The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season may have just ended a couple of weekend’s ago, but 10 days later, most of teams were back in Charlotte focusing on the 2022 car. A two-day Next Gen test was completed on Thursday and boy are there some takeaways from that.
Past Issues Seem Fixed
- Steering rectified – The ROVAL test a month ago spotlighted a new issue and that’s from the steering box. A vibration was causing troubles for a lot of drivers inside of the race cars then. Now, that’s since been fixed with no one complaining of any lasting problems in this area.
- The heat inside of the cars – This issue seems to have taken a better turn with updates for better air flow inside of the cars and to get some of the trapped heat out. This has honestly been the largest issue with the car and NASCAR has taken many steps to address it. While the ambient temps outside weren’t as high as they’d obviously be in the summer months, the changes for the pair of Charlotte tests have gotten much better feedback. Is it perfect? No. They still need to do some more tweaks, but at this time, they’re trending in the right direction.
- Car passes crash test – Another big drawback of this car was it being scrutinized on the crash impact. There were rumors this summer that the crash test at Talladega went poorly. That raised concerns within the garage that the car was too stiff and wouldn’t perform well in a somewhat routine wall impact. NASCAR did dispel those rumors though and said they met with drivers to address their concerns. Well, we had our first real impact early on in the test on Wednesday. Within the first 20 minutes of the 11-hour session that began at 9 a.m. ET, Austin Dillon’s car hit the outside wall in Turn 2 before sliding down the track into the inside wall. The left front sustained the most damage, as the Next Gen’s composite body crumpled upon initial contact. NASCAR described the force as “an above-average impact” after analyzing data. Not only did this car pass in terms of crash damage and safety, the new car and how it’s constructed allowed RCR actually to take the car back to its shop and rebuild the exact same one to continue testing. A crew left before 11 a.m. ET. The face of the vehicle had already been ripped off by the time it left – hood, bumper and any exterior all removed. Select impacted internal parts and pieces were also separated. The car returned around 7 p.m. ET. Dillon was back on track with an hour to spare. All in all, RCR replaced the left-front quarter panel, the tail, front fascia, hood, splitter, front clip, engine and front suspension all in the matter of a half of a day and were back testing by night.
Throw The Speed Charts Out
It seems like whenever cars are on the track, the onus always reverts back to the speed charts. I mean, it’s natural to do so in racing. Speed is everything. More on this later. But, we also have to pump the brakes on focusing on speed. We look there far too much and this test proved that.
The teams aren’t after speed in testing because a test is just that — a test. It pays nothing to be the leader on the speed charts for a test session. Hell, same can be said for a practice and even a race. The fastest one lap doesn’t pay anything. In a race, they last 400 or even 500 miles. A single lap pace doesn’t equate to 500 mile pace. You need to be good on a long run, not one lap.
So, in order to do so, you need to figure that pace out in testing/practice. In these sessions, you throw away top speed and focus on setups/balance. Why go out and run a banker lap and focus on leading a speed chart but not have a good “race” car.
That’s why there’s absolutely no reason to look at the speed chart for either day and put much stock into it whatsoever. I don’t even honestly know why NASCAR and other members of the media shared a speed chart. It means nothing.
Everyone has varying agendas in these sessions. Some teams on Thursday experimented with a 7 inch spoiler while others were running with an 8 inch. Of course the teams with the 7 inch spoiler would be quicker. There’s less drag. There’s more speed.
So, take the speed charts from this past week and shred them like you would your old notes from every race prior to 2022.
Cars Are Harder To Drive But I Still Question On If We’ll See As Many Spins and Crashes
To further the point above, the drivers inside the cars over the course of two days weren’t going for speed either. See, with this new car, everything changes. From past setups to driving styles, etc, nothing that worked in the past will really translate well over to this car.
So, this test for the drivers was more about trying to find the limit of this new car for them. The old car, well you know the limit. You can push as hard as you can because as a professional race car driver, you know when the car is at it’s peak and can’t go any further.
They don’t have that luxury with this car. No one has much seat time in it, let alone on an oval. Plus, with a different set of aerodynamics and having a different amount of side force, it takes time to figure out how far you can push this car from inside the cockpit.
Where is the edge? No one knows yet.
That’s why we saw a lot of incidents. Austin Dillon’s wasn’t necessarily credited to this but rather a slick patch of asphalt in Turn 2. The other spins were all a result of trying to find this cars peak.
Are they harder to drive? Sure. They’re are saying that. But, these are also professional drivers and in NASCAR’s premiere series for a reason. Don’t you think they’ll eventually find the limit? Once they do, I suspect these spins and crashes will decrease.
The key is, when they decrease, will the show be better?
Should Cup cars be the slowest of a race weekend among every series on track?
I wanted to revisit this point and make it on it’s own because this speed is different than the speed above on a speed chart. Yes, throw the speed charts from a test away. But, in saying that, the speed I want to focus on is the speed in this car itself. I don’t care who was where in terms of speed chart pace, but what I do care about is the mph range though. The top speed in the test was in the low 170 mph range. With these cars basically going flat out for most of a run, that means there’s not much speed being scrubbed off in the corners. In turn, that means the cars aren’t going much higher than 180+ mph.
I get that’s fast. It truly is. I also get as drivers find the limit more, the speed will rise. The question is, how much?
The reason I ask this is, if they don’t rise much, one could make a case that in a lot of race weekend’s, the Cup Series will be the slowest cars on track. ARCA, Trucks and Xfinity will all have higher average speeds than a Cup car.
Isn’t that backwards?
Look at these divisions like you would baseball. ARCA is single A. Trucks are AA. Xfinity is AAA and Cup is major leagues. Is it a good look if the major leagues are running slower lap times than single A?
I mean, isn’t this supposed to be the pinnacle of stock car racing? Shouldn’t the speed department rise the further you move up?
Why is a 18 year old kid in Trucks running faster than a Cup Series driver?
This is something that’s surely going to be debated. Most would think the cars would be faster, louder and harder to drive the more you move up.
Now, this car seems to be hard to drive, so it also leads me to ask, does speed truly matter if the racing product is great? You can’t visually tell if a Cup car is slower than an ARCA car. They’ll all look the same. So, if a Cup car is harder to drive and puts on a better show, does speed really matter then?
After all, that’s what it’s really about now.
Speed used to sell. But once they kind of evened out, the attention of speed went away. I mean in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even into the early 90s, racing was all about speed and innovation. That was a huge draw.
The thing is, as the cars got safer too, the speeds couldn’t match the safety aspects. There’s really a limit on how fast you can safely go no matter how safe these cars are built. You can’t just barrel into a turn at 300 mph. It’s never going to work.
So, the speeds really leveled out and the attention for that went away. Then, with the lack of really marketing qualifying, that phased its way out.
Look at it this way, grandstands would be packed on Saturday qualifying shows. Not race day levels, but people showed up and paid attention. Over the last decade or so, maybe even longer, the grandstands were filled with empty aluminum for qualifying. No one showed. No one came for practice. It was race day only.
Granted, diehard fans know how hard qualifying is as it’s an entirely different discipline. A race is all about long run pace where qualifying is 1-2 laps of pure adrenaline. You drive harder. You drive deeper. Your car is setup to last only those few laps so you’re completely on edge where in the race you want more grip.
The drivers are just so good that qualifying looks routine to the naked eye. You don’t see and witness the stress and anxiety that goes into this behind the scenes and I feel like the racing series of all failed to capture that.
It doesn’t matter the speeds. When these drivers are laying it all out on the line on a razors edge, it’s intense.
That essence went away because they failed to maximize it and now it’s not coming back. So, why focus on speed?
It’s all about the race and race day speeds aren’t a focus. There’s not speed charts for race day. So, if you take away speed charts on Friday and Saturday, would you really notice a difference between the divisions of NASCAR?
Which leads me to my original question, is it a big deal that the Cup cars may be the slowest cars on track over the course of a weekend?
This is now an entertainment sport which is a fundamental shift from the past. The lower divisions have more horsepower and less downforce than the Cup cars. The racing is vastly different due to that.
The Cup cars have low horsepower and high downforce. The OEM’s wanted this more than anyone else. It saves them money. NASCAR wants this because they’re looking for a way to have every race look like Daytona and Talladega. They want close racing from the front to the back.
The drivers don’t like this because they feel like their talents aren’t on showcase anymore. It’s more about holding the throttle wide open and your race winning chances hindering on drafting help and picking the right lane to make the right moves when it counts the most.
This new car though is more suited for that than the old because it was built in this aspect in mind. So, before we rush to judgement on the bad racing for a 550 package, lets see what this new car does with a little more horsepower and a new way of driving.
Still, the NASCAR Cup Series has turned to an entertainment sport and if the racing is intense and aesthetically greets the eye and brain with pleasing value, does how fast they’re racing really matter if the product gives us what we want?
That’s why this will be a debate all through next season. Do you want to see wound up engines screaming at speeds near 200 mph where drivers have to lift and race the car and the track or see cars between 170-180 mph with side-by-side racing throughout?
NASCAR thinks it the latter. Next season will tell.