Each week, someone around here, usually Tom Bowles, writes a “Did You Notice?” piece that focuses on mentioning the trends that may or may not be claiming space in the NASCAR headlines. Consider this column an addendum, kind of.
Rather than be an analysis of a trend or whatever else the DYN writer might pull from the ether, this is an attempt to think about the sport as a whole. And in all of its massive complexity, there is one thing that can be easy stated – the times are a-changing.
This season is turning out to be an interesting case study in how a sport evolves in the modern age. It seems that each day has brought news that not only are day-to-day aspects changing, like silly season announcements to long-terms moves in ownership. The Next Gen car is a whole other monster that is set to grace the track next year and one that is undergoing interweb scrutiny.
Let’s touch upon the trifecta of big things that will re-shape the sport for the next few years.
One of the noticeable shifts that has changed the product more quickly than anyone might have considered has been the reshaping of the schedule. In a recent article for The Athletic, Jeff Gluck mentioned how the number of road courses the series visited jumped from two in 2017 to seven in 2021.
That is a massive shift. Regardless of whether or not drivers are visiting an existing venue or hitting new tracks – like Road America and Circuit of the Americas – road courses now amount to nearly one-fourth of the schedule.
One could argue that the series is now more creative in its scheduling than it ever has been since 1972, when RJ Reynolds and Winston shaped the season into something resembling modern seasons. The variance of tracks has been a boon and perhaps one of the factors leading to a surprising 14 different winners in 22 races.
While the inclusion of road courses has come with a warm reception, it comes with a peculiar jump. For years, fans and drivers have pushed for more short tracks but at some point, road courses became the new short track.
But Atlanta Motor Speedway missed a golden opportunity. Rather than tearing the place apart to build a new short track, like what Auto Club Speedway is doing, it went in another direction.
In the Athletic article, Kyle Larson lamented this fact, saying “I would love to see one of these places totally change what they’ve got, like Fontana is (doing). Short tracks are exciting. Fireworks, drivers mad at each other — and that’s what they’re trying to accomplish with [the Atlanta speedway-style redesign]. I don’t think it’s really going to get what they’re shooting for.”
Bristol Motor Speedway used to be a premier event but made one of its races a dirt spectacle to attract fans and that says a lot for how badly a track reconfiguration can go. With that being posited, the argument can be made that Bristol still provides more interesting events than, say, a race at Texas Motor Speedway (no wonder the track is switching one of its dates to a road course layout).
Adjusting what had been a stale schedule has been one of the wonderful developments in the sport and much-needed. The question that arises is whether NASCAR will encourage the same flexibility in the schedule in future years. Fingers crossed.
For years – really – Bowles has brought up ownership as a key concern for NASCAR. Something about barriers to the sport being too much and the sport has not encouraged young owners and blah blah blah. He has not been wrong but rather he needs to find another hill to die on because that one is over.
Jeff Gordon will be taking over at Hendrick one day, having ascended to second-in-command. Brad Keselowski is now an owner/driver at Roush Fenway Racing. Or is it Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing now? Then there’s Pitbull and Justin Marks taking over the Chip Ganassi Racing operation in an announcement that came out of the blue. And, of course, Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin teamed up to grab a stake in the sport with 23XI Racing.
In just a year, the shift in ownership dynamics has been startling as much as it has been encouraging. Should Dale Earnhardt Jr. make the jump at some point soon, the ownership group will have a tremendously different look than it did not long ago, and there is reason to think that these new voices will steer the sport in new ways.
Jalopnik put together a solid article that examined how the Next Gen car is being received and perceived. A couple weeks ago, it seemed as though the car had become a total failure, that the wheels would fall off, it would go airborne once hitting 65mph and that it was made of balsa wood.
Any or all of that may or may not be true.
The biggest fear came from the fact that the composite body might be too brittle. Such consternation led to a weird game of NASCAR memos and Twitter mentions that turned out to be a bad version of passing secrets down the line.
It turns out that the tests have come back in line with expectations and teams began receiving the new chassis this week.
The new car is one of the most exciting parts of the sport. It may turn out to be a disaster, but it is also an attempt to bring the on-track vehicle more allegiance with what is available.
That the current Cup cars are so outdated is confusing. Bringing in fuel injection 20 years after it was standard with road vehicles was comical. But having a digital dash yet still running motors and suspensions that have long been out of date becomes confounding.
While the engine is still not changing (though rumors of hybrid engines coming along in a few years are circulating), there are a number of positive reworkings. The change in the wheels, from 15-inch to 18-inch is a big cosmetic alteration. The change in the transmission from 4-speed to 5-speed ekes closer to passenger vehicles that now frequently have eight gears.
It is easy to criticize any changes to the car, and it is easy to remember how Kyle Busch felt about the reconfiguration of a Cup car in 2007. There are sure to be growing pains with the new car but that is part of the reason to watch. As teams begin to figure it out and the drivers become more acclimated, the new car should be a move in a positive direction.