With the first round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs over, it’s time to assess the impact of the Next Gen car. The last two months in particular have tested the new Cup Series car at some of the circuit’s most unique tracks. The good news is that the Next Gen car passed many of these tests with flying colors. The middle tracks surprisingly produced some of the best races of 2022, and race winner parity continued into the playoffs.
However, this car is still 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 falls on the 2023 season.
One of those successes has to be the historically high number of drivers who visited victory lane this year. By winning at Bristol Motor Speedway, Chris Buescher became the 19th different driver to claim a win in 2022. That ties the modern-era record set in 2001, and that year took it all the way to the last race of the season to reach 19 winners. The 2022 season still has seven races to go, and there are still plenty of opportunities for winless drivers to capture a checkered flag.
Even the start of the playoffs didn’t end the parade of surprising faces down victory lane. Buescher’s triumph capped 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 all the way to the playoffs. Their wins are a remarkable achievement considering that the playoff field contains half of the 32 full-time riders, and all of those playoff riders would theoretically bring their best gear to the track with a championship on the line. to the Next Gen car, parity reigns supreme in 2022.
Fans should also be excited about the thrilling races the Next Gen car 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 parade than a competition. With increasingly poor aero sensitivity at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s no wonder NASCAR moved CMS’s fall race to the indoor ROVAL.
However, this year’s Coke 600 was among the best events of 2022. Drivers with faster cars were actually able to move around the terrain instead of being stuck in dirty air. Tighter competition also strengthened the endurance element of the race. A big race in Charlotte, along with fun events at other big tracks like Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, suggest the Next Gen car could be NASCAR’s long-sought answer to reducing aero-reliance on intermediate tracks.
But the new car is not a panacea everywhere. It did not run particularly well on 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 runs. Martinsville Speedway’s spring race was one of the worst held at this track in recent memory. Although the cool temperatures and lack of tire drop negatively influenced the competition, the Next Gen car’s increased grip and high cornering speeds seemed to be responsible for what was an awful race by Martinsville standards.
Last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway wasn’t as bad as Martinsville, but it still raised questions about how the Next Gen car would perform on short tracks. The main complaint of several drivers, notably Kevin Harvick, was that the high cornering speeds again made overtaking difficult and made the cars aerodynamic. Indeed, it was as if most of the overtaking on Saturday night had happened on pit road.
If the design of this car creates aero sensitivity on short tracks, that’s a serious problem that NASCAR needs to address. The most logical solution would be to introduce a set or short track setup for next year, ideally with more power. Giving drivers more power and more variable throttle control should create additional overtaking opportunities and hopefully alleviate aero sensitivity. With NASCAR planning a big return to North Wilkesboro Speedway next year, a track very similar to Martinsville, the sanctioning body can’t overlook the Next Gen’s short-track performance.
Unlike Martinsville, Bristol staged a grueling race for the Next Gen car. The sustained high speeds and extreme G-forces of 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, which felt more like a Bristol race from the 1980s. Some equipment failures are to be expected at a track like Bristol, although Saturday’s race seemed to expose certain vulnerabilities in the Next Gen car that the teams had not anticipated.
Finally, there’s another major issue with the Next Gen car that goes beyond race quality. It looks like the new car has trouble dissipating energy when it hits the wall, especially when the back of the car hits the wall first. This issue really came to the fore 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 does not mean that the Next Gen car is dangerous in itself. The rigidity of the body and chassis was designed to protect the driver in the event of a crash as Ryan Newman experienced in the 2020 Daytona 500. The construction of the cabin and the additional protections offered to the driver can, theoretically, guard against serious injury as good as or better than all previous NASCAR cars. But at a time when the devastating effects of head injuries sustained in professional sports continue to be revealed, Busch’s case is cause for concern. It’s also disturbing how, after the Daytona race last month, other drivers described the impacts they felt in the Next Gen as harsher than anything they’ve felt in years. Finding a way to absorb impact and dissipate energy should be NASCAR’s number one goal for the next generation this offseason.
The best fans and competitors can hope for is that 2023 builds on the positive foundation this season has created. NASCAR needs to be proactive in correcting the drawbacks of the Next Gen car, but the industry should also be pleased that the new car appears to meet many of the other goals NASCAR had in mind. The Next Gen car could be a revolution in NASCAR competition, but it’s the one that will be unfinished in 2022.
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