships in a row.

However, Johnson’s reign has not come without controversy.  In 2006, he won the Daytona 500 despite his crew chief, Chad Knaus, being suspended for a rear-window violation.

This would lead to several allegations that Knaus and the No. 48 team were using some overly creative tactics to bend the NASCAR rulebook in their favor.  Sour grapes aside, the Lowes No. 48 Chevrolet continued to rack up victories, launching Johnson and Knaus into legendary status.

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup driver Bobby Hamilton announced he had been diagnosed with cancer, causing him to bow out of the 2006 season. The 2004 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion would lose his battle with the disease on Jan 7, 2007, at age 49.

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2006 also saw NASCAR trying to address issues regarding diversity, as Bill Lester became the first African American to start a race at NASCAR's top level since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986. Lester qualified for the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and finished 38th.

Any headway made by NASCAR was negated in 2008, when NASCAR’s only black female official, Mauricia Grant, charged NASCAR with racial and sexual harassment.

Grant, who worked as a “technical inspector” on NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series, alleged that she was called a series of degrading names (such as “Nappy Headed Mo,” “Queen Sheba,” and “Simpleton”) and subjected to racist stereotypes, such as being told she worked “on Colored People Time” if she arrived late.

2006 also started the era of a more iron-fisted approach by NASCAR in controlling its drivers. Tony Stewart made a comment, before the Daytona 500, that bump drafting could cause someone to get hurt, then pushed No. 17 Kenseth off the backstretch on lap 107.

Stewart was sent to the back of the longest line on the restart from the yellow flag. When Kenseth pulled beside Stewart to show his displeasure, NASCAR made him pass through pit road under green and added a lap penalty when he failed to respond in a timely manner.

Kenseth finished 15th, and Stewart placed fifth.

Mark Martin's start in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway marked his final race in a 19-year run with Jack Roush. Martin posted 35 NASCAR Nextel Cup wins before calling it a career.

The 47-year-old Martin went on to run a limited schedule for owner Bobby Ginn in 2007, before eventually coming back to run full time for Rick Hendrick, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2009.

On March 25, 2007, the CoT debuted in its first NASCAR-sanctioned race. Kyle Busch won the race, the first win by a Chevrolet Impala since 1963.

Reactions to the CoT's performance were mixed. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., after finishing seventh, said, "It wasn't a disaster like everybody anticipated. It worked out, I reckon. Racing was about the same."

Drivers were also impressed with the car's ability to bump other competitors without causing a spin (bumper heights were equalized due to street car development, and nose-to-rear bumper contact caused spins that pre-1988 cars would not cause), and NASCAR officials were pleased with the improvements in safety 

Several drivers and pundits expressed distaste for the car and what they perceived as a less exciting style of racing created by it. Kyle Busch, despite winning at Bristol, commented that "they suck" during his victory lane interview 

Retired driver and TV analyst Rusty Wallace stated on ESPN that the car created a boring, single-file racing environment with little of the passing, action, or crashing that has made NASCAR popular. Although, after NASCAR announced the COT would run the full schedule, he stated that it was "one of the best decisions NASCAR had ever made." 

Drivers who placed well at Bristol, Jlike eff Gordon and Jeff Burton, claimed that the car allowed the use of a second passing lane not usually present at Bristol.  For the most part, however, the racing was strung out and single-file with drivers tentative in trying to make passes. 

On April 4th, 2008, while in a qualifying run for the 2008 Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Michael McDowell struck the wall outside of Turn 1 at 190 MPH, and proceeded to barrel-roll eight times as fire came from the engine compartment. 

McDowell emerged from the Toyota unharmed.

The car was praised for its safety as impact of the crash was about 30 miles an hour more than Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident, but similar hits with the old car (such as Todd Bodine at Talladega in 1996) had produced identical effectiveness in safety, and safety features considered exclusive to the CoT could be implemented on the current stock car.

In the 2008 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the longest run under green flag conditions was 12 laps due to extreme wear of right-side tires, especially the right rear. The Car of Tomorrow, in its first use at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, created no improvement of the conditions on the track, which is well known for its rough surface 

The lack of downforce on the car and its higher center of gravity created conditions that made it very hard on the right side tires. During the race, the tires used on the cars generally lasted no more than 10 laps at a time.

On April 26th, 2009, during the climax of the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega, Carl Edwards swerved into the path of Brad Keselowski; Keselowski blasted Edwards into the air, was hit by Ryan Newman, and flipped into the trioval fencing, destroying most of the car.

Edwards was uninjured, and in an absurd homage to the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby he ran across the start finish line on foot to finish the race [officially, he completed 187 of 188 laps]. 

The crash appeared similar to the accident Bobby Allison had in 1987 where his car became airborne and hit the catchfence in a similar location. Allison's crash tore down the mesh and support poles in the catchfence, while Edwards' crash only bent the support poles, this was because Edwards' car was nearly 20 MPH slower than Allison's (195 MPH versus the 215 of Allison). Seven spectators were injured in Edwards' accident by debris.

The aftermath of the accident spawned questions about the aerodynamic features of the CoT, the nature of pack racing with restrictor plates, and the safety features of Talladega Superspeedway.

Video replay revealed that after the spin, the car's aerodynamic devices deployed once the car became airborne, but they did not stop the car from flipping—a common failing of the sport's roof flaps, and the second hit from Newman caused the car to accelerate while still airborne.