Saturday, September 3, 2022

OPINION: Potential issues with the NextGen car demand immediate explanation

What exactly happened to Justin Haley's right-front wheel in this year's Daytona 500?

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

After 26 races of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series season, I still know very little about the NextGen car – so little, in fact, that it’s been hard to discuss particular incidents with any confidence. I've taken steps to try and understand the car better, but all I'm left with are more questions.

We’ve all learned about some of the NextGen car’s limits, starting with Tyler Reddick's busted transaxle while leading this year's Clash at the Coliseum. Then the toe link issue came up in the Daytona 500, where Denny Hamlin's car drove diagonally down the track after a wreck on the backstretch. While this damage ends the day for some teams, others have managed to complete the repair within the original six-minute “Crash Clock,” including Hamlin’s at Gateway and Joey Logano’s at Atlanta. But is anything being done to make this part stronger, or alternatively make it easier to replace? The latest move increasing the ”Crash Clock” length to ten minutes is a good first step, but was allowing for toe link replacement the reason why the change was made?

There’s also the sensitivity of the rear diffuser assembly, whose panels beneath the car can become damaged by a seemingly ordinary spin. At Fontana, this was overshadowed by the issue of flat low-profile tires causing cars to become "beached" on the diffuser, requiring a new protocol for towing cars to pit road. While the towing problem has since been addressed to some satisfaction, questions about the diffuser remain. We know the diffuser consists of multiple replaceable panels bolted to the underside of the car, but we don't know what damage they sustain during a spin. Do they bend, break, or is merely getting scratched or gouged enough to destroy the car's handling? If so, is anything being done to make these parts more sturdy - or more easily replaceable under race conditions?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only mystery of the NextGen car, nor the only story receiving little coverage.

Wheels coming off cars – and the massive penalties NASCAR has levied – have received at least surface level attention this year. But while many busy themselves by passively tracking how many races until certain crew chiefs or crew members return to the track, little has been done to explain why these wheels come loose. "They didn't tighten the lug," is all that's said each time. Yes, but why? It wasn’t until July at Nashville – after the entirety of FOX's TV schedule – that NBC reported there was a pop-up indicator on each hub specifically designed to alert the tire changer whether or not the single lug has been properly tightened. Even then, the graphics NBC used clearly indicated each part with bright colors – not the near-identical dark grays used on each of the actual cars. This is not to mention how brake dust can make seeing the indicator even more difficult. Some teams have reportedly tried to paint that indicator a different color, though it's unclear how NASCAR has responded to this after their massive penalty handed to RFK Racing in Daytona relating to alleged changes made to the wheels.

Speaking of which, there have been issues with the new aluminum rims themselves. More benignly, there was Erik Jones’ incident at Kansas, where the crew spent several minutes trying to remove a stuck right-rear wheel. The incident - played for laughs by most who saw it - was reportedly due to overtightening of the lug. More seriously were the identical wrecks suffered by Justin Haley in the Daytona 500 and Corey LaJoie at Phoenix, where each car's right-front wheel came off on track under green. Both wrecks were dismissed as the result of a right-front wheel improperly secured, and each team was handed the standard penalty by NASCAR. But it was never explained why - unlike other loose wheels - each car’s hub was dragging beneath it a large silver ring the approximate diameter of the missing aluminum rim (see above). Did those rims fracture and fail, causing both accidents? If not, where did that identical piece of debris come from?

In all of motorsports history, fire remains the deepest fear of any driver. In the past, the deployment of a car's on-board fire extinguisher meant the driver was done for the day. We’ve seen it in the Truck Series this year, where Hailie Deegan at Atlanta, Dean Thompson at Martinsville, and Spencer Boyd at IRP all quickly climbed out after their trucks erupted in flames. Landon Cassill also escaped a fire in the XFINITY race at Fontana. But on the Cup side, the response to a fire – even one invading the cockpit – has been handled in a much more dangerous way. In both Chris Buescher’s fire at Indianapolis and Chase Briscoe’s at Richmond – both during the middle stages of a race – the driver stayed in the car, window net up, and both were allowed to return to the track. In Buescher’s case, he remained in the car as massive amounts of extinguisher were sprayed in the cockpit – so much so that he could barely see or breathe as he returned to the winding road course. In the aftermath, something was said about a fire from the rocker panels and ignition of the door foam, but neither with any comprehensive explanation of cause and effect. Steve Letarte expressed surprise about the foam's possible flammability during the Indy broadcast, forgetting one of the first “Car of Tomorrow” races at Martinsville in 2007, where Kevin Harvick’s own door foam caught fire. Has this issue not been resolved for 15 years?

Most serious of all are the increasing number of drivers who - as recently as this week's media availability at Darlington - have each spoken out about suffering some of the hardest hits of their careers in the NextGen car. Last week, NASCARMAN History tweeted a troublingly long list of complaints from various drivers dating back to when the car was being tested. Among these was Bubba Wallace, who at Atlanta this past spring said that his wreck hurt more than his 2018 wreck at Pocono, where a brake failure in the Gen-6 car sent him into the Turn 1 wall. Wallace has since suffered two more hard hits at Talladega and just last week in Daytona. This week, Wallace switched car numbers with 23XI Racing teammate Kurt Busch, the longest active full-time driver on the circuit, who has been out with a concussion since his own crash at Pocono. Kurt's return has been pushed back by weeks at a time, and now complicated by news of Tyler Reddick's upcoming contract in 2024, it's unclear when or even if Kurt will race again. 

Denny Hamlin planned to make his annual run in this weekend's XFINITY race at Darlington, but handed the wheel to Christopher Bell after hip, neck, and back soreness following his own Daytona crash. Hamlin likened the toll the wreck put on his body to going through a boxing match. Most troubling was how much pain Hamlin felt in his face, a complaint echoed by Bell after his own wrecks at Texas and Pocono. Concerns about head injuries should be taken as seriously as possible, lest NASCAR forgets the lessons learned from their ineffective response to the rise of basilar skull fractures two decades ago. The questions must be answered: what has made these accidents so dangerous - even more so than the massive head-on hits experienced by both Austin Dillon at Atlanta in July and Austin Cindric at Michigan? And what will be done about it?

The NextGen car is a creature entirely of NASCAR's creation: a spec car produced to the most exacting standards the sanctioning body has yet employed. Thus, the responsibility for addressing concerns about that car - be they from drivers, teams, or even fans - lies squarely on NASCAR. It's certain that the car's performance in competition has revealed issues that couldn't have been predicted in testing. But now, with six months of data collected, everyone needs to know what those findings are and what NASCAR is going to do in response. I hope that NASCAR takes the opportunity, rather than leave the subject to rumor, speculation, and chance.

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