‘Mixed emotions’ for NASCAR crew chiefs as Gen 6 era ends: ‘These cars are works of art’

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AVONDALE, Arizona – Amid the flurry of crates and pallets packed with suddenly obsolete parts and whisked onto flatbed trailers at Hendrick Motorsports, Alan Gustafson took a moment with Chassis No. 1278.

The No. 9 Camaro that Chase Elliott will start second in Sunday at Phoenix Raceway already carried a special significance, but there’s an added layer of history regardless of whether Elliott can repeat as the Cup Series champion.

The car is brand new, custom-built for use in exactly one race as the last Gen 6 chassis constructed by Hendrick – and presumably might be the last car ever created and designed from the ground up by a NASCAR powerhouse that holds the all-time premier series records for championships (13) and victories (279).

Hendrick, which has led the Cup Series with 16 wins this year, likely will remain just as successful when the Next Gen car makes its debut with the 2022 season, but the degree of autonomy will be totally new as NASCAR switches to “spec”-style cars with common chassis and parts mostly supplied by single-source vendors.

That enhances the feelings of ownership and pride in Elliott’s car as the last of a breed.

“This is really, really cool to me,” Gustafson said Friday after Cup practice for the season finale. “This is the last Gen 6 chassis built. Certainly the rules are really tight and kind of whittled down, but yeah, we did everything we could on the car. Tried to do everything we could to make it as good as possible.

“There are kind of mixed emotions. Obviously putting a car together to come race for a championship is an amazing feeling and extremely motivating and knowing it’s the last car that we’ll build at Hendrick Motorsports in that form or fashion. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just a bit surreal.”

Of the Championship 4 contenders eligible for the title Sunday, Elliott is the only driver with a fresh set of wheels at Phoenix. Martin Truex Jr. will be driving the same winning chassis as the March 14 race at Phoenix, and Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin also will be in the same cars (though with completely refurbished bodies).

But the lament was just as strong for NASCAR teams that have spent a season slowly transforming their organizations for the Next Gen, eliminating the roles of hundreds of shop fabricators and mechanics who worked countless hours crafting vehicles to achieve maximum downforce and grip (often with ingenious nuance).

“This sport was built on artistry and these cars are works of art,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Hamlin. “There’s no such thing as perfection. The people who build them could spend endless hours making them a little more perfect each and every minute of each and every day. To a large degree, that is dying. I think it’s honestly unfortunate. I’m not saying it I agree or disagree with it, but racing was built on building the fastest car you knew how to build and then driving it as perfect as you knew how to drive it.

“We’re certainly losing one very significant aspect of that. I think there’s a lot of people in this industry are sad to see it go.”

Cliff Daniels, the crew chief for Larson, said it was “obviously a very bittersweet moment” to say goodbye to the Gen 6, and it hit home as Hendrick prepared to load its haulers this past Tuesday night for the 2,000-mile trek to Phoenix.

“A lot of guys in the chassis, body and fab shop do a lot of the work, week in and week out, that maybe we don’t see around our cars on load day or the final stages of our car,” Daniels said. “We had a lot of people around the shop this week, which was great. And they were all the guys who are part of the earlier stages of the process of getting the cars built. To see their energy and their excitement, was pretty cool. Very bittersweet at the same time because you know roles are changing, and things are going to change moving forward.”

Said Gustafson: “I feel super privileged to be racing for a championship with it. I think back of all the people who have contributed in some way, shape or form. All the amazing people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with that we’ve had there that have contributed to these cars. That’s cool. That’s the neat part of it, but also the part that I’ve watched crates of stuff get loaded on the flatbed trailers throughout the week going away. This is just different. I’ve never experienced something like that. Certainly very excited for the next chapter.

“I don’t know how to describe it or what a great analogy would be. If you’ve lived in a house for 20 years and moved out, there’s some attachment there. You’re trying to go on to bigger and better things, but you still have some sentimental value attached.”