There were a lot of unknowns prior to the debut of NASC
The idea for single sourced parts came from NASCAR’s desire to not only to control costs but are an attempt to bring more parity to the sport. The previous generation racecar allowed teams a great deal more latitude when it came to modifications. This gave the larger, and better funded, teams an advantage on the track. With the advent of single sourced parts, teams have fewer areas they can modify, thus getting the sport the parity it seems to have been missing for quite some time.
Michael McDowell drives for Front Row Motorsports, a small two car team in the Cup series. McDowell won the 2021 Daytona 500, the last Daytona 500 for the previous generation racecar. While his win was an upset in some ways, given the nature of superspeedway racing, and the chaotic last laps that often occur, first time winners aren’t unheard of there.
McDowell would go on to finish third later in the season at the Cup series other superspeedway race at Talladega but would finish outside the top 15 in 34 of the 36 races last season. All in all, it was an average year for the team.
So far, in the 10 points paying races run with the Next Gen car this season McDowell has scored three top 10 finishes, the best start to a season, not including the 2021 Daytona 500 win, he’s ever had.
“I think there’s a lot of potential with this Next Gen car for us to have more good results and be in contention,” he said. “We were optimistic about that going into this season that this could be a year for us to really have an opportunity to shine and get better results.
“I think there’s still a lot to come this year and I’m looking forward to some of the tracks that we have circled and seeing where we can stack up against the competition. There’s a tremendous amount of development going on right now and there seems to be teams that are sorting it out pretty quickly, so we have to make sure that we keep up with the rapid pace of development of a brand-new car.”
McDowell said everyone at Front Row feels the new car is performing to expectations.
“I think that the hardest thing for us has probably been the challenge of just the limited amount of practice that you have and with the newness of this car you want to try a lot of things because it’s so new,” he said. “You want to try different packages, different geometries, springs, stiff, soft, bars, no bars, there are a lot of things that you want to work through that you can’t work through in those 20 minutes that you have leading into the race.
“I feel like it’s kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit as far as the small teams being able to perform because there’s been tracks where it seems like we’re closer to the competition than we were last year, and then there have been tracks where we feel like we’re pretty similar, but I think in the next few weeks and definitely in the next few months we’ll have a better handle of what we need to do to get us closer to the competition, so I hope it plays out how we anticipated it. “
For Trackhouse Racing, a second-year team, the new car has delivered driver Ross Chastain to victory lane for his first Cup win. He followed that up with a win at Talladega.
The team expanded last season adding Chastain who came to the team after owner Justin Marks purchased the assets of Chip Ganassi Racing, an established team that left NASCAR after last season. The two wins for Chastain came in the same car; something that hasn’t happened in many years in the Cup series. And that car won on a road course, and an oval, something that’s even rarer in the sport. There was a time when teams were forced to build cars specific to road courses, superspeedways, and smaller ovals. With the Next Gen car, fewer need to be built, though it’s still a challenge to race the same car every week.
“It would be really difficult to turn it around every week,” Chastain’s crew chief Phil Surgen said. “Every third or fourth week, with the cleanup and the prep time that goes into it, you could use it every third or fourth week pretty easily.”
And unlike fleets of the past, the Next Gen cars don’t seem to change from car to car. With the previous generation cars, some might have more speed than others, and there were times when teams didn’t really know why. Now, the cars seem to mirror each other. The car that won with Chastain at Talladega is the same one that Chastain won with at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) a few weeks prior. Surgen said the car is really no better than any of the others in the fleet.
“I would say it’s exactly the same,” he said. “In fact, there’s so many parts on ’em that are interchangeable, there’s likely a different group of parts on this car than there was, on the chassis element, than there was on the car when it raced at COTA.”
Using the same car on different tracks was a surprise to Chastain.
“That hasn’t happened since the ’60s,” Chastain said. “I don’t know, farther back. I have no idea. They would have different cars. It’s wild. That’s more what it means to me, that this car is capable of that. Change the geometry, the suspension, shim the body a little bit, go race. Put different tune in the motor for a superspeedway, adjust your rear diffuser, adjust everything, and the same car can come race. That’s just wild.”
Beyond the two wins for Chastain, there were two other first-time winners in the Cup series in the first 10 races: Austin Cindric won the season opening Daytona 500, and Chase Briscoe won at Phoenix.
Briscoe thinks the new car is an equalizer. And with the limited practice this season, those with a background on dirt tracks, like himself, might have a little advantage.
“I mean, I think you see the dirt guys, I mean, Ross (Chastain) isn’t a dirt guy, but a lot of the dirt guys, when we go to a racetrack, you get three laps, three hot laps and you better figure it out quickly.
“I think this car, being new, not a lot of practice, the dirt guys have always had to figure that out quickly,” he said. “The guys that grew up late model or pavement racing, they don’t necessarily have that. They go and test and run hours of practice. The dirt guys, you got to figure it out quickly, adapt.
“I think that’s why you’ve seen dirt guys run earlier in this Next Gen car. It’s an equalizer to a certain extent. More comers and goers throughout the race. The old car, you saw one guy be fast. He was just fast the whole time. Couldn’t really catch him.
“This car you have really fast short-run guys, really good long-run guys. It’s interesting to see how that plays out throughout the race. I can’t speak to the setup side of it, but from a driver standpoint, I feel like we’ve done a lot better finding that limit and being able to ride on that limit. At first, you couldn’t find the limit, and then it was gone.
“I don’t think we’re better race car drivers or better teams, but I do think it’s an equalizer to a certain extent because it’s a new opportunity and guys to have figure out and adapt.”
Despite some fears of supply chain issues, issues that seem to have faded, NASCAR’s new Next Gen car has delivered on what was promised when it was developed. One of those promises was bring parity to the sport, and while there may still be some distance to close, it seems to be nearer than it has in many years in NASCAR.
“I’m not really sure as far as the expense and whether it’s saving the teams money and all the things that go along with what made this move really important,” McDowell said. “But from a competition standpoint I feel like we’ve closed the gap at some places and at others we’re similar, but I feel like there’s a potential that we will still be able to close the gap even more, so I feel good about what the car has done.”