The clock is ticking, and the Next Gen race car still needs work.
“It’s got some issues, let’s be honest,” said Martin Truex Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing. “The car is not where it needs to be. People are scrambling. We got to make some changes. We need to make it better so we can race with it and put on a show for the fans.
“So, nobody knows what it’s going to be yet. How do you figure out something that’s still changing? It’s going to be interesting, to say the least.”
It’s early December, and the anxiety level still seems high. Even after having an extra year to prepare because of the pandemic, there seems to be much to do and little time in which to do it. Additionally, so many questions and unknowns about 2022 that will not be answered anytime soon.
As Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick noted last week during the season-ending NASCAR Awards Show in Nashville, the sales pitch about the car is over, and the reality of putting it on the track is here. That means getting serious about finding solutions to its problems.
Next Gen has been tested over and over since first hitting the track in late 2019 with Austin Dillon. Development tests. Tire test. A handful of cars for an organizational test. And now teams are in the midst of putting cars they’ve built through their paces.
But for every step forward the industry seems to be taking with a new vehicle, like sorting out a vibration with the steering rack or working through making the cockpit cooler, other issues remain. The most recent test, held last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway, had over 20 participants, but some dissatisfaction over what was seen resulted in officials changing the testing schedule.
Each manufacturer – so, three cars – will be on track later this week on the Charlotte oval. Teams will then return to the speedway on December 15 and 17 for more testing. There is a break on December 16 to evaluate data. Testing will be held in January at Daytona (11-12) and Phoenix (25-26).
“For the most part, it’s been pretty fun to drive. We just got some issues with it when we put a bunch of them on the racetrack,” Truex said. “They need to work on that and fix it.”
Sixty days remain before cars are on track at the L.A. Coliseum for Busch Light Clash practice and qualifying. Seventy-five days remain until the Daytona 500.
The clock stops for no one. Race season is coming, whether everything is buttoned up or not. It goes without saying that the hope is that the car is as ready as it can be to go into battle.
“They have to have more power,” Harvick said. “They’re just not at the particular speed they need to (be). From my standpoint, there isn’t any issue with the 670 (horsepower package). But having to lift off the throttle in (Turns) 3 and 4 definitely made an improvement. I think anytime you can let off the throttle is a good thing for racing.”
Harvick can’t get enough power, and if he were in charge, Harvick would have sent out a memo about having more horsepower long ago. It’s hard to find a driver who doesn’t want as much horsepower as possible.
“I keep raising my hand up for max horsepower and to keep the downforce the same everywhere we go,” said Kurt Busch, now of 23XI Racing. “Why I like that is, if we’re running at a mile-and-a-half like Charlotte and I lift off the gas, I know where the aero is. At Darlington, we had low downforce, and I rolled into Turn 3 and almost hit the wall because there is no drag to slow the car down. I’d like it to be a bit more consistent, but I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Some have said the car is harder to drive. While there is nothing wrong with that for someone like Harvick, the fight to get the car balanced right continues.
“If you can make it drive good at Charlotte, it’s probably going to drive good as most of the mile-and-a-halves you go to,” he said.
Tick, tock. The clock isn’t going to stop, and neither, does it seem, will the evolution of the Next Gen car before it hits the track.
“They’re going to have to try it all,” said Gibbs driver and 23XI Racing team owner Denny Hamlin. “I think it’s going to be very, very important for NASCAR to be really be organized in this Charlotte test and honestly, just come up with a plan of like good, bad, or indifferent, this is what we’re going to do because the supply chain issues is what we’re worried about. Any more changes… we’re 60 days from racing. We’re nervous. We’ve got to lock it in.
“I believe that we do collectively have some good ideas how we can make this car race better and drive better. The COT (ED: Car of Tomorrow, used by the Cup Series between 2008 and 2012) was a mess when we started it, and it got better; I hope we can do the same with this car.”