Drivers not holding back in terms of Next Gen safety

TALLADEGA, Ala – As we head to one of the more dangerous tracks on the NASCAR schedule, safety is at the forefront of the conversation. Unfortunately, it’s not in a good way. After the announcement on Thursday that Alex Bowman would miss the upcoming YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) due to concussion like symptoms, folks felt enough was enough.

On a day on Saturday that saw a driver hit an official because his brakes didn’t stop his car in enough time, a crew member getting his hard card revoked due to running out to the infield grass to snag a rogue tire and a driver airlifted to the hospital, everyone is on edge heading into Sunday’s penultimate race of the Round of 12.

It almost feels like the 2000, 2001 and 2002 era all over again that lost drivers frequently. For a sport that has come a long way since that dark period and prides itself in not losing a driver in a race since Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, you get the sense that the sport is tempting fate, again.

Everyone’s nerves are always a little bit higher when we head to the annual stops at Daytona and Talladega, but with most sensing this Next Gen is more dangerous than the cars before it, you can feel the tension as the dawn draws near on the eve of Sunday’s 188 lap race.

“No one’s immune to it; it could be me next week,” Chase Elliott said from the Talladega Superspeedway media center on Saturday morning. “It could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. I just hate to see us go backwards and I’m afraid that we have.”

After a very routine hit with the Turn 4 SAFER barrier last Sunday at the Texas Motor Speedway, there’s no way that Bowman should have been facing symptoms like he’s having. It looked like nothing. However, here we are as he’s the second driver of the year to miss time for a head injury following rear end impact with this new car.

Instead of this new car going forward with safety, it’s gone backwards. The drivers have taken notice.

“You come off a week like we had at Texas and somebody getting injured and you’re coming into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point tomorrow and probably not lightly,” said Elliott. “Do you just not show up? Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask.

“I don’t feel like we should have ever been in this position to need to go forward. We should have gone forward with a new opportunity at a new car, in my opinion. You have all these years of experience and knowledge and time of racing and crashing these cars and teams working on them and building them, and it just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that offers all this technology and all this time and experience of so many just super talented people in this sport and we allow to go backward, especially with safety.

“I think it’s just super surprising to me that we allowed that to happen, but we did, and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here making sure we make the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex this week from happening, and what happened to Kurt.

“We had time to test this car and crash it and do all the things we need to do to make sure some of these things aren’t happening that are happening now. We had a ton of time to do that, and this car was delayed an entire calendar year on top of that. You have to think, we had an extra year of time to work on it, and we’re still in this position. There’s no excuse for going backward. We have too many smart people, too much technology, too many years of crashing and racing at all these same racetracks to have some of these things that are going on that are. Test next week or no test next week, we should not be in the position that we are in. When you come out with a new product, you should take steps forward, not stay the same or go backward.

“There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. My frustration, as I’ve referenced here in the past few minutes, is I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had the choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry and that just should have never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that, that we had years in time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t. And now, we’re having to fix it and I just hate that we did that. Like I said, I think we’re smarter than that and I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

The “Big One” occurs on Lap 137 of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last month

Denny Hamlin said we got pointed in this backwards direction from “bad leadership.” How we get out of it?

“New leadership,” he says.

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.”

There’s trust issues developing, but Elliott is confident that they’ll make the right changes to make this right.

“I’m confident that we will, but it’s crucial that we do, in my opinion, because having guys out in the playoffs or any time for that matter, shouldn’t be happening,” Elliott continued. “I think it’s taking away from our product on Sunday, which that should be the focus. Who wins? Who loses? How the race was and how a guy did driving his car, and how a team did executing a good or a bad race.”

This isn’t the first time the drivers have warned that this car hits harder than its predecessor.

“My whole body, literally my jaw hurts,” Hamlin said after his Daytona crash. “I feel like my jaw was one of those boxers who gets his whole face demolished. That was certainly the first real big one I’ve had in this car. Everything they’ve been telling us (about the impacts), all the other drivers, it’s true.”

Kevin Harvick had some choice words about safety himself.

“The safety cannot be slow,” Harvick stated. “This car is screwed up as far as the way that it crashes. And whether the data says it or not, every driver in this garage will tell you that’s not right, and it hurts — feet hurt, hands hurt, head hurt.”

NASCAR is taken steps to improve. They’ve scheduled a test in Ohio on Wednesday to test out new rear clips and bumper structures. While it’s great to test the initiative to improve, the drivers are questioning on if it’s too late.

Hamlin says this new car needs a drastic overhaul.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘all right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car. We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

The problem is, there’s a race on Sunday at a track known for dangerous hits. Then we have 5 more races after. How do you ensure that this car won’t get anyone else injured?

Kyle Larson says that he feels safer in his sprint car than his Cup car.

“I don’t really know what you do today,” Elliott said. “From Texas last week to Talladega tomorrow, I’m not sure what is realistically feasible to have that quick of a fix. I’m just disappointed that we have put ourselves in this box, to begin with. It’s not realistic to change something in six days. I just hate we put ourselves in this position we’re in. I think we’re, as an industry, we’re smarter than that, and I know the men and women who work in the garage are smarter than that because I work with them every day.”

There’s chatter of Sunday’s race being a high speed parade for a while because of drivers not wanting to take unnecessary risks. Who could blame them. This is the box that they’ve been put in.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” Elliott said on how we got here. “I don’t have a good answer for you on that. I really don’t. That is what baffles me. I have no idea how we got here. I don’t know.”

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