Change in the air for NASCAR, and powerful voices in the wind

Image by Thacker / LAT

Change in the air for NASCAR, and powerful voices in the wind

NASCAR

Change in the air for NASCAR, and powerful voices in the wind

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What it will look like is still TBD, but there’s a consensus in the NASCAR garage area that change is coming.

“I think we’re really talking about Gen 7 for NASCAR,” said team owner Roger Penske. “It’s not just the car or the engine. I think it’s the show; it’s the length of the races; it’s where and when we race. Are we going to run more at night? Short tracks?

“Let’s call it ‘Gen 7’ — for NASCAR, not just the car.”

Roger Penske: “Let’s call it ‘Gen 7’ for NASCAR, not just the car.” Image by Thacker / LAT

“Gen 7”, of course, will be the next generation of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car the sanctioning body is looking to roll out by 2021. The following year could see a new engine package, but that won’t come any sooner: NASCAR’s deal with its OEMs sees the current engines in use through the ’21 season.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” said Kyle Busch during Daytona 500 Media Day. “A lot of ideas that everyone has thrown out there — what they want to see or would like to see, or what kind of things they’d like to have happen for Gen 7.

“I’ve even heard independent rear suspension being thrown around. That would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport!

Kyle Busch: “I’m not sure where this all lands!” Image by Whitton / LAT

“I’m not sure where all that lands or where they’re at at the current moment. I think ’21 is a tight timeline to get all of it done by. We’ll see how aggressive they get and what comes down the line.”

The makeup of the schedule also remains a hot topic. NASCAR President Steve Phelps has said more than once that “everything” is on the table. Last summer, details began to emerge about SMI CEO Marcus Smith getting involved with officials at the Nashville Fairgrounds with a plan to help bring NASCAR racing back there.

More short tracks and road courses are routinely asked for, and on Media Day, Leavine Family Racing team owner Bob Leavine offered his vote for visiting more of those facilities.

Bob Leavine: “More short tracks, more road courses….” Image by Levitt / LAT

Denny Hamlin has pushed for shorter races, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver using the analogy that the 100-meter dash is a more popular Olympic event than the 26.2-mile marathon.

Hamlin went further, adding that perhaps the racing calendar could be shortened up as well.

Kurt Busch felt the sport already was moving in the direction of change, but under the new leadership of chairman and CEO Jim France, there’s “an opportunity for everybody to easily hit the change button, to move things quicker.”

France has been in charge since his nephew, Brian France, was arrested for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance last August in New York. With the announcement a few days later that Brian was taking an indefinite leave of absence, Jim stepped quickly into a new role. While he hasn’t always been as visible to outsiders, the garage has been highly supportive.

“I think Jim has done a tremendous job of ‘being around,’” said Kyle Busch. “He’s always carrying a pen and a notebook. He’s always taking notes, always listening and talking to people. He’s in the garage area. He’s down in the trenches. He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport, and that’s what we all want. We want somebody that’s involved, that’s into this as much as we’re all into this, and who cares about all of this. I think that we’ve seen some positive out of all that.”

Busch’s car owner, Joe Gibbs, called this an “exciting time” in the sport. Admitting there have been struggles, Gibbs believes Jim France is “on board and after it” with his leadership.

“Having regular meetings with everybody has kind of put everything on the table,” said Gibbs. “Ed [Laukes] and Toyota and the other manufacturers are involved — all of us. We’ve got a great fan base, and I think everything is really out there — scheduling, everything that you’re talking about, cost savings — everything is up for review.

Joe Gibbs: “I’m excited about our sport.” Image by Levitt / LAT

“Sometimes when you go through tough times, those wind up being the best times because it causes you to really think your way through things,” Gibbs added. “I’m excited about our sport.”

It will be exciting, too, to see what the sport ends up looking like in the coming years.

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