NASCAR’s continuing education with the Next Gen car was back in session Monday with two apt pupils (and former Cup Series champions) behind the wheel for a test on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
Kurt Busch drove a car prepared by Richard Childress Racing/NASCAR with an ECR Chevrolet engine and said driving the new model was “like the first day of school.
“There’s so much to look at and digest and feel,” Busch said during a late afternoon break from the opener of a two-day session. “It’s been an impressive pickup of speed vs. the traditional car. That says Next Gen all over it when you’re going faster, turning better, accelerating harder and braking faster, because faster is better.”
Martin Truex Jr., who was in a Ford-powered car built and prepared by the Action Express team from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, was in a race car with independent rear suspension for the first time. While it mostly drove similarly to his No. 19 Toyota, Truex said the “souped-up model of a Cup car” that “definitely was a huge learning curve with bigger brakes and wheels and a sequential gear-shifter replacing the traditional H pattern).
“There are so many differences about the way these cars are built from our style of racing or racing stock cars in general,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “It’s going to be a huge learning curve for everyone, but when the car is balanced well, it feels really, really similar to what we have now. That’s a good thing. This is a slow road course. To see how it feels on the fast oval Wednesday will be a real eye-opener.”
According to auto racing journalist and sports car mechanic Bozi Tatarevic, the Next Gen cars were lapping Monday in the 84-second range, which is comparable to race pace from the Oct. 11 race (and a few seconds off the top practice and qualifying speeds with more downforce in the 2019 race) on the 17-turn, 2.32-mile course road course.
Busch said the cars were running somewhere between the 550 and 750 horsepower configurations used in Cup.
We ended 3 seconds quicker than the Roval playoff race. Car is more efficient everywhere. Braking, cornering speed and acceleration. Even at 100 hp less than the race. So 650hp. Fun to drive the sequential gearbox.
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) November 17, 2020
Busch and Truex will test on the track’s 1.5-mile oval Wednesday and run side by side to get a feel for how they handle in traffic.
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) November 16, 2020
Here’s a rundown of what they learned about the new car, which will make its Cup debut with the 2022 season:
—Tires: With larger 18-inch wheels and single lug nuts, the tires already are visually different. But Truex said the larger contact patch and stiffer suspension also are helping keep tire temperatures much lower, which should allow for tires with better wear.
“I’m able to feel we can make the tires softer already,” he said. “With the same car weight and more tire surface area, you can go softer on the compound. That’ll help out, especially on the ovals.
“What we all like about ovals is degradation and falloff. The newer paved tracks have been a challenge because the tires overheat so bad. Typically, the tires have to be so hard for a big track like this, the infield is like ice. Today, the infield is feeling better with more grip. It’s made this track more fun to drive and slip and slide the car more.”
—Gearing: The sequential shifter was described by Truex as “a lot easier, more efficient and effective. You lift off the throttle less to shift, and we have more gears and more options. If you get bogged down going through the infield, you can jump down a gear and grab the throttle. It’s really good for road course. It’s like a real car with paddle shifters, you barely have to blip the throttle to pull the thing in gear. It’s neat.”
Busch compared it with a motorcycle gear shift and said many drivers were familiar with the adjustment from racing Legends cars.
—Suspension: Busch said drivers will have to learn how to help the team tune a car with larger brakes and a raft of new independent rear suspension lingo that no longer will include track bar and wedge. But the fresh vernacular related is worth the tradeoff.
“It accelerates quicker, stops quicker, turns quicker,” Busch said. “It’s more nimble. All the lap time is gained in the infield with the independent rear suspension and the ability to shift quicker. The car is more effective and sensitive to changes and feel. You feel everything more vividly.”
—Steering: Busch and Truex said they didn’t notice the complaints the steering was “soft and twitchy” during previous tests.
“I feel pretty confident with it,” Truex said, though he noted that sometimes the steering “locks up, and car bottoms out on the oval. Hopefully we can figure that out.”
Busch said they would use Wednesday to firm up the steering, which was “on the aggressive side for feel. I like its movement. On the oval sections, it’s on edge. We need to perfect that, and that’ll be the Wednesday focus. It’s a bunch of cool stuff to learn.”
—Noise: Because the new car uses a “split” exhaust, both drivers said the engine sounds “throatier” with an “old-school” design. “It’s cool and badass when you’re driving it,” Truex said. Busch said it’s like “an old school Trans Am thundering power and feel.”
This week’s test is the sixth with the Next Gen car, which most recently had been on track Aug. 24-25 at Dover International Speedway with Cole Custer.
Oct. 8-9, 2019 at Richmond with Austin Dillon
Dec. 9-10, 2019 at Phoenix with Joey Logano
Jan. 15-16, 2020 at Miami with Erik Jones
March 2-3, 2020 at Auto Club Speedway with William Byron