Drivers face the unknown with NASCAR’s Next Gen car

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The NASCAR Next Gen car, which made its public debut Wednesday, has so many hopes riding on it ahead of its competition debut next season in the Cup Series.

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota? They hope the Next Gen car’s looks – more akin to GT sports cars than traditional boxy stock cars – get fans into the showrooms to buy their street counterparts.

Team owners, both current and prospective? They hope, beyond the initial spend, they’ll save money with many of the Next Gen car’s parts coming from single-source suppliers.

The sanctioning body itself? They hope the Next Gen car’s ability to incorporate electrification can attract additional manufacturers to the sport.

But in the end, the most important hope – the most simple hope – lies with the fans.

They hope the Next Gen car gives them great racing, where a driver’s skill with maneuvering a car that’s hard to drive reclaims precedence over restarts, clean air and track position.

Three of the sport’s top drivers were at Wednesday’s unveiling to rep their manufacturers – reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott for Chevrolet, 2018 Cup champion Joey Logano for Ford, and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin for Toyota.

Of the three, only Logano had tested the Next Gen car – and that was back in December 2019, early in the car’s development.

None of them know what the complete Next Gen car will make them do.

“I got to drive this car a year and a half ago,” Logano said. “Put that into perspective for a second. It was a long time ago. It started as a blank sheet where NASCAR was able to develop whatever they wanted to, with a lot of help from the race team, all the (manufacturers) to develop a car.

“I was the second one to drive it. You can imagine how far it’s come from there.”

There’s still farther to go. On Wednesday, NASCAR chief development officer Steve O’Donnell discussed a string of tests coming up in the late summer and fall.

O’Donnell also talked about the Next Gen car’s features that are meant to make it more challenging for those behind the wheel, including its symmetrical body.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed around our racing is the sideforce issue, and that was something that we really tried to tackle with this new design in the race car,” he said.

“It won’t be easy. It’s going to be more difficult to drive, especially as you get into the corners. But that’s something that we’re encouraged by.

“We want to put more of this back in the drivers’ hands, so we’ll judge that, especially on the intermediate tracks, what are drivers able to do for each and every lap, pulling up on cars and that ability to pass and not be stalled out.”

But until those later tests, most drivers won’t have a true idea of how they’ll have to adapt to the Next Gen car. With all of its various features, there’s bound to be a process.

But Elliott feels that talent will ultimately win out – if they’re open to change.

“We have this history, all this time with this current car that we consider things to be normal,” he said. “That might not apply here. I think that’s what’s going to be really challenging for the drivers. Just me looking at it ahead to next year, you might have to reinvent yourself.

“There might be things and habits that I do today right now that work, and you can get away with, that might not be an option next season.”

As for Hamlin, he believes he has plenty of experience in that department already and that it will serve him well with the Next Gen car.

“What I really took a lot of pride in, when everything different got thrown my way, I felt like I adapted quickly,” he said. “Whether it be my rookie season, winning at Pocono, a unique track nothing like I ever raced at before, I was able to adapt. When we went through COVID last year, no practice and qualifying, me and my team were able to adapt to that.

“I think that’s where I hopefully will shine in this, is that I can use my experience and information that we have to adapt to this whole new machine quicker than everyone else. That’s my goal.”