With the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series qualifiers complete, now is the time to assess the impact of the next generation car. The past couple of months in particular have tested the new Cup Series on some of the most exclusive tracks on the track. The good news is that the next generation car has passed many of those tests with flying colours. The intermediate tracks surprisingly produced some of the best races of 2022, and parity continued among the race winners in qualifying.
However, this car is still a work in progress. While NASCAR and the teams can celebrate their success, both parties must collaborate to address the notable flaws of the next-generation car before the green flag falls in the 2023 season.
One of these successes has to be the historically large number of drivers who have visited the victory lane this year. By winning at Bristol Motor Speedway, Chris Bucher becomes the 19th different driver to score a victory in 2022. This ties into the modern era record set in 2001, and that year it took until the last race of the season to hit 19 winners. There are seven races left for the 2022 season, and there are still plenty of opportunities for the win-win drivers to catch a checkered flag.
Even the start of the qualifiers did not put an end to the parade of surprising faces on the path to victory. Buescher’s victory culminated in a round of 16 which also saw Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace finish first. None of these three have made the playoffs or won a points-paying race until the end of the season. Their victories are a pretty impressive feat when you consider that the stadium has half of its 32 full-time racers, and that all of the qualifying drivers would theoretically be bringing their best gear to the track with a championship on the line. Thanks to the next generation car, parity prevails in 2022.
Fans should also be excited about the convincing race that the next generation car produced on high-speed, high-powered intermediate tracks. The best example so far this season is the Coca-Cola 600. For most of the 2010s, NASCAR’s longest races felt more like watching a show than a competition. With weather sensitivity becoming so bad at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s no wonder NASCAR moved CMS fall racing to ROVAL.
However, this year’s Coke 600 was among the best events of 2022. Drivers with faster cars were actually able to move across the field instead of stopping in polluted air. Closer competition also increased the stamina component of the race. The great race in Charlotte, along with fun events at other big tracks like Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, suggests that the next generation car could be NASCAR’s long-awaited answer to reducing air dependence on intermediate tracks.
But the new car isn’t a cure-all everywhere. It didn’t race particularly well on the road courses, which led to lackluster events at Sonoma Raceway and Road America. The flat tracks were a mixed bag. But for now, the biggest concern should be the short trails. The Martinsville Speedway spring was one of the worst races held on this track in recent memory. Although the cooler temperatures and lack of tire fall negatively affected the competition, the increased grip and higher cornering speeds of the next-generation car seemed to be responsible for a horrific race by Martinsville standards.
Last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway wasn’t as bad as Martinsville, but it still raised some questions about the next-generation car’s performance on short tracks. The main complaint from many drivers, most notably Kevin Harvick, was that the high cornering speeds again made passing difficult and caused the cars to become tight. In fact, it felt like most of Saturday night’s passing happened on a pit road.
If this car’s design creates aerodynamic sensitivity on short tracks, that’s a serious problem that NASCAR must address. The most sensible fix would be to offer 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 opportunities for passing and hopefully reduce aerodynamic sensitivity. With NASCAR planning a major return to the North Wilkesboro Speedway next year, a track very similar to Martinsville, the Punishing Authority cannot neglect the next generation’s short-track performance.
Unlike Martinsville, Bristol had a tough race for the next generation car. Consistently 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, much like the Bristol race from the 1980s. Some equipment failures are expected at a track such as Bristol, although Saturday’s race appears to reveal some weaknesses in the next-generation car that the teams had not expected.
Finally, there is another major issue with the next generation car that goes beyond racing quality. The new car seems to struggle to dissipate power when it hits a wall, especially when the rear end of the car is in contact with the wall first. This problem really came to the fore when Kurt Bosch was sidelined with a concussion after crashing at the Pocono race track in July. Busch has not competed in NASCAR since the accident.
This does not mean that the next generation car is not safe per se. The rigidity of the chassis and chassis is designed to protect the driver in the event of an accident like the Ryan Newman suffered in the 2020 Daytona 500. The cabin construction and additional protection provided to the driver could, in theory, protect the driver from serious injuries as well or better than any of the previous NASCAR cars. . But in an age when the devastating effects of head injuries are still being felt in professional sports, Bosch’s case is worrying. Also troubling, after last month’s Daytona race, other drivers described the effects they felt in the next generation as more difficult than anything they had felt in years. Finding a way to absorb impacts and dissipate energy should be NASCAR’s number one goal for the next generation over the course of the holiday season.
The best fans and competitors can hope for is that 2023 builds on the positive foundation that this season has created. NASCAR should be proactive in correcting the flaws of the next-generation car, but the industry should also celebrate that the new car appears to meet many other goals NASCAR had in mind. The next generation car may revolutionize the NASCAR competition, but it won’t be completed in 2022.
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