Friday 5: Next Gen car’s durability could lead to more aggressive racing

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When Ross Chastain’s car slapped the wall while leading last weekend’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it showed how resilient the Next Gen car can be and what fans could be in store for, as the series heads to a road course and three consecutive short tracks.

For years, a complaint about the previous Cup car was how contact could bend fenders and lead to tire rubs, cutting tires or forcing drivers to pit. That limited some of the drivers’ aggressiveness at road courses and short tracks.

Even with the Next Gen car, it doesn’t mean that drivers can turn races into a “Days of Thunder” montage of constant beating and banging. Still, to see Chastain come back from that hit and finish second at Atlanta was something to note. 

Chastain’s crew chief, Phil Surgen, told NBC Sports that if Chastain had been driving last year’s car and made that same amount of contact at Atlanta, “there’s no way we could have been competitive.

“I would have been most worried about the right-rear corner,” he said of the previous car. “Crush panels. The body laying on the tire, and then it probably would have pulled the bumper cover off the quarter panel, and the spoiler hung so far over, it probably would have torn the spoiler back. It would have been a mess.”

Instead, the team didn’t have issues with the rear spoiler that would have affected the car’s aerodynamics. 

“Largely, the thing held up fantastic,” Surgen said. “The composite body didn’t pull apart anywhere. Obviously, it got pretty pushed in and cracked, but it all held together, and it popped back out so we didn’t have any tire rubs.

“Under the surface, the rear bumper structure is bent, the body mounts are bent, the inner wheel tub, where the crush panels used to be, is made of plastic. That thing broke apart. As far as the suspension and the chassis go, the front toe was knocked out a little bit. I was really impressed with how well it held up.”

It helped Chastain that 31 of the 37 cars in last weekend’s Cup race at Atlanta were involved in incidents, so much of the field had some sort of damage. Eight of the top 10 cars were involved in an incident, including Chris Buescher, who went across the finish line backward in seventh. 

The Atlanta race was the first for that chassis Chastain drove. Surgen said the car’s next race would be at Martinsville. To go from speedway racing at a 1.5-mile track to the shortest track that hosts a Cup points race is the type of flexibility NASCAR officials envisioned the Next Gen car could have.

“The biggest thing is the things we’re allowed to do different at Atlanta and Martinsville are all, essentially, adjustability that is built into the car,” Surgen said. “The suspension kinematics, some of the body adjustments, that’s the scope of what we can change from Atlanta to Martinsville and every car has the same adjustability.

“Short of a road course (car) having a couple of different components suspension-wise, it’s all the same, control arms and spindles. The transaxle ratio changes, but we can take one out and plug one in. The bodies are the same everywhere. There’s pretty limited scope in adjustability. It really comes down to everything being more universal and not really having any specialized parts.”

Even though the road course car has some differences, Surgen said that if they had to, the team would be able to convert the car that it will run at COTA to a short track in a day’s time. 

While Chastain finished fourth last year at COTA — and had top-10 finishes at Sonoma (seventh) and Road America (seventh) — it’s difficult to take much from those races into this year with the new car and larger tire. Surgen said there is a confidence going into such events based on what Chastain did last year. 

But this team carries much confidence after Chastain finished third at Las Vegas, second at Phoenix and second at Atlanta in the last three weeks.

It’s a big change from the start of the season. Chastain failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race, finished last in the Daytona 500 after a crash and then crashed in practice at Auto Club the next week and had to go to a backup car before placing 29th. 

“It was tough,” Surgen said. “It really comes down to the attitude of the guys and the work ethic of the guys and that includes everybody, driver included. We looked at this experience and said, ‘You know what, we qualified seventh at Daytona. Once that thing got in the draft, it was fast.’ We had a car that was capable. We crashed. 

“Then you go to Auto Club, crash on lap one (of practice), but when he spins in the race, we’re running sixth. At this point, we had been on pit road and restarted in the 30s and drove up to sixth. You look at that experience and you say, ‘Man the results are really bad, but we had potential,’ so that keeps you going.”

2. Driver apologizes 

Cup rookie Todd Gilliland said he apologized to Cody Ware for causing the incident that sent Ware into the inside SAFER barrier late in last weekend’s race at Atlanta. Ware told NBC Sports it was the hardest impact in his career.

“Super frustrating the circumstances,” Ware said while staring at his wrecked car in the garage after the race. 

Gilliland and Front Row Motorsports teammate Michael McDowell were not on the lead lap when the pack closed in on them. As the field approached, Gilliland went high on the track while McDowell stayed low. That forced the field to go between the two. Gilliland hit the wall and that caused others behind to slow, leading to the contact that sent Ware’s car crashing.

“I definitely feel super super dumb about that,” Gilliland said this week. “When we got in the first wreck, we bent a right-rear toe link, so we were on pit road and went five laps down with that. We were just trying to get them back. We took one wave around, me and (McDowell) did at the same time, so we ended up pitting and coming back out. We ended up together drafting.  

“And then I guess it was a lack of communication and a lack of me asking what I should do. I’ve never really gotten lapped super quick like that, especially at a superspeedway-type place. It’s probably the worst possible scenario, but just throughout practice and stuff I had seen guys getting out of the draft on top, so, in my mind, I had never really even thought twice that we were both just going to go to the top once the pack was half a straightaway back and we were just going to get out of the way that way.

“But then as soon as I moved up and I saw (McDowell) stay on the bottom, I knew I had screwed up pretty big.”

3. Change is good but … 

Car owner Rick Hendrick said he likes the changes taking place in NASCAR, including running the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the speedway style of racing at Atlanta and returning to the dirt at Bristol next month. 

“The stadium brought a lot of new fans in,” Hendrick said. “The dirt track, I’ve got people coming out of the woodwork wanting to go to Bristol now for that race, and I think it’s exciting for the fans and the drivers are adapting well.

“This car, we basically run the same car everywhere, and so I think it’s great for the sport, and I would like to see a street race. Hopefully we’ll just continue to work outside the box, and I think that’s growing a lot of new fans for us.”

NASCAR has looked at a street course event. Why does Hendrick favor it?

“If there’s a right street circuit that we could race on, I just think something different brings in a new level of fans,” he said after William Byron’s win last weekend. “And it’s exciting. It’s something different to talk about.”

But there is one thing Hendrick doesn’t want to see much more of in the future: More speedway-style races on 1.5-mile tracks like last weekend’s event at Atlanta.

“I vote to cap it,” he said. “With our record at plate races with finishing, I just — I think this is enough.”

With both of Atlanta’s races now speedway-style races, it means there will be six on the schedule, including the two each at Daytona and Talladega. 

The Daytona 500 saw 26 cars involved in incidents. The Atlanta race had 31 cars involved in an incident. That can be an expensive toll for car owners with cars damaged or destroyed. 

4. Toyota struggles

Entering this weekend’s race at COTA, Toyota is winless in its last 10 Cup races. While that might not seem like much, it is the manufacturer’s longest winless drought since 2015. Toyota’s last Cup victory was by Bubba Wallace in last year’s playoff race at Talladega.

The average finish for Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-car team is 19.8, the team’s worst after the first five races of the season, according to Racing Insights. JGR has only one top-five finish — a fourth-place result by Kyle Busch at Las Vegas. 

Busch seemed headed for a win at Las Vegas when a late caution sent the race into overtime. Busch lost the lead on pit road, taking four tires while others took two tires. Alex Bowman, one of those who stopped for only two tires, won that race.

Denny Hamlin has yet to finish better than 13th in a Cup race this season. He goes to Circuit of the Americas 25th in the driver points. 

Hamlin’s woes have been lengthy this season: 

  • Finished 37th after a crash in the Daytona 500.
  • Placed 15th at Auto Club after overheating issues, which other Toyota cars experienced, and a pit road speeding penalty. 
  • Was 32nd at Las Vegas after a mistake in shifting that broke the drivetrain.
  • Finished 13th at Phoenix but was running second when he was penalized for speeding on pit road.
  • Wrecked while running toward the front at Atlanta and finished 29th.

Christopher Bell is 29th in the points. He finished 10th at Las Vegas but has not been better than 23rd in any other points race this year. He was 34th after an accident in the Daytona 500 and placed 36th at Auto Club after engine issues.

“Honestly, it has been easy to stay positive up to this point just because there’s been so many high points,” Bell said last week before finishing 23rd at Atlanta. “Going from California, I felt like we had a strong showing, or not a strong showing, but we had strong potential and my team agreed with that. 

“Vegas, we had a strong showing, but didn’t get the finish we wanted. There has been a lot of high points, but the points position we are in now and finishing results haven’t shown that. It’s been easy to stay positive, but it’s definitely time to start getting some finishing results out of it.”

5. Closing the gap 

Joey Hand will make his second career Cup start this weekend, driving the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing at Circuit of the Americas.

Hand drove on the winning team for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2011 and was one of the drivers on the team that won the LMGTE Pro class in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 2016 for Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA.

He has spent much time recently tutoring Ford Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series drivers on road course racing. 

He notes the new Cup car can help bridge the gap between NASCAR and sports car racing for drivers looking to run in races in both forms of motorsports. 

“It’s definitely going to bridge that gap between the difference in driving,” Hand said. “When I hopped in the Gen 6 car, it was very different having that 15-inch tire, kind of a balloon-ish tire, where you have to be real careful with it, it could chatter really easy.

“What I noticed with the old car was like me driving 80 percent was the right amount to push that car. As soon as I was in the (Charlotte Roval race last fall) I was like, ‘I’m going to lay one down. This is going to be the one,’ and add five or 10 percent, I was off the track, wide, sliding the tire, chatting the tire.  

“That’s the difference is, not necessarily this car is going to be easier to drive, but it will be easier to run right on the ragged edge, so it’ll be a 95-percent car driving all the time. The tire works better being a bit wider, being a lower profile. The independent suspension, the sequential gearbox, it all drives a lot more like a GT car would. …

“I enjoyed my little bit there at the Roval. and I’ve enjoyed watching NASCAR all my life on road courses. But I do think this is going to up the game as far as road course racing goes and, for sure, it’ll be better as far as guys leaving NASCAR, these guys going to run sports cars, it’ll be a much easier swap over other than most stuff is running ABS (brakes) now in sports cars. But, other than that, the swap over will be a lot closer. And, don’t tell anybody, but I think it will be easier coming from sports cars to here a little bit also.”