Days before NASCAR celebrates its past, the sport looked to its future.
Amid smoke and lights, the Next Gen cars for Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota roared into the public’s view for the first time, a few days before the Cup Series convenes at Darlington Raceway for its throwback weekend.
A sport with roots to moonshiners racing the law, seeks to show that innovative spirit more than 70 years later. And do it with a car unlike any other in NASCAR’s history.
“Simply put, this car will make our sport healthier and stronger,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said as he stood before each of the three models Wednesday.
But it won’t just be a car that impacts NASCAR’s future.
It will be a mindset.
The sport needs to be aggressive in how it positions itself, following a trend it has taken in the last year that included banning the Confederate flag, shaking up the schedule and pointing toward a future with a hybrid engine.
The car plays a role. It provides a visual cue that this can be a different NASCAR with vehicles that satisfy Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet in sharing more with their road counterparts.
But the car needs to provide more.
The racing must be closer. The costs to teams more affordable. And entry to the sport more enticing for another manufacturer. Achieve those and series officials can point the sport in a direction not out of desperation but expectation.
“This was a project that’s taken a long time, and the reason is we want this to go out into the future and be a product that can not only race in ’22 but well beyond that for the fans,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer.
This car will be the third for NASCAR since the Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007. The Gen 6 car followed in 2013. The Next Gen car was scheduled to run this season before the coronavirus pandemic pushed the car’s debut to 2022.
A new car about every seven years. Can something like that truly be transformative for NASCAR?
“We need a car that’s going to service our industry for years and years and years to come,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “We can’t afford to do tear-ups every few years.”
That stability is key for many reasons, including team ownership. Three teams — Trackhouse Racing, 23XI Racing and Live Fast Motorsports — debuted this season and cited the transition to the Next Gen car as a key factor to entering the sport now. Kaulig Racing plans to field a full-time Cup team next year, while also running its Xfinity Series operation.
The expectation is that the Next Gen car will reduce costs for teams in the future, as vendors supply key parts. Teams no longer will need to develop and build key pieces. That will allow them to reduce their workforce. Transitioning from this car to the Next Gen car, though, will be costly for teams. New parts. New pieces. New equipment.
“We budget on the safe side to say this car will probably be slightly more expensive for a couple years, then we kind of see what happens after that,” said Denny Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan.
Another car change in the next seven years could challenge teams financially. So this car needs to be right.
One of the advantages this car has is “future proofing” as Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Motorsports, calls it.
The Next Gen car will be adaptable for a hybrid engine. Plans have pushed that engine program back a few years, but series officials hope the engine’s debut provides an entry point for a fourth Cup manufacturer.
Cup has had three manufacturers since Dodge left after the 2012 season. Toyota was the last manufacturer to enter Cup, doing so in 2007.
“I think the reality is the entry point with a car that we’ve been racing is just too steep to entice a new manufacturer,” Toyota’s Wilson said. “That’s just reality. We do believe that with Next Gen and the direction, the relevancy to a (manufacturer), it’s a reset that there’s a much higher likelihood we could see another (manufacturer) or two.”
The sport has sought that for years.
“Would it be nice to have another one? Yeah, it would be nice,” Phelps said of another Cup manufacturer. “It would help in a number of different areas, not just competing with the other three (manufacturers), but also provide additional support to the garage, which is important. The dollars only go so far, and you get kind of the mid to the back pack of the garage don’t get a ton of additional support from our (manufacturers).”
The car’s benefits also should be seen on the track — particularly road courses — and that could lead NASCAR to new venues and a new audience.
“When I drove it at the Roval, (it) was much more agile with its acceleration, deceleration, and primarily, it’s maneuverability to switch back, left to right,” said Kurt Busch, who tested the car at the Charlotte Roval in November with Martin Truex Jr. “And the car was an impressive, easy two seconds quicker on the Roval circuit.”
This season’s Cup schedule has seven such races. A street course could be in NASCAR’s future.
Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks has pushed that idea for years, saying in 2018: “I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people.
“In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series, and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.
“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a racetrack camping are numbered.”
A street course is among the races that couldn’t have been done a few years back when the sport was locked in five-year agreements with tracks. Stability has its benefits but is not exciting to the public.
This year’s schedule has provoked much discussions with a dirt race at Bristol, a new Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway, and three new road course events (Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Indianapolis).
Such changes breath energy into the sport.
“We hope to see a similar dynamic schedule, not following into a regular routine like we seemed to have, to keep the schedule fresh,” Ford’s Rushbrook told NBC Sports.
“The level of change from ’20 to ’21 was significant. I don’t think we can expect that same level every year … but just the idea to keep mixing it up, to go to new markets and it’s maybe one new one a year. … We were in a routine where the 2018 schedule wasn’t that different than the 2017 schedule, wasn’t that different from the 2016 schedule.”
That’s the mandate for NASCAR. Celebrate the Next Gen car but make it a piece in a well-defined strategy that can attract a new manufacturer, compete at new sites and reach a wider audience.
2. Wondering what if?
One of the benefits of having a single supplier for various parts is it takes the burden off teams to develop and make those pieces for the Next Gen car.
One of the worries, at least to Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, is just having all the parts and pieces for the start of next season.
“From the parts and supply thing, I think that’s going to be a general concern all the way up until we get to Daytona,” Hamlin said. “Once we get into on-track testing here in (August), September, October, November, we hope that this car puts on a better racing product out on the racetrack.
“If we test and we find out we might need to tweak some things, now we’re in a really tight timeline to get all those parts and pieces to everyone before Daytona.
“Single supplier, I think there’s a lot of different manufacturers of parts and pieces. I’m okay with single supplier. I think it makes it easier for everyone, especially if that supplier is right here in the home of NASCAR, a lot of the teams. They can deliver, they can have trackside services. That’s all a very viable thing.
“Ultimately, the immediate concern and things that kind of keep you up at night is, ‘Man, are we going to have enough parts and time?’ Once we get past the first part of the season, I think everyone will have a sigh of relief that we’re past the rush now, I think we’re going to be okay.”
3. Finishing strong
Kyle Larson’s frustration was evident last week after he led a race-high 132 laps but did not win at Kansas Speedway.
“Another day where I lead a lot of laps and don’t win,” he said after finishing 19th.
While circumstances on restarts contributed to Larson losing the lead, the issue of leading many laps and not winning is a reoccurring theme. Last week marked the 15th time he’s led at least 100 laps in a Cup race. He’s won three of those races.
The 20% winning percentage is among the worst for active drivers who have led 100 laps or more in a Cup race at least five times.
Here is a look at the worst and best winning percentage via Racing Insights:
Worst winning percentage among active drivers who led at least 100 laps in a Cup race
0% — Ryan Blaney (0 wins in 8 races)
20% — Kyle Larson (3 wins in 15 races)
22.2% — Chase Elliott (2 wins in 9 races)
35.9% — Martin Truex Jr. (14 wins in 39 races)
41.2% — Joey Logano (7 wins in 17 races)
Best winning percentage among active drivers who led at least 100 laps in a Cup race
60% — Ryan Newman (6 wins in 10 races)
53.8% — Kurt Busch (14 wins in 26 races)
49.1% — Kevin Harvick (26 wins in 53 races)
47.6% — Brad Keselowski (10 wins in 21 races)
44.1% — Denny Hamlin (15 wins in 34 races)
William Byron heads into Sunday’s race with a career-high streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes.
He had six consecutive top-10 finishes in Cup for Joe Gibbs Racing and two top-10 Xfinity finishes for JGR.
Jones and Kevin Harvick were the only Cup drivers to finish in the top 10 in all three Darlington races last year.
Jones, who is in his first season with Richard Petty Motorsports, said that his success at Darlington is “pretty high on my accomplishments that I’m proud of.
“It’s a tough place. It’s just a challenge of everything. Not just driver. It’s car, motor. It’s a little bit of everything that you have to have well.
“It’s definitely on my list of things that I’m very proud of, for sure, how we’ve run in the past. We’ve put a lot of work into this week at RPM, really the last two weeks coming up to this race. (Crew chief Jerry Baxter) and the guys all know how much this track means to me and how well I’ve been able to run there. We want to be to do the same thing in the 43.”
5. Change coming?
NASCAR may look to slow the cars when the series races at Daytona International Speedway in the regular-season finale in August. That is the next superspeedway race.
The change would come after Joey Logano’s car got airborne in a crash at Talladega last month.
Logano’s crash was triggered when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with Denny Hamlin’s car. That sent Hamlin’s car into the left rear of Logano’s car. The contact turned Logano’s car. As it went down the banking, it was hit by Stenhouse’s car and air lifted Logano’s car.
While applauding the measures that kept him safe in the crash, Logano expressed frustration with what led to getting in the air.
“I am wondering when we are going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we are doing,” he said after the incident. “I got a roll bar in my head. That is not okay. I am one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through (in the 2020 Daytona 500). I just don’t feel like that is acceptable.
“A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It is nobody’s fault. Denny (Hamlin) is trying to go, and (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) is trying to go. It is a product of this racing. We have to fix it though. Someone already got hurt and we are still doing it, so that’s not real smart.”
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer provided an updates on NASCAR’s investigation into the crash:
“In terms of Joey’s incident, yeah, we’ve done a lot of work on that,” O’Donnell said. “We actually just presented it to the drivers. We’re having ongoing dialogue with the drivers. I think, if anything, you can see us take a look at the speeds of the car as we head potentially into our next superspeedway race.”