By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Since the Next Gen car made its debut in the NASCAR Cup Series earlier this year, drivers have been concerned with the severity of the impacts they have been feeling in the cockpit.
This week, those concerns were amplified even further when it was announced that Alex Bowman would have to sit out of Sunday’s Yellawood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway while he recovers from concussion-like symptoms following a crash last weekend at Texas.
Bowman’s absence marks the second driver in the last 10 weeks that has had to sit out due to concussion-like symptoms, with the Hendrick Motorsports driver joining former Cup champion Kurt Busch on the sidelines. Busch crashed during his qualifying run at Pocono in late July and has not returned to driving duties in the weeks since.
Among those that have been the loudest to voice their concerns is Busch’s team owner and veteran driver, Denny Hamlin, who has made his feelings about the safety aspects of the Next Gen car well known over the past months.
Ahead of on-track action at Talladega on Saturday, Hamlin was once again atop his soapbox, trying to get his message across to the sanctioning body that something needs to be done to improve the safety of the Next Gen car.
Hamlin called for a complete redesign of the Next Gen car to alleviate all of the issues that are ongoing with it since its debut.
“The main goal right now for NASCAR is to change the rear clip for the drivers,” Hamlin said. “The car needs to be redesigned. It needs a full redesign. I mean, it can be still be called NextGen, but it needs to be redesigned. I mean, it needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, the whole thing needs to be redesigned.
“We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s gonna be rough and this thing’s just gonna get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it, you know, the competition and safety. We’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.
“You know, it’s tough. We brought up these concerns with NASCAR last winter…We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing that the car has got to be on the racetrack at all costs. At all costs.”
In addition, Hamlin explained that the path forward is uncertain until the sport shifts from a reactive mindset to a proactive mindset.
“I don’t know how you move forward. You just trust that someone’s gonna wake up and say, All right, we didn’t do a good job. We admit it and we’re gonna do better starting right now. We’re gonna be retroactive and we’re not gonna be so reactive. We’re not gonna wait until something bad happens to fix it.
“I mean, we see it with rules, we see it with competition. It’s all reactive, right? Never are they in front of anything. So you just got to hope and pray that they wake up and have a different mentality.
“We’re just in a box here where we just can’t change anything. So, I don’t know what we do. We just run around in circles until eventually we all say enough is enough and we do something about it. Or NASCAR essentially makes changes to help.”
He added that while he and fellow veteran Kevin Harvick have been the most outspoken in the driving corps, some of the younger drivers need to speak up more as their runway in the sport is much longer than his.
“We can’t do it alone,” Hamlin said. “I mean, the other guys, they’ll bitch and moan to us, but they need to have their voice heard as well. They’re gonna be in the sport for a long time. When me and Kevin are gone, you know, someone has to step up and be the voice of reason and call things as they are.
“I know a lot of these young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t gonna be happy to be here when their brains are scrambled for rest of their lives.”
Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion and the series’ most popular driver, echoed Hamlin’s comments, noting that there was “no excuse” for the safety concerns that the new car has brought in its debut year and added that this generation of the Cup car was a step “backwards” compared to previous iterations.
“I don’t feel like we should have ever been in this position to begin with, to need to go forward,” Elliott said. “We should have gone forward with a new opportunity at a new car, in my opinion. You have all of these years of experience, knowledge, time of racing, crashing these cars and teams working on them and building them.
“It just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that offers all of this technology and all of this time and experience of so many super talented people in this sport and we allow it to go backwards, especially with safety.
“It’s just super surprising to me that we allow that to happen. But we did and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here; making sure we’re making the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex (Bowman) this week from happening. And what happened to Kurt (Busch).. those types of incidents didn’t result in injuries in the past handful of years from just me watching.
“I think there are a lot of really smart individuals to try and help make that happen, and I’m confident that we will. But it’s crucial that we do, in my opinion, because having guys out during the playoffs right now – or any time for that matter – shouldn’t be happening and I think it’s taking away from our product on Sunday.”
Asked about the impacts that the drivers have taken throughout the year in the Next Gen car, Joey Logano explained that there are some aspects in which the car is safer, including the intrusion protection it provides, but overall, the other concerns the car brings outweigh the newly added benefits.
“The intrusion piece of the car is definitely better,” Logano said. “So, when I think of [Ryan] Newman’s crash or my crash here [in 2021] with the roof collapsing, I feel like this car is better. From that standpoint, it definitely is. It’s just the everyday wrecks that are significantly worse.
Logano added that the safety concerns the Next Gen car brings are definitely in the back of his mind when the straps in each week, something that he hasn’t had to deal with to this point in his career.
“I can’t say I’ve ever had the thoughts I’m having right now in my career. I’ve been here for 15 years and there’s been concerning things and obviously some great improvements, but also like I’ve said, I’ve never seen three drivers out at the same time.
“You do get a little concerned about that. I’ve put more effort in this year making sure my headrest is right. The stuff I can control. I can’t build the car, I can’t design the car and change the structure and those type of things to make it better, but I can control my seat, my gear and stuff. So, I’ve just got to worry about that stuff and then just go race.”
Crew chief Greg Ives, who helms the No. 48 car that Bowman normally drives and has an engineering background, pointed to the rigidity of the car needing to be the focus of forthcoming changes to improve the safety for not only his driver, but also the other drivers in the field.
“The one area I looked at was the area of the bolt-on bumpers,” Ives explained. “The aluminum bolt-on bumpers, maybe we can create a little bit more of a crush area with those. But ultimately, you can’t swing and miss with that. If it blows through that bolt-on piece quicker, now you’re connecting into something else.
“So, we can’t knee-jerk react at it, but we have to react and then try to implement something calculated as much as you can. There’s things we can do, but ultimately, you’ve got to put your focus and emphasis on one thing and try to get that right.”
Ironically, Sunday’s race at Talladega mimics a similar situation from seven years ago that brought Bowman to the cockpit of a Hendrick Motorsports car.
After Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was sidelined due to a concussion in 2016, Bowman filled in as a relief driver for the remainder of the season, which has come full circle with Bowman now on the sidelines and Noah Gragson taking over driving duties for him.
“I’m not liking that trend,” Ives said. “That’s why I want to be a big part of trying to help and not have to find backup drivers on Thursday. All in all, it’s definitely a bad situation to be in and experience and see your friends go through that.”