BRISTOL, Tennessee – The Next Gen car endured a durability nightmare in its debut on the punishing concrete at Bristol Motor Speedway with power steering failures, blown tires and mechanical gremlins.
On top of all that, passing also was difficult for 500 laps Saturday night on the high-banked 0.533-mile oval.
There were 12 lead changes (only four under green), the fewest in more than 13 years at Bristol, as a lack of tire wear made it easier for the leader to control the race. Race winner Chris Buescher led the final 61 laps after a two-tire stop, and the Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing driver maintained a steady gap over runner-up Chase Elliott (who took four tires on his final stop).
“Just went from having a chance to lead the parade to being a part of the parade,” 10th-place finisher Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch. “Just difficult to pass. The car is way too fast through the corners. Can’t race.”
The dearth of passing coupled with the reliability problems drew a new round of complaints about the car, which has weathered increasing criticism in recent weeks for its heavy impacts and faulty components. The Next Gen marks the first time in NASCAR’s 74-year history that the premier Cup Series has used a “spec” model in which virtually all of the parts and chassis are built and supplied by single-source vendors to the entire field.
We need NextGen 2.0. Just gotta figure out who’s gonna pay for it.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) September 18, 2022
“Passing was just impossible,” Hamlin told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “It was just a type of day where you needed to stay up front at all costs and we just couldn’t quite do it and ended up having a blown tire that set us back and we were trying to play catch up from that point.
“(The Next Gen) was tough. I would like to see the racing improve overall. Some lap time variation a little bit. We’re just running around there and it’s like we’re running faster in the corners than we are on the straightaways. Just extremely hard to pass. We had some steering issues, and it looks like our Toyota teammates also had steering issues.”
All six Toyotas in the field experienced problems whether tires (Hamlin, Christopher Bell), steering (Martin Truex Jr., Bubba Wallace, Ty Gibbs) or engine (Kyle Busch), and there were a rash of tire problems throughout the field.
After running (and winning) the first stage of 125 laps without changing tires, Brad Keselowski mysteriously had a tire go flat while leading with 87 laps remaining. But the winning team owner defended the Next Gen’s passing capability while conceding it still needed improvement.
“I restarted third (with 140) to go and was able to pass the front two cars for the lead,” Keselowski said. “I feel like yes, I could pass. It wasn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. Would I like to see us continue to work on the cars? Absolutely. I’ve said this to NASCAR and I’ve said it to the media before and I’ll say it again: If the Next-Gen car looks the same as it does this year, then we’ve failed. We should continue to grow. We should continue to learn. We should continue to make it better.
“There’s probably some car owners that don’t want to hear it because it costs money to change the cars, but like anything, when you create something new like the Next Gen car, there’s going to be things that are optimized, and there’s going to be things that aren’t. I think there’s opportunities to continue to make this car better and the racing better with it. I think it’s still a step forward from where we were in a lot of ways. I think we’ve seen some great racing because of that great parity. There’s a lot of big positives. Like any industry we probably get caught up in the negatives more than the positives, but I feel like there’s two camps.
“There’s the everything is wrong with this car camp and there’s the nothing is wrong with this car camp, and I’m trying to say, Nah, it’s a pretty big step forward for our sport, actually pretty good, but I’d like to keep working on it. It seems like much like many things today, that polarization means there’s no room for middle ground. In my eyes I’d like to see some small tweaks, but I’m thankful and proud of our sport and where the Next Gen car has taken us so far.”
The chorus of detractors has grown louder in recent weeks.
Harvick has been outspoken with concerns about safety and the fire that engulfed his No. 4 Ford in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver called out Next Gen suppliers for shoddy parts, and Martin Truex Jr. echoed Harvick’s disapproval after finishing last Saturday night because of a steering problem in his No. 19 Toyota.
“It blew the seal out and pushed all the (power steering) fluid out on the right-front tire,” Truex told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “Just unbelievable. What did Harvick say? Crappy parts. … You literally can’t drive the car here without power steering. You lose it, you’re done.”
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 18, 2022
Bristol was the latest in a string of short-track disappointments this season for the Next Gen.
After a lackluster debut for Next Gen at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR has been testing tweaks to the car for the Oct. 30 race that will set the championship field for the finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Asked whether he would point NASCAR toward working on aerodynamics or tires for Martinsville, Keselowski said, “I probably don’t have a perfect answer at the moment for that. I know we won’t get there unless we try. I think there’s some effort being put into those things. I couldn’t specify what they are. Certainly we have some room to continue to grow and be better.”