BY RANDY HALLMAN
The car – NASCAR’s Next Gen race car – has been lowered since it was little more than a twinkle in an engineer’s eye more than two years ago. Now the car is on the track and the mewing continues.
Can we all stop this and catch our breath?
We’re three races into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, four if you count the preview exhibit. All four races – on four different types of circuits – were entertaining. All four required driving skills. All four rewarded bold, well-executed moves.
Isn’t that what NASCAR fans always say they want?
This is certainly what I want because we are expected to observe and comment week after week.
Last Sunday at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Alex Bowman took advantage of a late period of caution and his crew chief’s decision to rush him out of the pits with just two new tires at the instead of four. Bowman completed two clean laps to fend off America’s hottest driver, Kyle Larson.
People also read…
To add to that, the race was already dynamite before the final warning brought the peloton together. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were in a fierce battle to win.
After the race, Kyle Busch gave a brief and gracious TV interview, but after the cameras turned away he released a profanity-laden addendum decrying Bowman’s good fortune in earning the auspicious caution flag. Any race that ends with a Busch tirade — or a display of Busch bluster — was likely an entertaining race to watch.
The week before, on the slick and aging 2.0-mile freeway in Fontana, Calif., Larson came from the back of the pack to win with aggressive late-race maneuvers.
Before that — in NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500 — rookie Austin Cindric stayed close to the front all day at the 2.5-mile, full-incline Daytona International Speedway and won by a half-mile. Car length over Bubba Wallace in a hold-your-blast finish.
Even the pre-season exhibition, won by Joey Logano, was an impressive sight. Held on a purpose-built quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Coliseum, the race was something naysayers said would be a disaster. On the contrary, it was hotly contested from the first qualifying race to the 150-lap main event.
Next Sunday on the schedule is the 1.0-mile Phoenix Raceway, a fifth different track size and one that will offer clues as to what to expect on similar-length tracks – including the three-quarter-mile Richmond Raceway. mile, where the tour stops April 3.
The car’s new body material is tough enough to handle minor bumps without resulting in cut tires, a chronic problem that ruined many drivers’ chances with the previous model.
But wait, there’s more. As well as delivering a rookie winner, the Next Gen car – whose regulations were intended to emphasize driver skill rather than power team budgets and engineering secrets – proved to be a showcase. for drivers and teams that have rarely been among NASCAR’s leaders.
In addition to Cindric with his Daytona victory, drivers who have impressed include Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones. They are no strangers, but they weren’t expected to be regular contenders for victory. After three races, these expectations may need some adjustment.
So the Next Gen is the perfect NASCAR race car, right?
No it is not. Such a vehicle will probably never exist. A modern production car is a complex amalgamation of rigorous safety features, immediate speed, cornering downforce and budget restraints.
NASCAR wants to standardize the measurements of its Cup Series cars to keep the race tight, while clinging to the looks of the “stock” Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas. No matter how NASCAR balances all of these elements, some fans will complain. Long.
The most troublesome Next Gen flaw so far is the car’s tires and wheel sets.
The tires are wider for more traction, but the rims are bigger, so the sidewalls of the tires are shorter. As a result, several times in early races a car with a flat tire was, in effect, stranded on the track – not enough traction to return to the pits, tedious delays for tow truck rescues.
Additionally, the wheels and wheel sets proved vulnerable, breaking in a few hard crashes.
NASCAR needs to address current issues, as well as any issues that arise. And they will almost certainly arise. The car has been tested extensively, but it is still a new car.
Let’s close the discussion with what a pair of Hall of Fame drivers tweeted about the Next Gen car, even before last Sunday’s remarkable Vegas race.
Darrell Waltrip, recalling a major car change during his career, saw a parallel:
“This new car reminds me so much of the 1981 season when we switched to the downsized car, it was a challenge at first but we figured it out and then it was the game!!!”
Mark Martin, who has more than once observed that the Cup cars have become too easy to drive, after seeing drivers racing at the limit of control in the new car:
“Watching these guys try to qualify is what @NASCAR driving is all about (clapping hands emojis). Coupe cars should be one of the hardest cars to drive in motorsport As a driver, if you want to succeed in the Cup, you better pack your lunch.