NASCAR revealed the Next Gen Cup car earlier this year and set the stage for the most revolutionary change to its top series in more than 70 years.
From top to bottom, the seventh-generation Cup car redefines how manufacturers market, how teams operate, and how drivers drive.
The Next Gen car will debut in an exhibition race on February 6, 2022, at the Los Angeles Coliseum before opening the season on February 20, at the Daytona 500.
When NASCAR's seventh-generation Cup race car—a.k.a. the Next Gen—opens the 2022 season at the Daytona 500, it'll be the first one to have aluminum wheels, rack-and-pinion steering, and an independent rear suspension. And those are just a few of the many monumental changes made to the new machines that'll soon be racing in the sport's most prestigious series.
"I don't think most fans can truly appreciate the scope and the level that we're contemplating with this car. It is unprecedented in the history of NASCAR," said Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson. "The magnitude of change is greater, cumulatively, than the sport has seen in the past 50 years."
While the initial timeline was to launch the Next Gen car for the 2021 season, its testing and development were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing its debut to 2022. But the genesis of this revolutionary redesign got off the ground at the beginning of 2019 when NASCAR officials first discussed an all-new platform intended to make the cars look more like the production versions they're based on as well as reduce operating costs to help draw in new teams and manufacturers to compete alongside the current trio of Chevy, Ford, and Toyota.
23XI Team President Steve Lauletta runs a recently formed team that's adding a second driver next season and said he's excited about what the Next Gen car means to the sport, particularly its cost-effective nature. "That's important for somebody in my position that's going around trying to find financial support to try and fund these teams," he said.
Of course, Lauletta acknowledges the short-term investment that's required for teams to retool their facilities and get up to speed, but he said it’s a great opportunity for them in the long term. The Next Gen car will also require teams to rethink how they operate. "It could put a lot more in the hands of the drivers and the strategy calls and all the things that happen on race day as opposed to engineering parts better than the other on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday," he said.
With the Cup series about to undergo a fundamental shift, everyone in the sport must adapt to the new way of life. Adam Stevens, crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, said the major changes are going to dramatically affect how they prepare for the weekend, how they set the cars up, and how they optimize them. "The crew chiefs, the team guys, they've always been man and machine, and this is more transitioning away from the machine," he said. "So, it's not neglecting it, but it's a stark contrast to how we've raced, and prepared to race, and grew up racing our whole lives."
Earlier this year, NASCAR pulled the covers off the Next Gen Cup car and we learned how drastically different it is compared with its predecessors. Without getting into the weeds, the bodies are now symmetrical, with dimensions that are more like regular cars. The body is also now assembled with carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic panels that are more flexible, durable, and cheaper for teams to repair than the old sheetmetal. Fabricating a steel tube frame is no longer necessary as all cars now have a common center cage with bolt-on front and rear subframes that are easier and less expensive to replace after a crash. The suspension is overhauled, too, with the addition of four-way adjustable dampers and the switch from an archaic live rear axle to a sophisticated independent setup.
The new aerodynamic elements beneath the Next Gen car are also significant. Unlike before, there's a rear diffuser that NASCAR will change based on the track type and carbon-fiber undertrays that create a flat surface. The latter eliminates the cost of engineering exposed pieces on the car's underside to be more aerodynamic or to create more downforce. However, the new underfloor has led to some new challenges, namely trapping heat inside the cockpit. This required NASCAR to redesign the exhaust to be about three feet shorter and exit behind the front wheels versus in front of the rear wheels to combat heat soak, according to Wilson.
NASCAR is dealing with a similar problem caused by the chassis design, which has the engine butted up against the firewall. Wilson said they're working with airflow and trying to manage pressure differentials to dissipate some of the heat. "Again, you have to think in relative terms. We're not launching a rocket into space. We'll figure it out. But right now it's a little uncomfortable for the drivers. It'll be a little warm," he said.
Rounding out some of the other most notable changes is the rack-and-pinion steering that supplants the woefully outdated recirculating-ball steering box, the five-speed transaxle that replaces the four-speed gearbox, and the old 15-inch steelies that have been traded in for a set of 18-inch aluminum rims that provide the necessary clearance for larger brakes. These bigger wheels wear newly developed Goodyear Eagle race tires that are wider and have a narrower sidewall than before. The move from a five-lug to a center-lock wheel also has ramifications on pit row, and some fans are worried that the changeover will lessen the drama.
From a crew chief's perspective, Stevens says the new choreography is more about moving the pressure points around. "One thing it's going to do for sure is put a lot of pressure on the gas man. So, if you have a stop where you need two cans of fuel, you're 100 percent waiting on the gas man. If you only need a little bit of fuel, then you're probably not. But the margin for error there is completely different than what it used to be," he said.
Whether it's working the pits, running a team, driving the car, or watching from the stands or on television, the 2022 season of the NASCAR Cup series is going to be more unfamiliar than it has been in over 50 years.
"The mentality for NASCAR and these teams has been if it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Wilson. "So, it took the entire industry to hold hands and say enough with the evolutionary changes, it's time for a revolutionary change to our car. And rather than take a bite at a time, let's basically pull the seat out and start over."
The initial results of that herculean effort will be on display when the Next Gen car makes its debut in an exhibition race on February 6, 2022, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The "Clash at the Coliseum" will feature a makeshift, quarter-mile paved oval track with 23 entrants and 150 laps in the main event.
The real test will be when the Next Gen Cup car opens the season on February 20, for the 2022 Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway.
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