Next is now: Cup Series’ new-generation car poised for debut

Next is now: Cup Series’ new-generation car poised for debut

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On Oct. 8, 2019, Austin Dillon eased a prototype stock car

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On Oct. 8, 2019, Austin Dillon eased a prototype stock car out of the Richmond Raceway garage with many interested parties keeping watch. NASCAR officials blended in with reps from Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing team, manufacturers and parts vendors, making the track feel a little less vacant.

Those eyes were focused – or trying to focus – on a car that was wrapped in a dizzying black-and-white pattern meant to partly disguise its design details, some of which were still in development. “It felt like 100 people when I backed out the car,” said Dillon, who would turn the first laps in what was then called the Gen-7 car for the NASCAR Cup Series’ future.

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For NASCAR officials, it was the realization of a vision for what the next-generation stock car for its top series could be, and the project’s new name – Next Gen – reflected that. For RCR, it was a boost for a two-car organization that landed outside the playoff picture that fall. The Childress operation’s design team mapped out and built the first prototype – car P1 – in fewer than 40 days.

“The company kind of needed some focus and something to be optimistic about, and this car came along and everybody just dove in — the whole company. And we were able to pull it off,” said Eric Kominek, RCR’s technical director, back then its chief designer. “It was some long days and nights and weekends. But in the end, we got into Richmond, and it was pretty much a flawless test. … They collaborated with us and listened to what we had to say and it wasn’t perfect, but our goal was to get something functional and working to test, and I think it was a pretty phenomenal feat.”

RCR crew weren’t the only ones to recognize the accomplishment. One of those invested observers was NASCAR chairman Jim France, who handed out cigars like a proud papa to those who made the car’s first voyage happen.

“It was for his new baby. It was born there,” said Andy Petree, RCR’s vice president of competition. “So he gave out cigars for the first Next Gen test and I feel proud of that, that RCR basically birthed the first one. It was a NASCAR/Dallara design, but we built the whole thing, got all the fixtures, made the car, and a lot went into that. Once we got it to the track, it performed well, and a sense of accomplishment.”

Nearly two-and-a-half years later, the car’s competition debut in the season-opening Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is nearly here. New teams, new tracks and a new attitude are helping to usher in a season of change in stock-car racing, but at the root is the Next Gen car – a model meant to carry NASCAR into a new era.

RELATED: Key story lines, facts to know for the 2022 Daytona 500

A clean sheet

First, a word of fond remembrance for the Next Gen’s predecessor. The Gen-6 car brought in its own new era of brand identity when introduced in 2013, and it leaves a strong, competitive legacy. But not long after that car’s christening, engineers at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center were already beginning work on improving its Cup Series vehicle standards.

A test in August of 2014 at Michigan International Speedway tried out six configurations of aerodynamic and engine packages, striving to promote more passing and side-by-side racing. Two years later, NASCAR tested the “X-3” car, a design exercise that experimented with airflow through relocated radiator ducts and placed even more emphasis on the vehicle’s symmetry – two key components that eventually made their way to the Next Gen’s final formula.

“Definitely you could see us trying to get away from some of the things that were going on, but it wasn’t ready,” said Brandon Thomas, NASCAR’s managing director of vehicle systems. “But it was a great first step of here’s some of the possibilities, here’s the things you need to be looking at. … So that was a big test, but there again, you still kind of ran into, we’re just making subtle changes to the same base thing. And it’s, you’re not going to get there with a subtle change.”

A blank slate was needed. Some of the same basic principles of the new car would still apply – down to the familiar V8 rumble – but other elements broke from the Gen-6 mainstays.

MORE: Ins and outs of Next Gen explained

Thomas wrote out the original design brief, transitioning to a more coupe-like look with lines that more closely resembled the road-going counterparts from each original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Under the composite-body skin, an independent rear suspension and sequential gearbox are among the new features and the racer rides on larger 18-inch wheels that correlate to sportier street cars.

“To me, it’s getting the parts related to the technology that we design and build and sell in our vehicles today in the showroom. That’s important,” says Jim Campbell, the U.S. Vice President of Chevrolet Performance & Motorsports. “… If you look at the technology we had previous to this, it was fairly old technology, so that’s what I like about this formula is these technologies that we have in the vehicle, the parts are related to what we do in the showroom today. For me, that’s a positive.”

That leap isn’t lost on the teams.

“I’ve spent a big part of my career in sports-car racing, and where technology every year is being pushed,” says Justin Marks, founder of Trackhouse Racing. “All the race cars all employed relevant technologies to the street cars, and NASCAR for a long time hasn’t been like that. So what was exciting to me about that car was looking at something that is finally, from an engineering and technology standpoint, relevant to motorsports on a global scale.

“So now we’ve sort of arrived where international sports-car racing is, where open-wheel racing is, just in the way this car utilizes materials and how it’s built and drivetrain and suspension, all that kind of stuff. So for me being someone that loves the development of technology and the future, now we have a car that represents that. And that’s the most exciting thing for me.”

Working together

Richard Childress Racing had taken the reins of the first Next Gen test, but when the car returned to the track two months later at Phoenix Raceway, Joey Logano was behind the wheel. His Team Penske crew was there for support, but so were RCR personnel to assist alongside NASCAR officials.

Such a level of cross-pollination — two organizations from different manufacturers working hand in hand in the same garage stall – is a rare happening. But that cooperation was an early indicator of the efforts to come.

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Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

“We were shoulder to shoulder and I think, because it was a new car and we all knew we’re gonna be racing the same car, it really, really kind of opened up a box that we hadn’t been in before,” Kominek said. “We were always so guarded of each other’s stuff. This car has kind of changed that, even at the garage (during testing). You can walk through anybody’s garage and nobody bats an eye. I mean, before you felt like you’re violating somebody’s space. And now we all know we have the same stuff, and it has changed the sport in that way.”

“Everybody kind of realized that we all needed to contribute,” said Eric Jacuzzi, NASCAR managing director of aerodynamics and vehicle performance, “and there were times where we had to take the lead and bring people along, and then there were times where specific things, the manufacturers and their teams were able to bring something to the table to help the development. So it started from that OEM and NASCAR standpoint, and that cooperation just kind of radiates out and eventually gets to the race teams. We really, I think, wanted to bring everybody on the journey and understand the car and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

MORE: Evolution of NASCAR Cup Series cars

That journey meant a comprehensive testing schedule, one that was slowed by the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020. The pandemic pushed the timetable for the car’s debut back a year to 2022, but testing resumed that August — some for car development, some for Goodyear tire prep, and eventually organizational tests to allow teams to get familiar with working on the car at the track.

All along the way, NASCAR officials pulled the three automakers together to reach the overarching objectives. Their competitive passions came second to the spirit of collaboration to make the project work.

“You started to see the OEM groups work, not to try and gain some advantage over each other, but really, let’s make sure when we’re done with this, it’s good. It can’t miss,” Thomas said. “There will be some misses, it’s a complicated device, right? It’s a complicated machine, it’s a complicated proposition to go racing, and everybody’s pushing, but you can’t end up with the square peg in a round hole. So that was a big culture change.”

Everybody in

Marks seemed deep in thought. In early May 2021, NASCAR had just unveiled the manufacturer-specific Next Gen cars with much fanfare, flashing lights and smoke machines. After the presentations, proclamations and sizzle music had subsided, Marks remained among the minglers, staring at the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 model that his Trackhouse operation would soon field.

Next Gen May 5

Marks had already launched a single-car team for the last year of Gen-6 competition with Daniel Suarez driving his No. 99 Chevy. Several weeks later, he would purchase the Chip Ganassi Racing operation, setting the course for rapid expansion.

For Marks, the Next Gen model of using vendor-specific parts instead of relying on engineering and development of his own parts presented not just a ticket to entry, but also the potential to make competitive inroads when racing against established teams.

“I think as a new team coming in at the end of the Gen-6 era, you’re always fighting an uphill battle because you just don’t have all those notes to lean on over the development cycle of that car,” Marks says. “So that’s all intellectual property for the teams that have been around the whole time, right? These big teams can develop the car over a number of years themselves, and we’ve got all this data and experience with it, but everybody throws that out with this car.

“So we’re all learning this car together, and so it puts Trackhouse in a position to be able to learn the car right alongside all of the other teams, and then I think it gives us the opportunity to hopefully get competitive a lot quicker if we do the right things.”

MORE: Looking back at Next Gen’s debut

The sense of opportunity extends to Suarez, who returns for his second year with Trackhouse, which has added Ross Chastain as his teammate in the No. 1 Chevrolet. Suarez showed glimpses of Trackhouse’s potential last year, but his optimism level for 2022 has ratcheted.

“If it wasn’t for the Next Gen car, Trackhouse wouldn’t be here,” Suarez said. “That’s just one example. If it wasn’t for the Next Gen car, probably 23XI wouldn’t be here either. So this new Next Gen car gives opportunities to start on the same level (as) everyone else, and then it’s up to you how much resources, engineering and people you’re going to put behind it to make it better. But it gives you the opportunity. Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to get into a sport because if you wanted to win races and be competitive, you had to partner with a main team to be able to get chassis, bodies, engines — all those different things. Today, it’s a little easier. You can almost go across the street and get all these things.

“Everyone is getting exactly the same parts and pieces. So that’s a huge advantage. And if you think about it, that is going to open a lot of eyes for a lot of people, a lot of manufacturers and a lot of different teams that they may want to open a race team in the future. I think it’s huge. And we’re just seeing the very beginning of something very big.”

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Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

The “level playing field” theory may be oversimplified, but there are early indicators that the gap may at least narrow. Larger teams still have the edge in terms of resources, but the requirement of vendor-supplied parts means that at least some of the car’s features will be equal.

“In the past, you could give a low-budget team all the answers and they still couldn’t be competitive because they didn’t have the latest components on the car and the latest build spec and things like that,” Kominek said. “The sport — every season, pending rule changes and all that — the car was constantly evolving and you couldn’t take a car you raced in the spring back in the fall and be competitive without some tweaks to it. This car eliminates all that stuff, so you don’t have to have all the wind tunnel hours and aero tuners and fabricators doing all the things that we did to those bodies before on this one to be competitive. So that certainly is going to be a different box to play in.”

MORE: List of Next Gen vendors

Obtaining those parts has been a challenge, and NASCAR officials have acknowledged that the sport has not been immune to the supply-chain issues that have had a global impact. In that sense, it’s affected large and small teams alike.

“As far as the car goes, obviously the big teams or the powerhouse teams are loaded with personnel, which makes life a little easier getting things built, but we’re all kind of in the same boat,” said Ryan Sparks, crew chief for the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet of Corey LaJoie. “It’s really hard to get enough parts right now. That’s not a dig at NASCAR. It’s not a NASCAR or NASCAR vendor problem, it’s just a worldwide problem.

“It’s just, it’s hard to get anything quickly in this day and age, but it definitely has somewhat leveled the playing field where I think, first place to 30th was probably a second lap time difference previously, and now I think it’ll be within a couple tenths. So the opportunities to capitalize and have really good days, I think it’ll be more prevalent this year moving forward.”

New teams have entered the Cup Series fray in the last handful of years. Marks’ Trackhouse team has joined Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing outfit, plus the BJ McLeod/Matt Tifft Live Fast Motorsports effort among the fresh full-time teams. Part-time organizations Team Hezeberg, The Money Team Racing and NY Racing Team have also joined in, each making this year’s Daytona 500 field.

RELATED: Inside The Money Team Racing’s Daytona 500 bid

For the established Cup Series teams, the evolving team roster also represents a welcome, vibrant change.

“We remember those days when 48 cars would show up at a Cup race and try to qualify. The more the merrier,” said Walter Czarnecki, Team Penske’s vice chairman. “It think it’s really illustrative of the strength of this sport. I saw this report yesterday that I’m sure you all shared in it, but Daytona being a sellout for this year. I think a lot of that is driven by the Next Gen car. More team owners, more participation is only gonna make it better for everybody. This is a golden opportunity given the economic advantages that teams have now to get into this sport. The cost of entry is somewhat reduced from what it’s been in the past as a result of the new car and we’ve got some bright, young, progressive, aggressive owners participating, so we welcome it, for sure. That makes it healthy for everybody.”

Rebirth of stock

Brandon Thomas remembers driving back from one of the Next Gen tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway, glancing back over at the track’s main entrance from Highway 29. He saw a Toyota TRD Camry sitting out front as part of a photo shoot, and Thomas figured it for a pace car, given the track’s affiliation with the automaker.

“And then I look back over again, as I was driving by and I realize like, that’s their wheelforce (test) car,” Thomas says. “… So now your eyes start to play a little bit of a trick on yourself on your brain, like, ‘man, that thing really does look like what’s on the road.’ ”

The May 2021 unveiling of the manufacturer-specific Next Gen cars was billed as the “Rebirth of Stock,” highlighting how the seventh-generation car took the Gen-6’s brand-identity concept exponentially further.

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Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

“I think that that’s an exciting proposition — for the fans, for the OEMs, for everybody,” Thomas says. “It’s hard to say, ‘rebirth of stock’ and not be able to park the cars beside each other and say, this is a lot of it right here. And the OEMs were so deep in the process, that it wasn’t just throw a decal on that looks like your headlight at the end. I mean, they were in it with us from day one.”

Early prototypes, including the trusty P3 that performed many of the tests, had cues that resembled the Camaro – thanks to RCR’s early building expertise and influence. But that model was purposely unaffiliated with any manufacturer; even the P3’s hood emblem carried the NASCAR bar mark.

Credit the three carmakers’ design studios for making their own concepts pop, from sketch to model to actual car.

“The car actually looks more like a production car, but it looks racier,” said Kominek. “It’s more aesthetically pleasing than even the last car, which is very similar. But I mean, when you get the car all done, ready to go to test and put a brand-new wrap on it and see it, it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s a very nice-looking, modern race car. So I think that’s kind of the sentiment of the shop, everybody. Like I said, it’s a new toy right now, and everybody’s pretty excited to get going about it.”

RELATED: Optimism from final test at Phoenix

So, Next is finally now. The work, however, won’t end after the Daytona 500 takes the green flag. Competition officials say they’ll continue to monitor the car’s performance, check for any issues that may flare, plus keep a close watch for how teams find their own rhythm in trying to make their cars go faster.

Still, Sunday’s 500 offers a key juncture in the project timeline and also a moment to reflect.

“All those things are big milestones, but now you’re to the point where we’re going to hand out money at the end of something,” Thomas said. “Everything up to this is still dress rehearsals, but I would say more of my emotion is definitely pride in the job, pride in the product. Really there’s a big chunk of some deep satisfaction that we were given the latitude to get to do it from NASCAR itself, from the top down. And those folks have been supportive. You’ve got to keep them in the know, right, but they’ve been supportive and they really left us a lot of room to do the job. And hopefully, we’ve done exactly what they want.”

Logano snared the first unofficial victory with the car, prevailing in the Busch Light Clash exhibition at the LA Coliseum. Plenty more firsts are still up for grabs for the competitors, and their anticipation has multiple layers.

“It’s sort of twofold for me,” says Marks. “One is I’m excited to just go racing, regardless of what the car is. I mean, they’re gonna hold these races, and someone’s gonna have to win them, and I like the challenge of chasing that with Trackhouse. And on the other hand, I see it all coming together and I’m just proud of NASCAR, honestly, because I’ve been working closely with NASCAR for two years now in this Trackhouse project, and I just know how important this car is to them, and how important the timing of this car is to the future of our sport.

“So, seeing it come together, seeing these beautiful race cars come to the race track and the last couple of organizational tests we’ve had have gone really, really well, I’m incredibly bullish on this season and on the future of the sport. So I’m just proud of them because I know how big of a risk it was that they took, but how well they delivered the product.”

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