LAS VEGAS — NASCAR’s underdogs will have a fighting chance in the Next Gen car, according to the development plan for the new blockbuster model, and the race would be much better. The new car layouts would force drivers to muscle cars like never before.
Well, four races into the new season at four entirely different circuits, NASCAR seems to have actually delivered on its promise.
Of course, the top teams still won all the races. First it was Team Penske with back-to-back wins in the Busch Clash and Daytona 500 exhibition, then Hendrick Motorsports made back-to-back trips to victory lane in California and Las Vegas.
“You’re never going to shut down giant racing teams, are you?” said Hendrick driver Alex Bowman after his victory Sunday in Las Vegas.
Maybe not. But the little guys are much improved:
— Ross Chastain led a total of 75 laps in the first 117 races of his career. In Las Vegas, Chastain led a record 83 laps and finished third. TrackHouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez flirted with his first career Cup Series victory a week earlier in California before finishing fourth.
– Erik Jones showed Richard Petty’s former No. 43 can still be competitive by qualifying second in California, leading laps and finishing third. The rebranded Petty GMS Racing team has expanded to two cars this season and Ty Dillon has been in the middle of the pack.
– Richard Childress Racing, the first team to adopt the Next Gen concept and help NASCAR create the first prototypes, showed dramatic improvement. Tyler Reddick battled all over and Austin Dillon was second in four races.
– The rebranded Jack Roush RFK Racing team with Brad Keselowski as part of the ownership group returned to winning ways for the first time since 2017 when Keselowski and Chris Buescher each won a Daytona 500 qualifying race.
– Aric Almirola is the only driver to have three top 10 finishes in the first three points races, while 25 different drivers have led at least one lap this season. Christopher Bell took his first career pole in Las Vegas, and annual title contenders Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin fell in the standings; Hamlin heads to Phoenix this weekend ranked 30th in points.
So far, the Next Gen has raced on the smallest possible circuit – the quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Clash exhibit – and one of the biggest, the superspeedway 2.5 miles to Daytona International Speedway. The race at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway was the best at the California track in years, and the same can be said for Sunday’s race at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Speedway.
Las Vegas featured 23 lead changes among 15 drivers and an overtime finish in which Bowman went door-to-door with teammate and defending Cup champion Kyle Larson for the win.
Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon, now vice president of Hendrick Motorsports, called the first month of racing “refreshing” as NASCAR has produced a car that has lived up to its hype so far.
“I think we saw some great races. I think we saw cars coming from back to front, front to back. We’ve seen where they can run hard,” Gordon said. “But the cars are at the limit. Drivers definitely need to show off their talent and ability. I think it was also the intention to have a car that was on a level playing field. »
An aero package that delivers lower downforce and higher power has been a handful for riders across the field, with Larson complaining after his second-place finish in Las Vegas that his arms were the most sore of his entire career. pilot career.
“I’m out there holding a death grip on the steering wheel for four hours, just trying to hang on,” Larson said. “The car is actually really fun to drive.”
The Next Gen still has plenty of flaws, starting with a parts shortage that has left teams scrambling for backup cars. Joe Gibbs Racing did not have a race-ready replacement in Las Vegas and spent more than eight hours preparing a “parts car” for Kyle Busch after he crashed his primary in practice.
The car struggled to return to pit road with a flat tire and tow trucks were on standby all over the Las Vegas track to give a push if needed. Toyota has solved an overheating problem between California and Las Vegas, and teams, manufacturers and even drivers are learning things every week.
Clash winner Joey Logano suggested that NASCAR use AAA-style service trucks that can rush to a broken down race car and perform a quick tire change to speed up the process.
“There are going to be learning curves,” Logano said. “There are going to be issues that we are going to have to solve as an industry, because you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re here. There will likely be more things to come up as we continue to race at different racetracks.
After his victory on Sunday, Bowman noted the extent of development of the Next Gen and the gains made since the first test. And for the riders themselves, every outing on the track has been a learning experience – some good and some bad.
Absolutely everything I do as a race car driver has completely changed,” Bowman said. “Historically I loved loose race cars. I cried like a little girl when I was tight. Now I have to figure out how to drive a tight race car because I can’t run a loose race car anymore. And it’s hard.”
But it was worth it on the trail.
“I think the car does what it’s supposed to do. The races have been great,” he said. “Now we have close races every week. It’s been really, really good.