It’s the dawn of a new era in the NASCAR Cup Series.
A revolutionary new racing platform will debut in February during the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and that description cannot be understated. The Next Gen car represents the most progressive technological leap in NASCAR history. The very future of the sanctioning body seemingly rides on its success.
“Everything that is still ailing NASCAR, this is a panacea for what that is,” said NASCAR president Steve Phelps during a sports business summit in October.
Those ailments: The sport has become increasingly expensive to enter; it’s attempting to appeal to a sports and entertainment demographic that demands more action in a shorter time span; and the industry needs to attract additional car manufacturers for competition and marketing purposes.
On paper, the new direction makes a lot of sense. For the better part of a century, Cup Series cars have featured a four-speed manual transmission with a live rear axle, but the Next Gen has incorporated a sequential five-speed (plus reverse) transaxle and independent rear suspension instead. The new car will continue to feature a “shifter stick” rather than a paddle-shifter because it was important that drivers continue taking a hand off the steering wheel to shift on restarts and on road courses.
The shocks and springs are no longer independently mounted but are now coilover and connected to control arms attached to aluminum uprights.
That’s certainly a lot of technical jargon, but understand that the changes are intended to more accurately reflect modern passenger cars. NASCAR’s roots were founded on manufacturers winning on Sunday and selling those same cars on Monday. But nothing from the traditional NASCAR car carried over to the showroom anymore. That’s because up until now, NASCAR Cup chassis featured truck arms based on a 1964 Chevrolet pickup.
The superficial changes are more obvious. The new Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota models are set to feature bodies that have even greater similarities to the Camaros, Mustangs and Camrys featured in daily commutes across the country. In addition to the digital dashboard that first appeared in 2016, the Next Gen also features a rear-view camera instead of a mirror.
The industry has labeled this era the Return of Stock, and NASCAR’s primary goal is to use the platform to attract additional manufacturers. Imagine a NASCAR world where Dodge, BMW and Honda have joined Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota at the highest level. It’s something Phelps is working toward every day.
“There are some discussions that are going on with other OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], new OEMs, that would come into the sport,” Phelps said during his end-of-year press conference before the championship race at Phoenix Raceway in November. “Our three existing OEMs are happy about that. Our race teams are happy about that. We’re happy about that. It’s been widely rumored that Dodge is one of those or closest. I won’t confirm or deny that.
“But it is important. We’ve made no bones about the fact that we want to have a new OEM in our sport. I think we got delayed with the pandemic. With that said, we are in an attractive place I believe for OEMs to come into the sport. Now is an important opportunity for them to do that because of the Next Gen car.”
From a competition standpoint, the Next Gen is highly influenced by the Australian Supercar series and GT3 road racing cars.
Unlike previous iterations of the Cup Series, the Next Gen is designed to race on road and street courses but adapted for ovals instead of the other way around. It sports single-lug 18” aluminum wheels, another significant change from the 15” five-lug steel wheels on the current generation of cars. A center-lock hub will eliminate penalties for missing or loose lug nuts, but the familiar choreography of a pit stop will remain the same.
The body of the new car is symmetrical, another major shift from the status quo — cars that became increasingly asymmetrical as teams pursued the downforce and sideforce needed to make their cars more competitive. The Next Gen also features a lower greenhouse, shorter decklid and wider track width. That has allowed bumpers and bodylines that will be similar to their showroom counterparts.
The car features larger road course style brakes that make the car easier to stop with the goal of maintaining side-by-side action. NASCAR invited legends Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer to test the car in November at Bowman Gray Stadium in advance of the race at the similarly constructed LA Coliseum.
The latest and most consequential step in NASCAR’s evolution, the Next Gen car includes these innovative features:
- Body styles that are far more similar to their showroom counterparts
- Cars that are limited to kit components supplied by the 26 approved single-source suppliers
- A spec module chassis that comes in three pieces — a center section with front and rear clips that attach to it
- Sequential five-speed (plus reverse) transaxle
- Independent rear suspension
- Coilover shocks and springs
- Rear-view camera (instead of a mirror)
- Single-lug 18” aluminum wheels
- Larger road course style brakes
- Enhanced safety features
- Twin exhaust pipes with a throwback roar
“It’s different than anything I’ve ever driven in NASCAR,” Earnhardt said. “The braking ability and the braking performance of the car is probably the one thing that stood out to me the most. ... I’m using the brake pedals the same way I’ve used the brake pedals all my life, but this car stops so much better. I’m over-slowing the car way too much. It has a bigger tire on it, more grip. It has better drive-off the corner with that tire.
“It just does everything better. It doesn’t feel too unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel too strange. It does everything like a stock car, just better.”
However, the wider tire has a shorter sidewall, and that made the car more sensitive to spinning out during its initial testing period. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman says the car will be more challenging to drive.
“I think you’re going to see guys crash a lot more than normal,” Bowman says. “I don’t remember the last [Next Gen] test that we’ve been to that multiple guys weren’t spinning out and crashing.”
Earnhardt says drivers will step over the point of control frequently in this first season until they better understand where that figurative line is.
“With the shorter sidewall tire, it’s a little harder to understand when that tire is going to lose the grip,” Earnhardt says. “We went through sort of the same thing when we went from bias ply to the radial tire. A lot of guys complained of not being able to feel the tire when they got loose, and they would crash with no warning. Over time, we adjusted and we adapted and got comfortable. It will take the drivers a while to get comfortable with this new tire.”
The bodies will also be made of a composite material instead of the familiar sheet metal used for decades in the Cup Series. It’s worth noting that the second-tier Xfinity Series first moved to a composite flange fit shell in 2017. The bodies are more durable, and that allows for harder contact with the wall or other cars.
After all, rubbing is racing in NASCAR.
“Man, I’m telling you there’s close racing quarters out there,” Bowyer said after the Bowman Gray testing. “With these guys, there’s going to be some hurt feelings leaving that LA Coliseum racetrack out there.”
As for the larger tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule, NASCAR designed the car to be less aerodynamically sensitive in exchange for the additional mechanical grip provided by the tire. With that said, all three versions of the car also make use of aero ducts that the sanctioning body has mandated to better dispose of dirty air that has frequently stifled passing opportunities over the past decade.
“I think first and foremost, this [car] will be more in the hands of the drivers, and that’s something all of our fans want,” says NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell. “Reducing some of the downforce that’s out there, the cars will be harder to drive in the corners.”
To that end, the bottom of the car will also feature a full-length flat floor and a rear diffuser, which is different than the previous generation’s open bottom — which is only sealed using various suspension components and an engine oil pan.
NASCAR has scheduled a robust testing campaign during the offseason. Aside from the basic horsepower packages (670 for most races, 550 for a handful of intermediate track events), many of the competitive features are still being fleshed out. It has been the busiest offseason in NASCAR history with teams crisscrossing the country putting the car through its paces at every track type on the schedule.
Arguably the most significant change in an offseason defined by evolution is a car that can only be constructed using kit components supplied by the 26 approved single-source suppliers. In other words, teams will no longer be permitted to research and develop their own parts.
That dynamic is best described by Trackhouse Racing Team’s Justin Marks, a veteran racer who launched his organization last year alongside pop culture icon Pitbull.
“The NASCAR Cup Series is now a series where we can now buy the same parts and pieces as the teams who won the most races last year,” Marks says. “We all have access to and will be using the exact same parts.”
The concept has certainly created intrigue and interest. Truck Series team GMS Racing made the leap into Cup, buying majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports with driver Erik Jones and adding a second team for Ty Dillon. Team Hezeberg out of Europe has launched a part-time program featuring Euro Series champion Loris Hezemans and former Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve. Even Earnhardt has expressed interest in becoming a Cup Series team owner if he can secure an ownership charter.
“I think you’re going to see some really interesting teams give the Cup Series a look in the next couple of years because the barrier to entry isn’t there like it used to be,” Marks explains. “It’s a lot like GT3 where you can buy a turn-key GT3 car and have basically the same equipment as everyone else.”
The foundation of the chassis is now a spec module that comes in three pieces — a center section with front and rear clips that attach to it.
That makes the car easier to repair after a crash, as seen during a November test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway when Austin Dillon collided with the wall. Richard Childress Racing took the car back to its shop an hour north in Welcome, N.C., to replace damaged body components. All in all, RCR replaced the left-front clip, quarter panel, the tail, front fascia, hood, splitter and front suspension in three hours. It returned to the track within five hours of leaving. This wouldn’t have been possible with the previous generation car because the front clip was welded to the center section.
NASCAR has also leveled the playing field by placing a cap on the number of chassis a team can have at any given time. For 2022, that number is seven, making the quick turnaround time on repairs all the more important. Between moving to a spec platform and limiting the number of cars teams can have at one time, current owners believe owning a race team could become profitable.
“Yeah, I think so,” says Rick Hendrick. “No, I know so. Once you make the commitment up front to buy all the parts and pieces, and get rid of what you have, as time goes on, I think we’re going to see the benefits of this car in the second and third year.
“The first year is going to be expensive. It’s almost front loaded, really, as you get the equipment and cars, but it’s going to be cheaper once you have all that.”
That sentiment is echoed by Richard Childress.
“Once we get the components all put together, I think it’s going to be a savings in the long run,” Childress says. “We can run less cars, and that’s going to be huge. If you look at this program two or three years down the road, it’s going to be a big cost savings.”
From a safety standpoint, the machine has been designed to take another evolutionary step forward. The center section incorporates additional roll bars to improve crash protection. The seat has been relocated to bring the driver closer to the center of the car. Not unlike production models, the front and rear of the Next Gen will include foam inserts between all three sections to provide additional safety.
For now, the cars will continue utilizing the familiar internal combustion V8 pushrod engines, but hybrid battery-assisted powerplants will be incorporated over the next decade. That is the only way Phelps can successfully entice manufacturers to join his sport in an era when the automotive industry is increasingly becoming more electric.
“I would be surprised if a new OEM came in without some type of electrification,” Phelps says. “I’m not talking about all-electric. I’m talking about a hybrid system. I think it’s something, obviously something that we’re exploring now with our existing three OEMs. The question is, What is it? What’s the timing of it?”
By 2040, it is expected that 60 percent of global passenger vehicle sales will come from electric vehicles, and that EVs will make up around 30 percent of all cars on the road. General Motors has targeted a complete zero-emissions lineup by 2035. Ford has targeted a zero-emissions lineup in the UK by 2030 with a U.S. plan soon to follow.
If the Next Gen is to continue to mimic its showroom counterparts, that will mean incorporating electrical and hybrid components over the next decade and beyond.
With that said, the cars will still sound different this season with twin exhaust pipes instead of just one over the right side. The engine sound is best described as throaty with a throwback roar that carries further and deeper around a racetrack. Phelps says that sound will continue to be important to the NASCAR experience, even as the platform begins to incorporate more electrical components.
“Sound is a huge part of who we are as a sport,” Phelps says. “It’s going to continue to be.”
Phelps is also banking on his fan base not caring about the single-source supplier element of the Next Gen car. He believes this car, and the racing it will produce, will be capable of checking every single box that a race fan has wanted out of NASCAR in recent years.
“We’ve tried to determine what’s important to the race fans,” Phelps says. “Those things that are most important to the race fans are the things that they’re going to see. The skill of the drivers, the skill of the crew, that chemistry that is just between a driver and a crew chief to get the balance of the car right. All those things are what’s going to make great racing.
“I don’t think a race fan frankly cares about (teams manufacturing their own parts) at this point. They just want great racing, which is what they’re going to see.”