Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR

Phelps, O’Donnell Cover Variety of Topics in Annual State of the Sport Address

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ahead of the season finale at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR president Steve Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell took to the stage to for the annual State of the Sport address, which recapped the sport’s 74th year of existence and looked ahead to the future.

First and foremost was the safety of the Next Gen car, which Phelps discussed was designed to be a stronger car to protect against the massive hits, like the ones sustained by Ryan Newman at Daytona and Joey Logano at Talladega, but in strengthening the car, the more mundane impacts wound up having a negative effect on the drivers, which the sanctioning body is now working to remedy.

“As with anything that is new, you’re going to learn, collect data, which we’ve done,” O’Donnell said. “Adjustments have been made to the rear clip that’s already gone out to the race teams for next year.

“I think that dialogue with the race teams, with the drivers, about how we continued to – what Steve talked about – protect from the catastrophic is the number one priority, then as you go, what are you learning about this new car.

“What we’re learning is those smaller hits, which we’ve never seen before in terms of a car that we’ve raced, are the ones we really need to concentrate on. That’s why you’re seeing the tweaks being made to the clip, for those smaller impacts, even a bump on a restart, those types of things.

“It’s not just the car. I think the dialogue we’ve had with the teams now involves how are you fitting in your seat, helmets, foam head surround. All those things are part of this dialogue, which is really, really good. We’re seeing some improvements on a daily basis as we look towards 2023.”

While the Next Gen car has had its problems safety-wise, the on-track product that the car has been able to deliver in producing a record-tying 19 different winners this season has been a major storyline in 2022.

“If you consider that before this year, the Next Gen car, you had to have a relationship with one of five race teams if you wanted to come into this sport. You had to,” Phelps explained.

“This car changed that. What does this car do? There was a relevance to this car for OE partners. The styling was fantastic of this car. Then the question would be, Well, what’s the raceability of the car? The raceability of the car was such that it resulted in 19 different winners, so more than half the field won a race in NASCAR this year. Five first-time winners. More passes throughout the field in a single season.

“By the way, that happened four weeks ago. So, I would say the racing has delivered. It’s been terrific.”

The bread and butter of the Next Gen car has been on intermediate tracks this season, while racing on short tracks and road courses has not quite been up to par. However, O’Donnell noted that the sanctioning body is working on some changes to try and fix those issues heading into 2023.

“For sure looking at some aero changes for both short tracks and road courses,” O’Donnell said. “We have a lot of dialogue going on with the drivers in terms of potentially looking at some power things. I think that’s a little more complicated. There are some things we’ve looked at even through Garage 56 that we found from an aero standpoint that could be put in place as early as next year for both short tracks and road courses.

“The good news is continuing to dial in on the intermediates which we believe we’re in a really good spot, but then really focus on the short tracks and road courses.

“A lot of work being done collectively to focus on both areas.”

With the advent of the Next Gen car comes the question of new OEMs coming into the sport to join the three manufacturers currently in play with Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota. O’Donnell noted that there is no news on that front as of now, but they continue to talk with other OEMs to assess their interest in joining NASCAR at some point in the future.

“There is ongoing dialogue,” O’Donnell said. “I think it’s a really complicated time in the auto industry in general. So, balancing that in terms of what is the sport going to look like three, four, five years from now.

“The good news is you heard Steve talk about the growth of the sport, the eyeballs, the interest. So no matter what you’re racing, that interest is there.

“But I think the ability for us now to line up what type of engine, what type we do across all three national series, gives us a really good opportunity.”

Moving on from the Next Gen car, Phelps explained his excitement with the youth movement currently underway in the sport, not only with the current crop of drivers in the Cup Series, but those moving up from the Xfinity and Truck Series as well.

“I think you look at the Cup Series specifically, and actually all four, there’s a youth movement in NASCAR,” Phelps said. “We saw that youth movement a couple years ago kind of start to take hold and take root.

“But you need to win, right? It’s one thing to have young drivers come into our Cup Series, but could they win? They’ve proven again and again and again this year that they can.

“The face of our Championship 4 in the Cup Series, average age of 28 years old, is pretty exciting. On top of the last two years’ champions, one was 24 at the time and one was 29 at the time, in Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.

“It’s exciting…. I am thrilled that these young guys are getting to race against first-ballot Hall of Famers, right, like Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. It’s a really exciting time. To see these guys that are going to be with this sport for another 15, 20 years, watching their fan bases develop…

“People want to root for people that are like themselves, right? No one wants to root for me, right (smiling)? They want people that look like them, that have the same interests.

“We’re seeing a lot more influx of young people from a fan perspective. A lot of that is being driven by the young drivers themselves.”

Phelps added that he and others in the sanctioning body are excited by the prospect of the younger drivers and their personalities helping to drive the sport forward and explained that the star power that they are able to generate will be the biggest push in helping continue the sport’s upward trajectory.

He also noted that having these younger drivers in race winning equipment helps, pointing to the likes of championship contender Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, and Bubba Wallace as drivers that have been able to win Cup races this season. Current Xfinity drivers and future Cup stars Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs were also mentioned as drivers that have been able to put their personalities on display this season – for better or worse.

“Seeing these personalities and drivers have their personalities come out, I think for a long time you had, prior to social media, it was really the only outlet they had was you all, right? That served this sport well for a long time. But I do think the advent of social media and drivers that have been able to create a personality and show that is helpful,” Phelps said.

“But you need to win, right? I think that was part of the issue with some of these young drivers; they weren’t winning. But now they are. They’re competing for championships. You’ve got fresh faces that have burst onto the scene.

“Ross Chastain, never been to the Playoffs. He was in cars previously that were running towards the back of the field. He and Daniel Suarez and Trackhouse, what they’ve done, it’s extraordinary. Bubba Wallace winning, other new race teams coming onboard.

“But with respect to the personalities, we love it. Noah Gragson, fantastic. The story lines that will come into the Xfinity Series tomorrow with the three JRM drivers and Ty, that’s good for this sport, right? You guys want something to write about. You want something to talk about on television. That’s what we want.

“Having guys that are brash and different and bold, that are creating their own fan bases, because they are that, right? So, Ross Chastain has a terrific personality. He backs it up on the track. He’s unapologetic about it.

“So, I think star power is critical. We are going to embrace the star power, kind of put an accelerant on it because that will help the sport grow.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.