There are always bound to be problems when a new racecar is introduced. Oftentimes the issues are based around reliability.
In the case of the Next Gen car, reliability was actually pretty good for most of the season. It’s that the chassis was extremely stiff.
The mandate to cut costs for the team resulted in a much less crushable car than the previous Gen 6 car. When these cars crash, those forces still have to go somewhere. It appears that one place those forces went was directly toward the drivers.
And the sad truth of the matter is that this was likely preventable.
NASCAR put a significant amount of time into crash testing the Next Gen car. Sports Business Journal’s Matt Crossman interviewed John Patalak, NASCAR’s senior director of safety engineering, in 2021 about the testing process. At the time, Patalak described using eight years’ worth of black-box data, along with a medical database of driver injuries in the Gen 6 car and the Car of Tomorrow to determine which areas of the car on which to focus. There were also significant tests of the foam that went into the new car, both in computer models, simulations and real life.
One can never do enough testing for these types of situations. However, the problem that emerged as the season went on is that the types of crashes that injured drivers in 2022 didn’t really injure anyone in previous years. Or, if they did, those crashes didn’t injure the drivers enough that they felt the need to comment on them or seek treatment.
Because there were crashes of the Next Gen car prior to the competition debut at February’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum — quite a few, actually.
Prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, William Byron crashed a test car at Auto Club Speedway in 2020. Testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in November and December 2021 resulted in a series of spins. Likely the biggest crash was one that Austin Dillon had in November where he went head on into the wall.
The Phoenix Raceway test in January also saw a number of spins. Front Row Motorsports’ Todd Gilliland also spun and backed into the wall in turn 2.
On the surface, Gilliland’s crash ended up looking rather innocuous. However, it was this kind of crash that played a much bigger role in the 2022 season than it ever should have.
Once the racing got underway, it became rather obvious that something was going on. You were hearing drivers on a regular basis describing crashes as the hardest hits of their careers that looked anything but that.
The Next Gen car made it possible to continue racing after crashes that would have disabled a Gen 6 car. One example was Kevin Harvick crashing out of the lead at Texas Motor Speedway after cutting a right rear tire and backing hard into the wall in turn 3.
Despite this crash, Harvick not only continued in the race but also managed to finish on the lead lap in 19th.
Speaking of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500, it was likely the worst race of the year due to crashes, tire failures and slow pace. Five-hundred-mile races at Texas should not take four hours and 21 minutes (not including the red flag due to rain showers). Had this event been a regular race, the biggest stories that would have come out of it would have been Tyler Reddick winning his first Cup race on an oval, or the ridiculousness surrounding Byron and Denny Hamlin.
Instead, the biggest stories were two nasty crashes. First up was Alex Bowman’s crash in turn 4 on lap 97.
Bowman was in visible pain after the hit and said on the radio he thought he was done for the day — which ended up not being the case; after repairs were made to the Ally Chevrolet, Bowman actually finished the race despite complaining that his head hurt. Four days later, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Bowman would sit out Talladega Superspeedway due to concussion-like symptoms. Bowman only ended up returning for the season finale at Phoenix.
His concussion was the second one of the year that we know about. The first came when Kurt Busch backed into the wall exiting turn 3 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway in July.
The situation ended up being much worse for Busch as compared to Bowman. He has still not raced in the five months since he was concussed and will not race full time in the series in 2023.
The other crash was Cody Ware’s crash in turn 4 after a mechanical failure on his Nurtec ODT Ford. Ware went hard into the outside wall before going down pit road out of control and just barely missing an opening in the pit wall.
Ware suffered an impaction fracture in his right foot and a number of partial ligament tears in the crash. He raced at Talladega the next week but ultimately sat out the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte ROVAL.
After Texas, the drivers effectively forced NASCAR to do additional lab testing on the Next Gen car to address their concerns that the computer models in crash testing didn’t reflect what they were feeling in the car. In addition, a series of regular meetings with the drivers were instituted so that the sport’s leadership could hear directly from the the drivers. Before, NASCAR had more or less denied what the drivers were saying since it wasn’t consistent with its research.
For 2023, there will be changes to the Next Gen car that will allow for additional crush ability. The hope is that it will reduce the forces that drivers have been experiences in crashes.
The car itself wasn’t the only safety issue in NASCAR in 2022, though. It brought new, low-profile tires that brought an end to the usage of interliners in the Cup Series.
The interliner was instituted as a safety measure way back around 1970. Not having those on superspeedways can mean that a small cut could lead to near immediate catastrophe. The Harvick and Bowman crashes above are just two examples of what can happen when a tire fails at high speeds.
Then there were officiating issues that caused safety problems. The biggest standout here is the sudden rain shower that created a massive crash at Daytona International Speedway in August.
It was painfully obvious to anyone at the track and anyone watching that day on CNBC that the rain was moving toward the track. Daytona is not Martinsville Speedway; you can’t keep going until it pours with drivers racing three-wide at 190 mph. It’s too dangerous. Had NASCAR called the yellow 30 seconds earlier, the big wreck probably never happens.
To its credit, NASCAR realized it screwed that situation up, which is why it’s become much more conservative in regards to rain since.
Speaking of tires, another major talking point was in regards to the single-lug wheels and the various issues in getting them to stay on a car. This was a nightmare from day one and never really got better. There were 39 four-week suspensions assessed during the season due to lost tires (crew chief, jackman and tire changer each time), while a midseason rule change prevented more suspensions from happening. The No. 31 team got busted twice.
Likely the scariest incident regarding the new wheels didn’t even involve any of those suspensions. That occurred in Phoenix back in November when Caleb Binks, jackman on Christopher Bell’s No. 20, got his fingers stuck between the wheel and brake caliper on the final pit stop of the season. The general public didn’t really see what exactly happened until Joe Gibbs Racing posted a video to Twitter nearly a month after the season ended.
Here’s footage of No. 20 Jackman Caleb Dirks from the final pit stop at the Championship race. Caleb’s fingers got lodged between the wheel and brake caliper. It’s a miracle that Caleb didn’t sustain major injuries (unlike the hot dog in our illustration). #NASCAR #racing pic.twitter.com/M8YwX6tTIm
— Joe Gibbs Racing (@JoeGibbsRacing) December 5, 2022
Binks wasn’t seriously injured here, but it could have been far worse. He just had to deal with bruised and very sore fingers.
The increased speed of pit stops in 2022 with the single-lug wheels has made pit road quite a bit more dangerous for the crews. Something like Binks’ issue is just one way that they are more dangerous. Another is the possibility of more interaction between teams finishing stops and those pulling in, something that used to only happen early in races. NASCAR isn’t Formula 1 or the Repco Supercars Championship; there will not be a penalty assessed to anyone for an unsafe release.
Add up all the various situations in 2022 and you have a season that was very competitive but full of enough shenanigans to drive everyone insane. With all of the time that NASCAR put into developing the Next Gen car, at times it seems it didn’t really listen to anyone who drove the car.
The outrage that followed after Bowman and Busch’s concussions and the other various hits that were harder than before and took longer to heal up could have ripped the sport apart. Had NASCAR done nothing after all the outrage, you very well could have seen the Race Team Alliance try to force some kind of action against NASCAR.
2023 will be an important year for NASCAR. The changes to the Next Gen car will have to show an appreciable improvement in driver safety for the drivers to maintain trust in the sanctioning body. The testing has been positive, but as we found out this past season, a lab is not a track. Additional changes to the hub assembly will hopefully decrease the number of loose wheels — and, thus, suspensions.
About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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