Here’s what NASCAR’s Next Gen test at the Charlotte Roval revealed

·7 min read

NASCAR teams staked out at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course for two days following a dramatic Cup playoff race at the same venue, but lightning-quick adjustments were far in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps more accurately, they were in the rearview camera, which is one of the many new features of the Next Gen car teams will continue testing ahead of the 2022 season.

The camera is an optional feature for drivers, and it’s not the biggest difference in the new car compared with the Gen-6 model Cup teams are currently running. The changes in the new car, which include a symmetrical and composite body, independent rear suspension system and a single, center-locking lug nut (versus five smaller ones), are vast.

Some of those differences, among many others, contributed to a first day of testing at the Roval that Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler described as “excruciatingly slow.”

“I look at it like taking NFL players and asking them to go play tennis,” Geisler said. “They’re gonna be frustrated getting started cause they’re gonna suck at it.”

Geisler mentioned the seemingly “simple” practices that are part of the learning curve, such as crew members knowing which wrenches to use, a task that appears automatic in an industry that thrives on speed. But this week, teams were muddling through awkwardly timed choreography getting inside the car and ironing out issues before putting their most competitive machines on a brand new racetrack in four months. Penske driver Joey Logano called it old-school testing.

“It kind of feels like back in the late-model days where you don’t have all the computer sims to go off of to say, ‘This is where everything needs to be,’ ” Logano said. “You’re kind of I don’t want to say — shooting from the hip, but a little bit you are as we learn.”

Next Gen test indicates progress but not perfection

The two test days included 21 cars across 18 organizations, and some drivers sharing seat time in the same vehicle. For nearly 20 hours, the low-and-loud sound of Next Gen making laps at Charlotte filled the air, with brief pauses for a few (relatively minor) spins.

In addition to crew members and engineers, drivers are still getting acclimated with a car that has steering quirks and heat issues, which NASCAR will continue to work on with teams during upcoming test sessions. The next team test is scheduled for Nov. 17-18 at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval.

“I think all of us are having those issues,” No. 8 Chevrolet RCR driver Tyler Reddick said of the steering.

He described the feeling inside the car as like being “parallel parked and you’re trying to turn the wheel but the wheel won’t turn.”

“And you’re like, ‘I don’t know why the wheel’s not turning,’ when it’s stuck on the curb to your left or your right,” Reddick said.

Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, said that his car was having a similar problem on some laps, but that overall the Next Gen car “drives awesome” compared with the current car when it doesn’t have the steering problem, highlighting its potential.

“It has more grip,” Bowman said. “With the solid axle in the current car, it’s pretty difficult at the road courses. You have to be pretty ginger with it and try to avoid wheel hop. With the independent rear suspension (in the new car), it just kind of makes it easier to drive on the road course stuff. When the steering issues pop up, it’s a bit of a nightmare.”

The steering will be one area teams look to collaboratively address, in addition to excessive heat inside the car that drivers mentioned during a smaller team test at Daytona International Speedway last month. Logano called the car at Daytona the “hottest thing” he ever drove “by a long shot.”

To address that feedback, four cars ran laps with modifications to facilitate cooling at Charlotte, which included changes to the length and location of exhaust pipes, additional air ducts and slits in the rear windows. The review from two drivers in the cars with the changes, Reddick and Bowman, was positive about heat mitigation. However, the different course and cooler temperatures for the latest test won’t leave that box completely checked after Tuesday, although NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation John Probst said on Monday that cars are equipped with temperature sensors to quantify the efficacy of changes.

In addition to the Charlotte oval next month, another team test is planned for Dec. 14 and 15 at Phoenix, and Jan. 11 and 12 at Daytona, with additional dates for team testing next year to be finalized. Those additional testing sites will be at Martinsville and either Las Vegas or Kansas. Multiple tire tests at Atlanta (Ga.), Bowman Gray Stadium (N.C.) and Wythe Raceway (Va.) — are also planned.

What’s next for Next Gen?

The arrival of Next Gen has required an unprecedented level of collaboration among industry stakeholders, including NASCAR, manufacturers, teams, sponsors, drivers and crew members. Teams are supplied with chassis for Next Gen rather than building their own, which is a dramatic shift.

Additionally, the notebook is slim for the new car, although the very first test ran two years ago. The car was in a prototype phase at that point, however, and has radically developed since. NASCAR this week revealed its 2022 rules package, which will be 670 horsepower on short tracks and road courses, and 550 horsepower on intermediate tracks. The superspeedway package is to be determined.

For NASCAR and teams, there remains much to be learned at upcoming test sessions given the relative newness of the car and the aforementioned garage-wide issues.

“It’s underdeveloped at the moment,” Logano said. “It’s brand new to all of us. We have no data, sim tools, to go off of really to figure out what we want to do, so that’s what we’re doing right now is really trying to grow that database by making changes to the car and seeing if it’s better or not.”

Geisler noted that the collaborative mentality between teams is also starting to shift. Teams will likely become more closed off about sharing data at upcoming tests as they look to gain speed advantages. Speeds from both days of testing ranged between 99.231 mph to 106.296 mph. NASCAR wasn’t officiating laps, however, and those following along were cautioned against reading too much into the early results. But Geisler also pointed to the competitive nature of the garage.

“We’re programmed to be top left on the board and if you’re not there, it doesn’t feel very good,” Geisler said. “So times matter no matter where you we are, when we are. If we’re racing wheelbarrows, we’d be looking at lap times.”

He described the car as it stands in “rough draft” format, which might be a concern with the debut a few months out. Geisler didn’t seem worried.

“It’s racing,” Geisler said. “That’s what we do.”

“I think that’s part of what challenges our sport,” he continued, noting the inefficiencies teams aim to minimize. “ ... But at the end of the day, the product is an entertainment product for our fans and we’re supposed to put on the best race we can, and whether we have to change some parts and pieces along the way, that’s our job to figure out and make it work.”

With teams facing arguably their biggest challenge yet, with eight still contending for a 2021 championship, the question that remains is just how fast they can figure it out.

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