With the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs complete, now is a good time to evaluate the impact of the Next Gen car. The last two months in particular have tested the new Cup Series because on some of the most unique tracks on the circuit. The good news is that the Next Gen car has passed several of those tests with flying colors. Intermediate tracks have surprisingly produced some of the best races of 2022, and parity among race winners has continued into the playoffs.
However, this car is still very much a work in progress. While NASCAR and the teams can celebrate its successes, both parties must cooperate to address the notable drawbacks of the Next Gen car before the green flag drops on the 2023 season.
One of those successes has to be the historically high number of drivers who have visited victory lane this year. By winning at Bristol Motor Speedway, Chris Buescher became the 19th different driver to score a victory in 2022. That ties the modern era record set in 2001, and in that year it took all the way until the final race of the season to hit 19 winners. The 2022 season still has seven races to go, and plenty of opportunity remains for drivers who are winless to capture a checked flag.
Even the commencement of the playoffs has not put a stop to the parade of surprising faces in victory lane. Buescher’s triumph capped off a round of 16 that also saw Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace finish first. None of those three made the playoffs or had won a points-paying race until the postseason. Their wins are a remarkable achievement when you consider that the playoff field contains half of the 32 full-time racers, and that all of those playoff drivers would theoretically be bringing their best equipment to the track with a championship on the line. Thanks to the Next Gen car, parity reigns supreme in 2022.
Fans should also be excited about the compelling racing that the Next Gen car has produced on high speed, high downforce intermediate tracks. The best example so far this season is the Coca-Cola 600. For most of the 2010s, NASCAR’s longest race felt more like a watching a parade than a competition. With aero sensitivity getting so bad at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s no wonder that NASCAR moved CMS’ fall race to the infield ROVAL.
However, this year’s Coke 600 was among the best events of 2022. Drivers with faster cars were actually able to move through the field instead of getting stalled out in dirty air. Closer competition also heightened the race’s element of endurance. A great race at Charlotte, along with fun events at other big tracks like Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, suggests the Next Gen car could be NASCAR’s long-sought answer to reducing aero-dependency at intermediate tracks.
But the new car is not a cure-all everywhere. It hasn’t raced particularly well at road courses, producing lackluster events at Sonoma Raceway and Road America. Flat tracks have been a mixed bag. Yet right now, the biggest concern has to be short tracks. Martinsville Speedway’s spring race was one of the worst held at that track in recent memory. Although cool temperatures and lack of tire falloff negatively influenced the competition, the increased grip and high cornering speeds of the Next Gen car appeared to be responsible for what was an awful race by Martinsville’s standards.
This past weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway was not nearly as bad as Martinsville, but it still raised some questions about the performance of the Next Gen car at short tracks. The chief complaint from several drivers, most notably Kevin Harvick, was that high cornering speeds again made passing difficult and caused the cars to get aero-tight. Indeed, it felt like most of the passing on Saturday night happened on pit road.
If this car’s design is creating aero sensitivity at short tracks, that’s a serious problem that NASCAR must address. The most logical fix would be introducing a short-track package or configuration for next year, ideally one with more horsepower. Giving drivers more power and more variable throttle control should create additional passing opportunities and hopefully alleviate the aero-sensitivity. With NASCAR planning a grand return to North Wilkesboro Speedway next year, a track very similar to Martinsville, the sanctioning body cannot neglect the Next Gen’s short-track performance.
Quite unlike Martinsville, Bristol dished out a punishing race for the Next Gen car. The sustained high speeds and extreme G-forces from the steep banks of Thunder Valley caused a series of steering issues, suspension failures and tire blowouts. The Night Race quickly turned into a war of attrition, one that more closely resembled a Bristol race from the 1980s. Some equipment failures are to be expected at a track like Bristol, although Saturday’s race appeared to expose some vulnerabilities of the Next Gen because that teams had not anticipated.
Finally, there is one other major issue with the Next Gen because that goes beyond the quality of racing. It appears that the new car struggles to dissipate energy when it hits the wall, especially when the rear end of the car makes contact with the wall first. This problem really came to the forefront when Kurt Busch was sidelined with a concussion after crashing at Pocono Raceway in July. Busch has not competed in NASCAR since the accident.
This is not to say that the Next Gen car is unsafe, per se. The rigidity of the body and chassis was designed to protect the driver in the event of a crash like Ryan Newman experienced in the 2020 Daytona 500. The construction of the cabin and extra protections offered to the driver can, theoretically, guard against serious injuries as well as or better than any of NASCAR’s past cars. But in an era where the devastating effects of head injuries sustained in professional sports are still coming to light, Busch’s case is concerning. It is also unsettling how, following last month’s Daytona race, other drivers described impacts they felt in the Next Gen as harder than anything they’ve felt in years. Finding a way to absorb impacts and dissipate energy should be NASCAR’s number one goal for the Next Gen over the offseason.
The best that fans and competitors can hope for is that 2023 builds on the positive foundation that this season has created. NASCAR must be proactive in correcting the Next Gen car’s drawbacks, but the industry should also celebrate that the new car appears to be meeting many of the other goals that NASCAR had in mind. The Next Gen car could be a revolution in NASCAR competition, but it is one that will be unfinished in 2022.
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