Although there are far more changes coming in NASCAR's top series in 2007 than in most seasons, the one that has everybody guessing the most is the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow.
Ask any of the usual championship contenders how confident they are about being in the thick of the title battle during the upcoming season and, invariably, they say something like: "Well, that's going to depend on just how good we are with that Car of Tomorrow."
The new car _ intended by NASCAR to be safer, more racy, easier to pass through technical inspections and, eventually, more affordable _ will be phased in over three seasons, with the first 16 races part of this year's 36-race schedule.
"The big unknown for all of us right now is the Car of Tomorrow," said Roush Racing's Greg Biffle. "We're going to run it 16 races and I can't tell you whether I'm going to run 40th or just kick their butts. I don't have any idea.
"I don't even have a guess. I could get a coin out of my pocket and flip it, because that's seriously how unknown that area is for us right now. But it's like that for a lot of teams. Some teams feel good about it and some are really worried."
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is one of several drivers who have been openly critical of the new cars. On his radio show on Tuesday on the SIRIUS Satellite Network, Stewart said he finally drove one of the COTs at Lakeland, Florida and was far from impressed.
"Oh, what a basket of junk," Stewart said.
"It drives like a station wagon, an old station wagon, like an old Oldsmobile station wagon, green with wood panel trim on the sides," he added. "Granted, I know we were on harder tires than what they would run there but, boy, it didn't feel good.
"You know, it's like anything else, though. I'm sure the more we'll run it, the better we'll get the setups and all that."
NASCAR currently is certifying the chassis for the new cars and many Cup teams haven't even started to put the bodies on most of their COTs. That means there are still plenty of unknowns remaining.
"One thing I think we'll see this year, like it was years ago, I think we'll see a bigger discrepancy in competition at the git-go of these COT races," Biffle noted. "You may see a car a lap or two down, or you may see a car lap the field. I think somebody's going to hit on something that really, really works."
RACING TO WIN: NASCAR chairman Brian France said changes to the points system and the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship announced this week are intended to put more emphasis on winning races.
First, winning drivers will earn an extra five points for each victory.
Then, going into the 10-race Chase at the end of the season, the 12 drivers now eligible _ up from 10 _ will be seeded by virtue of victories. All of the qualifiers will have their points reset to 5,000, then an extra 10 points will be added for each victory during the first 26 events.
But longtime Cup star Jeff Burton doesn't accept the premise that being rewarded more for wins will change the way drivers race.
"There's this great misconception amongst media and some fans that we go into races planning on finishing eighth, that we go into races knowing we're racing for points so we can't race hard to win the race. Nothing could be further from the truth," Burton said.
The driver for Richard Childress Racing said there comes a point in every race where drivers have to decide if they can win or finish 10th or finish 20th.
"We go into every race with the priority of winning the race," he explained. "But you can't win every race. If you can't win, finishing second is better than finishing third and finishing 10th is better than finishing 20th.
"If our series decided to pay a million dollars for every race you win and they were going to give you 300 points for winning the race and everybody else gets 25 points and $25,000, well you'd see a hell of a race. Everybody would be going for THE win.
"But that's not what our sport does. We have 43 teams and there's a great contrast between 43 teams playing on a field and two. When there's two, there's a winner and a loser and it's very clear cut. When it's 43, there's a winner and a guy who almost won and guy that came a little bit closer to winning. And you get to the point where there are losers. Forty-third is the loser, I'm sorry. And 42nd was really close to being the biggest loser."
The bottom line: "If you have a chance to win the race, you're going for it," Burton said.
MAJOR MOVE: Team owner Chip Ganassi is thrilled to be fielding stock cars for former Indy car and Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya. But Ganassi is aware of how big a gamble it is for both driver and owner.
"It's a tall order," Ganassi said. "This isn't Saturday night racing and it isn't Thursday Night Thunder on some short track. This is the top of the sport. There's no place up from here but out."
Asked if he considers it a gamble, Ganassi replied: "I'll let you know a year from now."