NASCAR’s Next Gen car has arrived. Now, how will it perform?
That’s the key question on the minds of many eager race fans following the conclusion of Wednesday’s (May 5) official car unveiling in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And for the series, it’s the most important question of all.
NASCAR has taken a deep plunge with the seventh-generation machines, which will replace the current Gen-6 models with the start of the 2022 season at Daytona International Speedway. The new car is notably different from prior generations, both in overall look and how it’s being pitched.
It comes at a time when the sport is in the midst of a much-needed transition. Gone are the familiar intermediate-heavy schedules of yesterday; replaced by a plethora of road courses and potential for both short tracks (Auto Club Speedway, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway) and even a possible street circuit (Chicago) in future years.
NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag and offered support for movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights through varying initiatives. The series has embraced esports, even having its Cup competitors contesting a 10-race eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series calendar this year — with the Next Gen cars showcased virtually just last night (May 5) in one of the iRacing events.
The sport is in the midst of a seeming cultural transition, but the racing has largely remained similar to the past two seasons. So it’s fitting that the Next Gen car is arriving right in the middle of the transition, helping to usher in a seeming new era with a new look on track and different mechanical principles off of it.
At its most basic, the concepts behind the Next Gen car have been crafted (or at least marketed) with an intent to make racing at NASCAR’s top level both more affordable and greater influenced by the driver behind the wheel. Theoretically gone are asymmetric cars that add sideforce or the uncapped spending of prior years.
With largely spec-tied cars and limits on the number of vehicles per team each year, NASCAR is attempting to control the massive current spending required to compete in Cup and make it more affordable, adding financial stability and opening up the door for new team owners while providing an easier sell to potential sponsors.
The lower spending, paired with more street-like vehicle designs — Wednesday’s launch was called a “Rebirth of Stock” — also carries potential incentive for new manufacturers to enter the sport, something NASCAR has been keen to make happen for years.
As for the racing itself, the cars are purported to add a greater emphasis on driver ability. There’s been talk of reduced downforce and sideforce, composite bodies that should allow for more contact without flat tires and race-ruining damage and lower profile 18” wheels that should allow for more mechanical grip.
Should all of this prove true, there’s potential for greater parity between competitors (funny to say when there’s been 10 winners in 11 races, but you know what I mean) and a chance for the sport’s best drivers to shine. That should come as a reprieve in the current era, where even the best drivers can sometimes find themselves mired deep in the field or unable to pass the leader due to dirty air.
“We really wanted to get back to a promise that we had made to the fans, which is to put the ‘stock’ back in stock car,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said at the reveal. “That was extremely important to us and our fans, but just as important to our fans is the racing on the race track.
“Simply put, this car will make our sport healthier and stronger. It’s an exciting day for our industry and our fans, and I’m proud of all the work that went into bringing us to today.”
NASCAR and the OEMs have shown and said a lot of the right things. But in nine months the time will come to prove them true. The actions that play out will need to mirror the optimistic words used to describe NASCAR’s next era on-track.
It may take a bit. These are new cars, after all — remember how rough 2013 was?
We’d also be foolish to expect outright parity. History shows that the best teams always find a way to gain an advantage.
But if NASCAR’s Next Gen car can truly deliver races that are a blast for both the drivers in the cockpit and the fans watching, then it’ll truly be a step in the right direction.