A month and a half after its debut at the Los Angeles Coliseum, NASCAR's Next Gen car looks like the sport's most promising step in decades. The car has now put on successful and competitive races at 1/4 mile, 1.5 mile, 2 mile, and 2.5 mile tracks, plus a road course and a completely new type of intermediate built for pack racing. But that great success is coming at a cost. The sheer ambition of the Next Gen program has left teams adapting to historically major changes with fewer spare cars than ever, all in far tighter windows than teams that have universally downsized since the last season have experienced.
In the opening races, the biggest issues had been with the actual supply of cars. This was public knowledge since at least December, when Brad Keselowski admitted that his RFK Racing team was expected to start the season with five total cars for its two-car team. While that may be enough for a full season in other racing series, NASCAR teams regularly go through a dozen or more cars per driver. It left teams scrambling throughout a complicated opening schedule that started in Los Angeles, raced at Daytona two weeks later, then immediately began a three-leg west coast road trip through Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix in successive weeks.
At Joe Gibbs Racing, that quickly led to a fairly significant issue. The team shipped its back-up cars for the Daytona 500 to be reconfigured for that west coast swing by the Saturday before the 500, even though they still had practice sessions left. A risky move. And it still didn't leave the program with enough cars. Rather than traditional back-up cars, Toyota's top team came to Las Vegas with a parts car to be shared between its four drivers if any had a problem in practice. Kyle Busch crashed nine laps into that session. The team had to build out that parts car as a back-up for Busch to race. It was a significant chunk of additional work to build a car, thankfully for them, Busch still drove to a top five finish.
That led to a critique of the more modular cars. Past eras of NASCAR stock cars were hand-built and wildly different depending on both the team and intended track. These are not. In post-race comments, Busch simply said "They're all the same. They're bought at Walmart."
New 18-inch wheels have forced teams to adapt to single-lug wheel changes, new tire compounds, and a lack of "inner liners" that allowed past NASCAR wheels to act like run-flats. The tires themselves were an issue only at Atlanta, where a few Chevrolet teams suffered surprise flats near the front of the pack. The new lugs and and lack of an inner liner are the more consistent issues.
The tires without inner liners have been a problem since the Daytona 500, when Joey Logano found himself stranded on the trioval banking with two flat rears on an otherwise-healthy car. An incident that used to see the car drive back to the pits ended up losing Logano laps, making him fall out of contention for the win. The new-for-2022 diffuser played a part too. It hangs far enough beneath the rear of the car after a flat that it effectively reduces the ride height for recovery purposes. The problem has persisted at almost every race since.
NASCAR implemented a new recovery ruleset to save teams from suffering race-ending flats, but the long tow times still greatly increase the penalty a team incurs if a car spins with a flat. Given that tires regularly go flat if a driver locks their brakes in the sort of major spin through the runoff that drivers suffer at tracks like Daytona, Talladega, and now Atlanta, this has both increased the length of cautions and left some drivers out of contention from a simple one-car spin.
The lugnuts have been an issue, too. For decades, NASCAR teams have used rotating rosters of athletes who train toward perfecting the traditional five-lug pit stop that was the previous series standard. With a new wheel design, that choreography has been radically changed. The stakes of those stops have increased, too. As Denny Hamlin's crew chief Chris Gabehart explained to Road & Track at Daytona:
I suspect, six months from now, it will be viewed as an easier pit stop from a technical perspective, but right now there's a ton of unknowns. With the aluminum wheels and steel lug hubs, the new nuance of understanding of how to prep the wheels with the nut for ten or eleven pit stops, how to prep all those parts to where they'll last. Keep in mind, the nut now rides with the car for the whole race. It comes off, it comes on. At a place like Fontana, for ten stops. How to prep those surfaces to last the entire race is still new, and then there's the consequences of getting it wrong. Halfway through the season, you'll see eight, nine second bracket pit stops. Trying to go that fast, though, if you get it wrong, there aren't four other lugnuts to back you up. If it's loose, you're in trouble. A lot of damage is going to be caused.
Struggles on the single-lug changes have led to an increase in lost wheels after stops, including two during the Daytona 500. While teams adjust to the new problem, NASCAR's solution has been to throw down hefty suspensions for mistakes. As teams become aware of just how costly that penalty can be, careful pit stops will become a focal point. Two weeks ago, 23XI Racing lost a wheel after a stop at the Circuit of the Americas; the jack man, tire changer, and crew chief involved were suspended four races.
The larger aluminum wheels have smaller tolerances than the old steel wheels, and the combination of uneven camber setups creating odd hub angles and big fenders giving little room for teams to maneuver a wheel during a change have created ample opportunity for new mistakes. Some are as difficult as poor lubrication leading to a nut picking up aluminum over the course of the race. Others are as simple as the actual threading of those hubs, left-hand on all four corners, leading teams to accidentally tighten a wheel while attempting to remove it.
It is a learning process, one worth undergoing to perfect a car that has already shown significant on-track improvements. But, since the new car is built entirely around a business model that allowed teams to significantly cut staff over the offseason to save money, those participating in that learning process are overstretched. By Daytona 500 weekend, Gabehart was already seeing the challenges a long offseason of heavy testing had created for his team:
With the advent of the Next Gen car and the new expense of putting it on, plus the hopes race teams could pare down personnel because of efficiency improvements in the business model, we've lost a lot of people. And now we're needing to test a lot more, but we don't have a lot of parts, so we've got to turn the cars around quicker to go race *and* test. So it's spreading us really thing from a resources perspective, both where people and parts are concerned. Therefore, the quality of what you learn can potentially go down.
At the same time, it's been several years since we've been testing to this degree. All our tools and simulation have gotten a lot, lot better. So you're learning Monday through Friday at the office, whether you make a physical lap or not, but if you pull too many resources away to physically test, are you still learning as much as you could be if you were just focused on simulating? It's a balance, and you're going to have to treat it this way.
In a normal NASCAR season, two off-weekends offer teams a short break from all of this chaos. The new normal is different: Just one off weekend over a 37-race regular season, plus an exhibition race two weeks before that season began, an entire offseason of heavy testing of the new car, and the previous 38-races-in-40-weekends season last year. Teams that hit the road for the Daytona 500 qualifying races on February 16th have raced every weekend since, and will race every weekend until mid-June. Gabehart has a plan for that, but it only covers at-track staff that can reasonably be substituted:
There's certainly [a concern about burnout] short term. Hopefully, by the middle part of the season, this has all gotten well refined and we'll be on autopilot with our week and work schedule routine figured out. I spent some time in the offseason figuring my road crew schedule out such that I give everybody more off-weeks than just the one advertised. I'll be cycling guys in and out throughout the year, trying to help mitigate that. You've got to. I've got one guy that's going to relieve everybody at least a couple times a year. The plan for us is that every guy will have at least three weeks off, counting the off week.
This does not cover Gabehart himself, or his driver Denny Hamlin. Even in a situation with relief built in, the grueling life of a member of the NASCAR circus is now more difficult than ever. Drivers, engineers, crews, and support staff are being asked to learn a new game with new problems on a week-by-week basis until early November. The grueling run is already building a better NASCAR, but it certainly has not been easy.