NASCAR completed its largest test of the brand-new Next Gen Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway's oval last week. The results? A lot of promise on many technical aspects, but a need for improvement in how the cars interact with each other in traffic.
The Charlotte oval test was the debut of a number of changes to try to alleviate cockpit heat with the Next Gen car. The changes appear to be working, but some had an impact on handling.
The first day of testing showed that the cars were a couple seconds slower around the Charlotte oval than the outgoing Generation 6 cars. Variables like engine power, weight, and the aerodynamics all played a part. But the changes made to reduce temperatures in the cabin–like the rear window slits–also had an impact on the aerodynamics which further slowed them down.
Drivers we spoke to were mostly pleased with how the cars drove on their own. Previous issues, like the lack of steering response, appear to have been improved thanks to collaborative efforts between the teams, NASCAR, and the vendors. Drivers felt the new cars were more challenging to drive, but many were not pleased with how they drove in traffic and the impacts of dirty air.
While most drivers didn't go into specifics, it is apparent from watching that dirty air from the lead car has an inordinate impact on the cars behind. This is exacerbated even further by the fact that the cars are running wide open around the track most of the time. Tire wear is still fairly minimal, with Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain commenting that he saw around two seconds of tire fall-off over a 35-lap run at which point he had to start lifting.
While this is an improvement over the most recent combination which saw only about a second of fall-off over long runs, it still means that teams could stretch tires, like in the recent Coca-Cola 600, instead of having a variety of strategies and organic passing due to tire wear.
NASCAR tried to test one aerodynamic change on the second day by offering a seven-inch spoiler to replace the eight-inch spoiler that most teams were running. This was meant to compensate for the drag created by the slits in the rear window, but it didn’t seem to impact speed in a huge way. According to Chastain, drivers only gained around a tenth and a half of a second with the shorter spoiler. He also shared that lowering the car less than half an inch was more impactful. According to sources inside the garage, most teams did not see a significant improvement from the shorter spoiler, but some did see issues with balance once it was installed, which is why many stayed with the eight-inch option.
Ride height plays a significant role in the handling and speed, and these cars are riding quite high at this time. These ride heights are dictated by the aluminum rub block under the car that prevents the underside from touching the track along with travel limiter devices placed in the shocks. According to sources in the garage, NASCAR might be looking at allowing the cars to be lower and changing one or both of these devices in order to help them race better. It makes sense. The Next Gen is heavily dependent on the flat floor and underwing for downforce. Having the car so high off the ground likely impacts how effective these components are.
One of the big elements of the Next Gen car is cost savings and the ability for teams to repair a car after a crash. The first proof came as Austin Dillon crashed early Wednesday while the track was still fairly cold and possibly damp. Everyone in the garage gathered to inspect the damage. The car and crew left for the Richard Childress Racing shop which is an hour north just before 11 AM once some of the dangling pieces were removed.
The car spent roughly five hours at the shop. The team inspected and documented the damage and then went on to unbolt and replace a majority of the components at the front end in addition to replacing the damaged bodywork. This may not have been possible with the previous car as the front clip was welded to the center section.
The left upper control arm was the main broken suspension component, with the rest not having significant damage. RCR still replaced the entire front suspension, a no-brainer since the front clip was also being replaced. In addition to those repairs, the engine was replaced as it appeared a motor mount cracked.
Once those structural components were replaced, a new front fascia, splitter, hood, fenders, and tail section were installed. The car was checked over and sent back to the track. This is a significant proof of concept, it showed that this type of repair is possible to do over a race weekend. It could also be significantly shortened if there was a front clip ready with most of the components mounted. It is very likely that we’ll see teams building up sets of spares to make this happen.
Dillon's Chevy returned to the track that evening and was present for the next day of testing, including the first live pit stop practice which was held for an hour on Thursday afternoon.
— Josh Hamilton (@joshahamilton) November 18, 2021
The RCR pit crew looked like they were some of the most comfortable with the new single-lug configuration and have already started moving fairly quickly. It is apparent that the crew are used to the choreography of the five-lug pit stops, but with practice it is very possible that we could see sub-10 second tire changes. The immediate limiting factors right now are the jacks not being quick enough to keep up with the single lug changes. We also haven’t seen what a full fuel fill looks like. It should take longer with the new, two-gallon larger fuel cell. Pit stop choreography looked fairly similar so many fans will not notice a huge difference, outside the change in the sound of the wheel guns.
NASCAR has a number of tests scheduled as the 2022 season approaches with a Phoenix Raceway test in mid-December along with a large test at Daytona in January, in addition to smaller tests like a tire test at Wythe Raceway in preparation for the Bristol dirt race. According to sources inside the garage, the Charlotte test is also likely to get a repeat, possibly before the Phoenix test as long as teams can get enough spare parts in time. We’ll be monitoring closely to see what changes NASCAR implements and recommends as these tests approach.
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