by Bobby Markos
As the sun set on Phoenix Raceway and the 2021 NASCAR season, so marked the end of the sixth generation of NASCAR chassis. Originally debuting in 2013 to replace the Car of Tomorrow, the cars made a shift back in the direction of showcasing manufacturer identity, mirroring each of their respective showroom equivalents, a trait that was abandoned as Cup cars became more and more specially designed for auto racing purposes in the 80s and 90s. They were designed to be more resilient, bulkier and safer while depending on maximum aerodynamic grip. These characteristics, however, caused racing action at some of the bigger speedways on the schedule to suffer, as drivers mostly held the throttle wide open and had a hard time catching and passing cars in dirty air.
The real competitive edges were found in team garages, with engineers constantly having to develop new ways to find more horsepower on track. This led NASCAR to hire veteran crew chiefs into competitive director roles and develop a laser light inspection station to help detect rule infractions that may not be caught with the older template systems. The biggest teams with the most funding and resources thrived, while smaller and mid-pack teams struggled to keep up. With the announcement of the Next Gen car, NASCAR sought to address the problem of competitive parity head-on, while making Cup racing more cost-effective and hopefully opening the door for more original equipment manufacturers to get involved in the sport.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the Cup ranks, he did so chauffeuring one of the fourth generation cars, which made their debut in 1991. Now that he has taken a position in the commentator’s booth, he has been able to rely on the data he’s collected from his seat time in the last three versions of Cup cars to explain to viewers at home exactly what drivers are experiencing during races. But, with the introduction of the new car coming, he recognized that without first hand participation, there may be a gap in translation for broadcast spectators. And so, a test was arranged, providing him and Clint Bowyer with a unique opportunity to take the new machine for a spin around the famed Bowman Gray Stadium during a Goodyear test to evaluate the tire selection for the upcoming exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum next February.
Behind the wheel participation was only part of the equation, and this week on the Download Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis invited the Chevrolet Director of NASCAR Programs Eric Warren and NASCAR Cup star Austin Dillon to the Bojangles Studio to help paint a full picture of Next Gen understanding. Download listeners who are interested in the technical specifications of stock cars will love this episode, as Dale and Austin compare notes on their respective tests in the car and Warren provides a manufacturer's explanation of new features and modifications. They also brought along one of the new Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaros to the JR Motorsports shop as a visual aid.
Dale asks about the inception of the first car and the initial test session, which Dillon took part in at Richmond Raceway back in October of 2019. Warren explained that the process took three weeks and 2,800 man hours to build the car. They discussed crash testing the cars and the rebuilding process. The conversation also covers some of the other features, including independent rear suspension, 18-inch wheels with a single locking lug nut and a five-speed sequential transmission. The cars will no longer be built in race shops, instead assembled after acquisition of the individual parts from a list of official vendors. Dale expressed the concern of having to depend on so many different vendors, but Warren explains that the practice will help with cost-effectiveness and parity amongst the entire field.
The chat also addresses internal car temperatures and what changes have been made to help keep drivers cool for long race durations. Austin speaks on the incorporation of a dash mounted rear view camera, which helped him in drafting situations at a test at Daytona, and could possibly have implications for the current spotter system. The panel fielded questions from listeners as well, which asked about the faster pit times to be expected with the adoption of the single-lug wheels and what impact it will have on gas flow during stops.
The Next Gen car will be the biggest chassis shift the Cup series has seen to date, effectively bringing stock cars into the modern racing era while resembling an automobile you may pass in everyday life. It will bring new significance to the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” slogan that made the division thrive decades ago. Race fans can be hopeful that the more practical cost model and more competitive racing product will lead to a higher participation in Cup garages. Perhaps we will one day again see the return of the likes of companies like Chrysler, Jaguar and Volkswagen, and perhaps the debut of giants like Honda, BMW and Hyundai are not out of the realm of possibility. Next year is a step into the great unknown, but if driver feedback is any indication of what to expect, race fans are in for one of the most competitive seasons to date.
Also, on this week’s episode of the Download, Dale Jr. and Mike Davis unpack from the NASCAR Championship weekend in Phoenix. Dale recounts his experience on the broadcasting side of the events, and reflects on the excitement he felt in the environment all weekend long. During the Ask Jr. segment of the show, listeners ask Dale’s opinion of who the most mechanically inclined Cup drivers are today, penalties for failure of car inspection and his thoughts on SMI’s recent acquisition of Dover International Speedway. All of this and more on this week’s episode of The Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.