Did You Notice? … The NASCAR Next Gen car was revealed last week? Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s go back and take a look at the changes in store for stock car racing in 2022.
Of course, hype from all around the industry is that this car, over two years in the making, is the best piece of racing machinery ever created. But praise seems to settle on three main themes NASCAR will immediately be judged on.
1) This car creates better racing and will encourage drivers to get aggressive.
Even casual fans understand the level to which aerodynamics and engineering have taken over NASCAR. We’ve seen it countless times over the past few years; light contact between two cars immediately cuts down a tire and forces a visit to pit road. A car scrapes the outside wall and, suddenly, pieces come off and debris forces a caution flag.
It’s to the point contact is detrimental even at short tracks like Richmond Raceway, turning races into a multi-groove circular highway. Multiple lanes between every car? At 3/4-mile tracks? That’s not what fans tune in for. NASCAR understands contact while fighting for position is a healthy part of the sport and have staked their reputations on the strength of these Next Gen composite bodies.
“NASCAR is all about beating and banging on the racetrack,” said NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell. “Less chance for that cut tire that you see under our current design.”
“Rubbing is racing,” added NASCAR SVP of Racing Innovation John Probst. “So there will be less of a chance — I’m not saying there won’t be any chance – our drivers can find ways to hit the wall – I think you’ll see when they do that now, there will be less consequence.”
A move to a wider wheel (from 15 to 18 inches in diameter) also allows for a softer tire compound. Goodyear has supposedly developed compounds that will give drivers better grip, have more falloff in speed over the course of a run and reduce dependence on aerodynamics. Only one lug nut instead of five will have those tires looking different, too.
It all adds up to an important sales pitch: no more follow-the-leader after a few hard-fought laps on restarts at intermediate tracks. No more races like Kansas Speedway last fall where a much faster Kevin Harvick sat helpless behind Joey Logano in the closing laps due to aerodynamics. The goal of this car is to put more control in the driver’s hands, period.
“I think the racing is going to be better,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps. “I think you look at the aero in particular and the wake or the dirty air that comes from the existing car, the ability to reduce that, which this car does … and then the bigger tire patch and the wider tires with a softer compound I think will, again, create what I already believe is the best racing we’ve already had and will create even better racing.”
Those lofty words need to be backed up by reality in 2022.
2) These cars look and are built like their counterparts on the street.
Brand identification used to be an important part of NASCAR fandom. That disappeared with the sport’s Car of Tomorrow in the late 2000s, alien-like additions of Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota that left the manufacturers barely identifiable.
NASCAR’s goal with the Next Gen car is to bring that brand allegiance back. Here’s photos of each Next Gen chassis next to a stock photo of the 2021 model of that same car.
Next Gen Ford Mustang
Next Gen Chevy Camaro ZL1
Next Gen Toyota Camry
Judge for yourself, but in my view, these Next Gen models are closer to their street counterparts than they’ve been in 25 years. The insides are a much better match, too, from subtle changes like a fifth gear to talk of a potential switch to hybrid engines down the road.
“The new architecture moving it forward, making it more modern,” said Global Director of Ford Performance Mark Rushbrook, “The independent rear suspension, the steering system, the driveline, the opportunity for power train advancements as our world changes for future power trains. That’s all built into this.”
“The lower greenhouse, the deck lid size really matches up well to the production car,” added Director of NASCAR Programs for GM Eric Warren. “That and the independent rear suspension were the two big things.”
There’s also financial incentive for manufacturers to modernize. The upside of fans supporting a manufacturer along with their driver is they’re more likely to drive that car on the street. Harvick’s driving a sweet-looking Mustang? It’s the next level of sponsor support that helps justify the multi-million dollar spend on racing.
“When I look at this race car,” Phelps said, “It looks exactly like the race car that I can potentially buy on Monday. Obviously, the win on Sunday portion is important, so getting in victory lane for these guys is important for Chevy, Toyota and Ford, but I think absolutely getting back to our roots, getting back to kind of putting the stock back in stock car will help sell vehicles on Monday.”
That type of connection is important for NASCAR to attract additional manufacturers into the sport. They appear to have done that while modernizing the technology around these cars. We’ll see.
3) These cars will cost less money over the long term, plus they’re built from scratch so it’s easier for new owners to come in and compete.
Denny Hamlin, as part of introducing Toyota in the Next Gen press conference, admitted that’s why part of 23XI Racing came together.
“It’s an attractive time to come into the sport…” he said. “We have a reset in technology and resources that are going to be going into this car. We’re not at a 20- to 30-year disadvantage by coming into the sport. We’ll all be developing it at the same time in its early existence.”
That might be more attractive for new ownership, like Michael Jordan, when the barrier of entry is high. 15 of the top 16 playoff positions are currently held by multi-car teams; no first-year owner in any of the top three NASCAR series would make the postseason if the year ended today.
Will the cost to entry go down? Composite bodies will help. The problem is that everyone will be buying the same stuff from scratch, which would at least put new ownership on the same level instead of having to defer to superteams like Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports for chassis assistance.
“I think the simple answer is that generally you’re having less parts and pieces you’re going to be developing,” Hamlin added. “Will you need to staff as many people as what you have currently? I don’t know that’s the case.”
That’s a tough answer for some NASCAR employees to hear, especially with four-car programs like Hendrick or Gibbs that employ hundreds of people. But smaller, leaner teams could increase the numbers that attempt to make the field each week. No one says the grid has to be permanently limited to 40. It used to be as large as 43 and there’s room within the top three divisions for growth.
Of course, new ownership won’t stick around if they don’t experience success. How can NASCAR encourage more hands in the pot, evening out competition while four-car teams threaten to take up 25 percent of playoff bids every year? It’s a challenge that won’t disappear with the Next Gen.
There’s still plenty more questions than answers as we await a test with multiple cars on the track. That’s expected by late summer with a number of tests between now and the 2022 season. But fan feedback, even now, will be crucial as the sport looks to redefine the way it does business over the coming decade.
“Ultimately the fans are going to judge this,” said O’Donnell. “If the fans like what they see, we’ll continue to do more of that.”
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- The Nashville Fairgrounds isn’t back yet, but after a contentious Fair Board meeting, it appears according to Autoweek’s Matt Weaver they’ll allow Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to purchase the track. If it happens, that means it’s only a matter of time before proper renovations bring NASCAR back to downtown Nashville.
- Erik Darnell, a former Roush Fenway Racing prospect, ran his first NASCAR race in nine years at Darlington Raceway in the Camping World Truck Series. He was 17th for Niece Motorsports, who has now run the following drivers since the start of 2020: former Truck champion James Buescher, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and X Games gold medalist Travis Pastrana. It’s a Who’s Who of drivers who fell off the radar screen in NASCAR, but can Niece ever offer one of them a full-time ride? The driver merry-go-round is great publicity but horrible consistency for a program searching for its footing after Brett Moffitt chose to focus on the Xfinity Series.
- To put a point on NASCAR Throwback weekend, a Darlington race that had only four drivers finish within a half-lap of the leader produced the largest stock car audience for FOX Sports 1 since 2017. I’d expect two dates at this iconic track are here to stay.