CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) – A new beleaguered NASCAR somehow pulled off the Talladega Superspeedway in the cleanest race yet in the qualifying this year.
It did little to allay the safety concerns surrounding the next-generation car that debuted this season. The first four races were a disastrous mess of car fires, broken parts, blown tires, And after Alex Bowman became the second driver to miss a field trip due to a concussion, the veterans dropped out.
Denny Hamlin, three-time Daytona 500 winner Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, led the charge by calling for a complete next-generation redesign and overhaul of NASCAR’s leadership. Then Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most famous driver, spoke up, accusing NASCAR of taking a step back to safety.
“I am so frustrated and shocked that we are going back,” Elliott said.
Then he went out and won an extraordinarily quiet race by Talladega standards: of the six warnings, only one was for a multi-car crash. The winning crew chief, Alan Gustafson, admitted “it was definitely more manipulative than I expected” and attributed this to the next generation’s performance.
Gustafson certainly realized that the halfway point in qualifying was not the ideal time for a heated debate about driver safety. Bowman and Kurt Busch both suffered concussions when the back of their car crashed into a wall. Busch was out of 11 races, while Bowman was diagnosed with a concussion last Thursday — four days after crashing in Texas.
“We know this is an inherently dangerous sport, but I want him to be as safe as possible,” Gustafson said of Elliott. “I feel collectively, in this garage, that there is a huge resource of smart people where we can push this forward, and get to a location where it’s not a topic, and it’s not something these people have to worry about week in and week out.”
This message was delivered to NASCAR by Rick Hendrick, the most powerful team owner in the sport. “They said they’re working on it,” NASCAR said, but Hendrik’s sense of urgency increased after Bowman, his driver, suffered a concussion in what appeared to be a routine injury.
“These guys are stars. You spend a lot of money getting them over the years. Then, you’re going to have sponsors and everything involved, they’re in playoffs, and they’re out in playoffs,” Hendrick said. “And it’s not about playoffs, it’s about safety, having A man who wants to be able to race again. We’ve done really well in the last 10 or 15 years with safety in many ways. But this car, from behind the sway, it feels like you’re sitting on a piece of steel.
“We need to fix it ASAP.”
Next Gen was an industry collaboration designed to improve racing, increase parity on the track, and reduce costs. The race was mostly better, and the 19 different Cup Series winners (including Ryan Blaney’s No Points All-Star win) were measurable evidence of the competition improving.
The car has been reinforced in many areas and is much safer, especially when drivers hit the door or the car crashes onto its roof. But part of cutting costs has meant building a very durable car that can handle the bumps and reducing the fleets needed for a 38-race season.
Drivers say they warned NASCAR throughout development that the car was too rugged, and many stayed away from minor crashes this year complaining that it was the hardest blow they’ve ever had.
Bowman and Busch are the only drivers who missed the race due to a concussion, but the Associated Press has learned of at least two other drivers believed to have suffered concussions earlier this season. Someone with direct knowledge of the situation shared the number but wasn’t comfortable sharing more details because the information is private.
NASCAR will be busy this week heading into Sunday’s elimination race at Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Series leadership used computer modeling on potential changes to the rear section, rear fender and centerline bodywork, and has a crash test scheduled for Wednesday in Ohio.
Then NASCAR has a pre-scheduled owners meeting on Friday at 23XI and the drivers have been called to a discussion on Saturday at the R&D Center. NASCAR President Steve Phelps met privately with Hamlin ahead of Sunday’s race.
Computer modeling and ongoing discussions take a long time to satisfy drivers. NASCAR has acknowledged that no vehicle improvements will be implemented until 2023; There are five races left this season.
“Our drivers are very important, we don’t want them to get hurt, so if that meant buying all the new clips on Monday morning, I would have done it. I’m whatever it takes,” Hendrick said. I think the teams can fix it. If NASCAR wants to do that, I think everyone working together, we can do it in a hurry, test it, and get it to the cars ASAP.”
However, it’s not that simple, because the Next Gen is a specification car with parts suppliers from a single source. The manufacturer will have to make enough new parts for each car, and assuming this can be done quickly, smaller teams will have to figure out how to withstand unplanned purchases.
Gustafson said setting a timetable for corrections is secondary at the moment.
“I think the first step is that we need a solution, right?” Gustafson said. “It’s a good goal for us as an industry to collectively look at the best solution we can come up with in the short term. If we can come up with the solution, the implementation, you can worry about that later.
I think the solution is the key now. As far as I know, that doesn’t exist.”
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