NASCAR’s Next Gen car is now 2 years old and while the sanctioning body implemented various changes to it throughout 2023, one thing remained the same, the team that claimed the Cup Series championship—Team Penske.
Joey Logano’s 2022 championship title passed to teammate Ryan Blaney to the surprise of many at the 2023 season finale at Phoenix Raceway. From the playoffs beginning, Blaney wasn’t one of the championship favorites.
In fact, Blaney wasn’t expected to make it out of the 10-race playoffs’ first round. That’s because entering the playoffs he only had one victory and he hadn’t recorded a top-five and only four top-10 finishes in the dozen races June-August. To most people’s surprise, Blaney made it to the second round, while Logano was eliminated in the first, and that’s when things turned around for Blaney thanks to Penske’s approach.
“When we came to the race track the last several weeks everybody came the same way,” 86-year-old team owner Roger Penske explained. “Then they had a certain element that they had to test on their car because there’s very little testing, very little practice, and then that went into the notebook.”
Penske says Blaney’s crew chief Jonathan Hassler then took the “plus and the minus points, whether it was tire pressures, whether it was aero, whether it was springs or shocks.
“We had that ability to get that from really the three drivers, plus what Harrison (Burton with the Wood Brothers) was doing,” Penske says.
Prior to the Next Gen car’s introduction in 2022, a team would build a “special” entry for the championship run with blue chip fabricators massaging on the sheet metal, finding every little advantage in the wind tunnel. However, that changed with the Next Gen car since its parts come from designated vendors.
“Before you would be always massaging on your chassis and massaging on your body and all the suspension components,” says Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Kyle Larson. “(Now) it’s a spec chassis, it’s a spec body, it’s spec suspension components. So those factors don’t come into play.”
Adam Stevens, who has made seven NASCAR Cup Series championship four appearances as a crew chief including this year with Christopher Bell, noted they are not “physically changing anything on the car.”
“We’re just optimizing to the best we can to pass their inspections, trying to push it to the limit in every single area,” Stevens says. “Compared to what we would normally do years ago working on cars, it’s light years different. We have a lot of extra time to make sure our tire models are right, to spend time in the simulator, to spend time on our simulations and optimize our setup for different conditions we might face, different scenarios we might face,”
However, Team Penske took it one step further. After Logano exited the playoffs, Penske focused solely on Blaney.
Each week Hassler made sure the Team Penske cars showed up identical at the track and then picked “the highlights” from his list of things on which he thought needed to be worked on and answers acquired. A procedure that resulted in Blaney winning Talladega in the second round, Martinsville in the third, and then Team Penske’s fourth NASCAR Cup Series championship with a second-place finish at Phoenix.