By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – When the checkered flag waves on Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway, it will mark the end of an era.
After a run of nine years, the current Gen 6 car, which has run through different iterations since 2013, will be retired and replaced by the Next Gen car, representing the biggest shakeup in the way NASCAR races in recent memory.
As a part of championship weekend in Arizona, NASCAR President Steve Phelps took the podium for his annual State of the Sport address, with the Next Gen car being one of the major topics discussed. Phelps started off by noting that NASCAR has turned a corner while battling through the pandemic and the sport is much stronger today than it was a couple of years ago.
Phelps added that while the Next Gen is an integral part of NASCAR’s future, there are still many unknowns that come with such a drastic change in the way the sport does business. Despite that, Phelps said that he is excited for the possibilities that the new car opens up.
“Last year wasn’t an easy year. But we persevered,” Phelps said. “Frankly we are a stronger sport today than we were pre-pandemic. I would argue with anyone who would say otherwise.
“As we look forward into 2022, obviously we’ve got a significant change that’s happening in the sport, which is the car that we’re going to drive. The Next Gen car is an important part of the future of where NASCAR is going to go. It really hits on a lot of different important things for this sport, whether you’re talking about relevance, you’re talking about styling, you’re talking about bringing this car to a place that, frankly, the existing car can’t bring us to. The technology in the car, the data that’s going to spin off that car, all designed to enhance the fan experience. That’s what I think is going to happen here.
“It will create some opportunities for race teams to be competitive for a long time. The racing itself is going to be one that is going to continue the momentum we’ve had from a racing standpoint and a competition standpoint.
“Is it going to be exactly like it is today, significant number of passes for the lead throughout the field? I don’t know. But I do know that our race teams, our drivers, our OEMs, our own competition people, will make sure that this is going to be the best racing we’ve ever had in this race car.”
Phelps continued by saying that the new car has drummed up a good amount of interest among fans, but there is more work to be done to educate everyone about just what this new vehicle means for all involved and that the sanctioning body will put all their effort toward that goal after the championship weekend in Phoenix is complete.
“We need to get through our championship, then all guns pointed towards making sure the fans understand what this car is about,” Phelps said.
“You look back in May when we did the full unveil. One of the best days on social and digital that we’ve had all year. There was tremendous interest from the fans for this race car.
“I think the car frankly is for them. That’s why it was developed. There are other by-products of that that are going to be positive for this sport. It really is bringing NASCAR to a new era.
“As I see it, this car looks so good and it looks like the duplicate of a souped-up showroom car, I believe the statement putting the stock back in stockcar is a good phrase for us, frankly. It’s what the fans have been asking for.
“You don’t need to be a manufacturer to produce this car. You need to assemble the car smartly, right, then have enough leeway in what that’s going to be to put on great racing. I think that’s what we’re going to see.”
He added that while the reaction to the Next Gen car has been mostly positive, there is a contingent of the fan base that is not satisfied with NASCAR going full force into the high downforce, low horsepower package with the new car.
Phelps explained that the racing he sees at tracks that employ the 550-horsepower is some of the best on the schedule and while he wishes they could satisfy all of the fans, making everyone happy is not feasible.
“I would look at it two ways. As I said in my opening, optically what do you see? Do you think the racing is good or not? Our fan council data would suggest the answer is yes,” Phelps pointed out. “Is there a vocal minority that says that they don’t like a 550-horsepower package, they want to see 750 plus? Absolutely.
“I would go back past kind of the optics test or the eye test, I would go to the data. The data suggests we have better racing right now than we’ve had arguably ever.
“When you are at a 550 track, you have a restart, I mean, it is wild. These drivers are up on the wheel and they’re making moves that are incredible. I frankly don’t know how they do it. Certainly not something I would do. They’re incredible. I think they’re putting on some unbelievable racing.
“So, I’ve said it before, and I know that it seems convenient, but we are not going to make every race fan happy. I wish we could, I really do. But what one person likes, another person doesn’t. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to look at the number of people who are saying, the maximum number of people who are saying, I really like that, give them more of what they’re getting.
“I think we’ve responded frankly to what the fans have had to say. Fans said they want more road courses. We have more road courses. Fans say they want more short tracks. I think people who bang that drum, we’ll do our best to find short tracks that will satisfy them that can host Cup races, like we may see in the future in southern California.”
Delayed from its original 2021 debut and pushed to 2022, NASCAR, teams and the manufacturers were allowed additional time to iterate on the car in an effort to work out all of the kinks before the car hits the track for competition next year.
Thus far, the Next Gen car has been put through its paces at several single car tests, along with a number of multi-car tests, the most recent of which came at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in mid-October. At least three additional organizational tests are planned at the Charlotte oval in November, Phoenix in December, and Daytona in January.
In anticipation of the Clash at the L.A. Coliseum in February 2022, NASCAR also ran a test with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart at Bowman-Gray Stadium to gather data for the season-opening exhibition race. A test is also scheduled at a dirt track in the near future to see how the car performs ahead of the Cup Series races on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway in April 2022.
While the current supply chain issues that are plaguing the country are a concern, Phelps said that they are keeping an eye on that and hope to be in a position with the car that any problems with the supply chain won’t derail the project.
“What I would say is that this car has been tested, run, more collaboration than any other new car in the history of this sport,” Phelps said of the effort of all parties involved in the car’s development. “Not even close. The Gen-5 car that came out, we ran a test in January before we raced it at Bristol for the first time.
“I am confident, and we check all the time on supply chain issues. As of now there are no issues. We’ll continue to monitor that because it’s important. If you got 30 major components to the car, you only have 29 of them, you have a problem. Until the car is on the racetrack, we’ll continue to give it all the attention that it deserves, which is a lot.
“With respect to issues with the car that we’re working through, right now it’s really down to two things that we see, which is steering, which you guys have talked about, and getting that right, the other is the heat in the car. We’ve got some solves for that that the drivers I believe are feeling more satisfied with.
“Listen, until it comes out and we’re actually at the L.A. Coliseum, we’re at the 500, with race cars on the racetrack, I’ll continue to be concerned. But I would say Steve O’Donnell, Probst, Brandon Thomas, that group, working with our teams, working with our OEM partners, have done an incredible job getting us to this point.
“I’m super proud of the group. I think this is a really important milestone for NASCAR. We have to get it right.”