When the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season kicked off in February, it marked the long-awaited debut of the Next Gen car. More than just a new design, the Next Gen car signaled a departure from business as usual in the Cup Series. Instead of each team building its own cars in-house, teams would now be required to purchase a spec chassis from a single supplier.
Many other components which teams previously built from scratch had to be purchased from other approved vendors. By moving toward common chassis and parts, NASCAR hoped to limit the cost required to compete in the Cup Series and increase parity throughout the field. Accordingly, the sanctioning body promised stiff penalties to anyone caught altering the vendor-supplied parts.
NASCAR also tried to address some complaints that hung over the Gen 6 and Car of Tomorrow years with the Next Gen design. The Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang and Toyota Camry Next Gens all received unique front styling based on their production car counterparts. Composite bodies, as opposed to the traditional steel bodies, made the car stronger and less resistant to damage from impacts. Each car also featured a diffuser hanging below the rear bumper, designed to lessen the influence of dirty air and allow trailing cars to make passes more easily at high-speed tracks.
The true test of the Next Gen car was always going to be its performance in the races themselves. Unsurprisingly, its success rate was a mixed bag. The new car hit some of the targets that NASCAR aimed for and missed others.
What was truly unexpected was how much influence the Next Gen car had on the 2022 season. Nearly every week’s race provided a new twist with the Next Gen’s rollout, causing fans and drivers alike to reevaluate the car each time. Both the good and the bad of the Next Gen car had an enormous impact on 2022.
Perhaps the biggest and most positive outcome from the introduction of the Next Gen car is that it did increase parity among winners. Through 36 Cup races, 19 different drivers went to victory lane, an amount not seen since 2001. Five first time winners contributed to that number: Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick. Chastain in particular had an excellent season, taking Trackhouse Racing Team to the final round of the playoffs in his first season with the team. Reddick and Austin Dillon also did great work for Richard Childress Racing. Their combined four wins was the most by RCR in one season since 2013.
Dillon’s victory in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway was particularly significant because it brought the number of different winners to exactly 16 drivers when the regular season concluded. Had Kurt Busch been able to compete in the playoffs, every spot would have been taken by a race winner. In years gone by, the Cup Series had nowhere near the competitive depth required to produce 16 different winners in 26 races. Yet the Next Gen car made that seemingly far-fetched dream a reality.
Another positive development from the Next Gen car was its performance on intermediate and high-speed tracks. The aero sensitivity of previous cars was generally most detrimental to races on 1.5- and 2-mile speedways. The Next Gen car did not completely eliminate this problem, but its revamped design seemed to mitigate the dirty air issue and allow for more passing throughout the field.
For instance, the Next Gen’s aero design made a big difference in the Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR’s legendary endurance event went from one of the worst races in 2021 to one of the best in 2022. While the race turned into a bit of a wreck-fest at the end, it was refreshing to see how dramatically the car responded to changing track conditions throughout the night.
Auto Club Speedway was another track that hosted a surprisingly great race with the Next Gen car. Both Talladega Superspeedway races and the Daytona 500 were also fun events, suggesting that the superspeedway package for the Next Gen is on the right track.
Indeed, some features of the Next Gen car might have worked a little too well. Along with its aerodynamic modifications, NASCAR also outfitted the new car with independent rear suspension, rack and pinion steering, and bigger brakes. These updates were supposed to bring the Next Gen more in line with its production counterparts and allow for more driver input on short tracks, flat tracks and road courses.
However, the quality of racing on all three track types took a noticeable decline. Martinsville Speedway’s spring night race was a stinker. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL produced by far its worst race in its five-year history of hosting NASCAR events. The only good road race from beginning to end this year was at Watkins Glen International. Most other road courses produced dull races that got overshadowed by chaotic finishes. Finally, the Cup season ended with a dreadfully boring event at Phoenix Raceway, a lousy conclusion to an otherwise fun year of racing.
It was not surprising to see the Next Gen car score low marks at some tracks. That’s simply part of debuting a new car. What’s far more concerning is how often safety issues were a recurring story with the Next Gen in 2022. Resolving those issues must be NASCAR’s No. 1 priority as the sport gears up for 2023.
Busch was not able to compete in the 2022 playoffs despite winning earlier in the year. That’s because Busch’s season ended abruptly during qualifying at Pocono Raceway in July, when he spun at the exit of turn three and backed his No. 45 Toyota into the outside wall. The wreck didn’t look particularly severe, especially given Pocono’s history of violent crashes. But Busch developed concussion-like symptoms from the impact and spent the rest of the season on the sidelines. Busch later announced that he will not be competing full time in 2023.
The leading theory behind Busch’s accident is that the stiffness of the Next Gen chassis, especially in the back end, may have contributed to his injury. Unlike the Gen 6 car, which crumpled when it backed into the wall at high speed, the Next Gen car tends to hold its shape even after hard impacts. This possibly creates a scenario where more energy gets transferred to the driver. These concerns were magnified when Alex Bowman developed a concussion after the playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway from a similar crash. Bowman did return for the last race of the season, but his injury effectively ended his title hopes.
Other problems with the Next Gen’s design cropped up throughout 2022. Nearly every team in the field struggled at some point with getting the single lug nut wheels to lock into place during pit stops. Too often, a driver would leave the pits and immediately radio back to their crews that they had a loose wheel, only to have the wheel completely fall off the car before returning to the pits. Thankfully, none of those errant wheels wound up striking fans or crew members.
A scarier situation for the drivers was a rash of cockpit fires during the second half of the season, particularly in the Fords. Chris Buescher’s team had to put out a fire in their car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Briscoe’s team encountered a similar issue at Richmond Raceway a few weeks later. But the most high profile of these incidents was when Kevin Harvick’s car caught fire late in the Southern 500, an issue that contributed to him getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Back in the garage area, Harvick infamously blamed the fire on “crappy ass parts.”
Suffice it to say that there is room for improvement with the Next Gen car. NASCAR will have to find a way for the car to dissipate more energy on hard impacts. With high profile races coming up at North Wilkesboro Speedway and the new Chicago street course next year, the sanctioning body must also work out some improvements for short tracks and road courses.
Yet NASCAR and its fans should be encouraged overall by what the Next Gen car offered in 2022. The past year featured one of the deepest fields in the Cup Series since the early 2000s. Several of the mid-pack teams were able to run up front and win races, and no single team or driver truly dominated the season. The quality of racing with this car at the intermediate tracks was the best seen in years.
Although there is still work to be done, NASCAR and its teams now have a good foundation for improving the Next Gen car into 2023.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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