Over the past month, NASCAR's ambitious new Next Gen car platform has passed high-profile tests at the Los Angeles Coliseum and Daytona 500. Sunday's race at Fontana is a far less high-profile affair, but it might actually be the most telling test the car will face.
Daytona and the L.A. Coliseum short track are NASCAR's two extremes. One, a flat-out and high-banked track known for pack racing, has a style of competition determined almost entirely by aerodynamics and cooling. The other, a track so small that drivers were lifting off the throttle for the next corner before the start/finish line, is too slow for aerodynamics to be particularly relevant at any point. While both were successes worth celebrating, and both showed the promise of the Next Gen car in those applications, neither told us anything about what this car will look like week-to-week. That changes at Fontana, a 2-mile, low-banked intermediate oval that has in the past raced like a wider and rougher version of some of the "Cookie cutter" 1.5-mile ovals that make up a massive portion of the NASCAR schedule.
That makes Sunday our first real look at whether or not the new car has accomplished its most notable competition goal: Solving boring racing at those tracks big enough for aerodynamics to make passing difficult but not so big that the draft becomes relevant. For the past few decades, NASCAR has struggled at these tracks with an "aero push" element, an effect where air coming off the leading car significantly slows anyone trying to pass for position in a group and greatly reduces the ability for a trailing car to make a pass. By moving to symmetrical bodies approved only by the manufacturer, a new downforce concept that integrates a diffuser, and a mid-horsepower package introduced late into offseason testing, NASCAR believes they might have a competition setup that actually solves at least part of that problem. If they do, the season will be an immediate success.
The first, and most important element, is how the cars react to each other in traffic. As 23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch explains, previous cars were designed by teams to create side-force that greatly altered how they raced when side-by-side. Now that the cars all share manufacturer-designed symmetrical and common bodies, he hopes that the "dirty air" created as a side effect of this technique will be reduced:
That's what we're hoping for, the old cars were reliant so much on the side-draft and side-force. We were starting to shape the right sides of the car like a spoon, so when we were in yaw two or three degrees it created side-force and we could lean on it that way. This car doesn't have that, so hopefully we'll be able to be side by side with less risk.
Busch also noted that testing at the sand-worn Phoenix Raceway showed Goodyear's new-for-2022 tires to be nearly two and a half seconds slower after they begin to wear over the course of a run. Chris Gabehart, crew chief of Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing entry, believes Fontana's particularly coarse track surface will create the same effect and make that new tire degradation element relevant immediately:
I think it could be huge, especially coupled with the low downforce package and us not having refined our setups yet. Those cars will start on those feel-good tires for a lap or two, but between the low downforce package, the high degradation of the track, the tire, and us not having the setups optimized, you're going to see a lot of fall-off. Which is great racing, and 'oh, by the way,' I'm only going to have so many sets in the pits, so managing those things is extremely important. I think you're going to see a great race.
Fontana is just one test, though. The next two races are at other, similar kinds of tracks typical to the NASCAR schedule: One of those "cookie cutter" 1.5-mile intermediate ovals in Las Vegas and the flat, 1-mile short intermediate at Phoenix Raceway. Las Vegas will be something like a control race, a relatively freshly paved intermediate with predictable weather that will look like the perfect average of a regular NASCAR Cup Series race. Phoenix will be more telling of how the cars will perform at tracks like Darlington, Dover, New Hampshire, and Richmond, all wholly unique layouts too fast to be seen as traditional short tracks and too technical to be seen as intermediate speedways.
Neither Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson nor Busch were particularly worried about how the car will perform on road courses, where testing has shown it to be a significant improvement over the past car. For Wilson, his concern is more how the car will perform at these tracks that represent the bulk of the schedule:
Now, focusing forward, it's a question of what we look like on the intermediates and on the short tracks. I think we're all pretty optimistic about how the cars are going to race on the road courses, as it's kind of like a sports car.
Busch sees the stretch as a perfect chance to see what the car can do in anger. For him, that process has already started and goes for another month."It's going to be a four or five week evaluation. Give it Daytona, Fontana, Vegas, and Phoenix. We'll go from there," he told Road & Track.
I'm heading into the stretch with a very cautious optimism. Supply chain issues mean that the Next Gen car has had far from a perfect debut, but the on-track product at both Los Angeles and Daytona was excellent and testing has given drivers some real hope that these intermediate tracks could be better now, too. If they are, NASCAR's immediate future is much brighter.
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