Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Is NASCAR Having a Next Gen Short Track Crisis?

1. Is it too soon to panic about the Next Gen car ruining short track racing?

Houston, we have a problem. Or rather, Martinsville, we have a problem.

As NASCAR has shuffled around its schedule the past few years, a common refrain among fans was that more short track races would be a good thing. Less intermediates, more short tracks (and OK, a few more road courses would be fine too). But that sentiment assumed that the racing would be as compelling as it was in the past with the new Next Gen car, and so far, that hasn’t been the case.

Richmond was so-so at best. Surely, Martinsville would be fine. Martinsville is almost always good, right?

Not this time. The Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 featured no cautions for on-track incidents, and even more damning, zero on-track passes for the lead. Read that again and then remember this was not a generic 1.5-mile track, but Martinsville. “Half Mile Of Mayhem”? Hardly.

NASCAR fans felt some type of way about it too.

In the aftermath, Cup Series drivers have offered a number of explanations, one of which, the cold weather this past weekend, can’t be helped. Others, however, included the wider tires and bigger brakes carried by Next Gen cars.

NASCAR will undoubtedly be working overtime to make adjustments. There’s also a risk of overreacting based on such a small sample size, especially since the Cup Series hasn’t even visited all the short tracks yet — and won’t for a while, really, since the upcoming Bristol race is on dirt.

On the other hand, the stakes are extremely high. Not only is there the backlash inherent with a stinker at one of the sport’s most beloved tracks, there’s also the not insignificant fact that the second Martinsville event is in one of the most important spots on the schedule: the cutoff race for the Championship 4. Zero passes for the lead with title spots at stake isn’t going to cut it.

Plus, if you could jump back in time from the end of the season with a Next Gen report and told the present you that the car made racing more exciting at intermediate tracks but at the cost of turning all the short track races into snoozefests, would you accept that as the price of progress?

The guess here is that most NASCAR fans would not.

2. Will any of the Toyotas end up as championship contenders?

In a season of massive change, there were always going to be some teams that adapted better than others. Hendrick Motorsports is just fine, thanks, having won half the races so far and boasting both the first driver to multiple wins and another leading the points despite no wins — though you’d be forgiven if you would have thought William Byron and Chase Elliott might be in the opposite parts of that formula.

Fellow Chevrolet team Trackhouse Racing has turned heads, propelled by Ross Chastain doing the things his fans always said he could do if given better equipment. The Ford camp has started a little slower but is still in great shape, with first-time wins by Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe plus the continued ascension of Ryan Blaney, who has done everything but win.

Then there are the Toyota teams, small in number but usually mighty. That hasn’t been the case so far in 2022, with the only victory coming from Denny Hamlin, who has struggled more than expected to the tune of three DNFs and 21st places in points after eight races. He’s not having any more fun as a car owner, calling the struggles of 23XI Racing “not acceptable” after his cars’ poor short track performances.

Yes, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have usually been in the top 10, but they aren’t living up to their own high standards so far. To put it in more perspective, the six Toyotas have combined for only seven top-five results to date, while Chastain has five all by himself.

Believe it or not, the 2022 regular season will be slightly more than a third of the way over after Bristol, so it’s not too early to wonder which of the Toyota drivers might round into something approximating contender form by the fall. Hamlin seems like the best bet given he’s already won, and smart money says either Truex or Busch will figure things out. But possibly not both of them, and the way things look right now, it would be shocking if the Championship 4 had more than one Toyota in it — and not that surprising if it had none at all.

3. Will Darrell Waltrip’s return to the announcing booth be a case of absence making the heart grow fonder?

For those of us who only became NASCAR fans in the early 2000s, Darrell Waltrip was synonymous with televised race coverage. Yet the impression was that the three-time Cup Series champion had worn out his welcome by the time he walked away from announcing at the end of the 2019 season, possibly because he had gradually turned into something of a caricature of himself.

But the return of “boogity, boogity, boogity” is right around the corner, as Waltrip is returning to the FOX booth this weekend, filling the rotating third spot for the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol alongside Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer. As you can imagine, he’s pretty stoked about it.

“When FOX first asked me, I was super excited because Bristol is, by far, my favorite track,” Waltrip said. “If I could pick just one race to call, it would be Bristol.”

It really does seem like a great fit, and even those who tired of Waltrip should be happy to have him back for one week. Maybe less of DW can be more.

See also
Ty Gibbs & Sam Mayer Fight After Xfinity Series Race at Martinsville

4. Is it weird that Ty Gibbs is poised to be the sport’s next big heel?

Joe Gibbs is a revered figure in the NASCAR garage, not likely to draw many boos from crowds at the track. That makes it more than a little strange that his grandson, Ty Gibbs, is on a trajectory to hear more than his share as he keeps climbing the ranks.

It’s been an eventful first full-time season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Ty Gibbs, who has already claimed three victories but earned a lot more attention for his dustups with fellow competitors. His Richmond-winning move involved shoving John Hunter Nemechek out of the way and had the stock car racing world talking.

At Martinsville, Ty Gibbs got noticed a lot more, as in the “top stories on ESPN.com” manner, thanks to throwing hands with Sam Mayer after the race.

You certainly can’t question Ty Gibbs’ talent or passion, but it will be interesting to watch how he handles the villain role when he inevitably joins Joe Gibbs Racing in a year or two. Then again, the Coach has employed the top heel in NASCAR for years in Kyle Busch, so it’s not like he doesn’t have any experience with one of his drivers playing that part.

5. Will the second Dirt Race at Bristol be better than the first?

Last year’s inaugural Dirt Race at Bristol was a fun experiment, something that was worth trying just to switch things up and an impressive feat of logistics and engineering. The race itself left something to be desired, somehow feeling less than both a regular Bristol race and a really good dirt race at the same time.

The introduction of the Next Gen car complicates an apples to apples comparison in 2022, but the good news is that it’s a fairly low bar to clear and the aforementioned short track struggles of the new vehicles shouldn’t mean anything come Sunday. Here’s hoping the race this Easter is one of those sequels that outshines the original.

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Bob

Not looking forward to dirt at Bristol and certainly not looking to see 2 comedians in the booth for what is supposed to b a race so will kick back in my recliner and take a nap and check with couch potato Tuesday for low lights of the race

Charlie

First, the new car is still in early development stage. Patience. It will take up to a season to get enough data to figure out what they need. This is a major change. My opinion only is long-term, I truly believe all racing will benefit from it.
You need to understand the culture at Toyota. They are not sprinters, they are marathoners. Unless the big NASCAR thumb appears, a Toyota will win the championship. I believe they have been silent until after Charlotte in the spring before and won it. Now, that big thumb and a couple Corvettes given strategically to a France here or there could change it.
Please, no Dumb (As Darrell and Michael, Dumb and Dumber). Please go away.
The dirt race is not my thing, but I understand to others it is. The sport is a big tent. I hope those dirt fans have a whale of a race. I’ll be motorcycle riding or asleep.

Lets be patient with the new car.

DoninAjax

Brian got a Lexus!

David J Klopotoski

It just occurred to me that NASCAR has gone to a 670 hp package at all tracks this year. Last year they were doing 750 hp at the shorter tracks. I know that NASCAR and the manufacturers are interested in lower horsepower (for some reason) but maybe the short tracks just race way better with more. If I’m right then this year will be tough for all the tracks 1-mile or shorter that were running more hp last year

CeeGee

Richmond was what it pretty much has been in recent years.This year had more green flag passes & less lead changes, but overall a similar style race. It is a big overreaction to suggest that one stinker on a ice cold track that wasn’t taking rubber means a car problem. Maybe it does, but maybe it was the tire compound, or the gear ratio, or just plain cold, or all three? It’s easy to forget that we had years in the prior gen car. It wasn’t the same car at the end of its reign as it was in the beginning. But asking the question now? Really? It’s kind of like gauging the success or failure of Bristol dirt after one race that was postponed with significant local flooding, including 4 feet deep of water in the parking lot the day before, & the track prep people not able to get in till the morning of the race.

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