The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Daytona 500 looms, drivers race to adapt to NASCAR’s ‘Next Gen’ racecar

Martin Truex Jr. will start in row 7 for the Daytona 500. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
8 min

Former Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer loves the look of NASCAR’s new “Next Gen” racecar, smitten at first sight by its bigger, 18-inch wheels and sleek, stylish body.

He’s wild about its deeper, throatier sound, too, as a self-professed “car guy” who hears music in the roar of V-8 engines.

But what Bowyer likes best is the look of anxiety he sees in the eyes of NASCAR drivers as they prepare for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 in a radically retooled racecar they’ve barely had a chance to figure out.

“They’re all nervous about this car,” said Bowyer, 42, a Fox broadcaster who as a driver famously skidded across the finish line of the 2007 Daytona 500 in an upside-down Chevrolet in flames. “These guys are going to have their hands full, and I want to see that as a fan! I don’t want to see a guy, when you go to an in-car camera, looking like he’s on a Sunday afternoon cruise with his family.”

The Next Gen car represents a major gamble for NASCAR, the country’s most popular form of auto racing. But it’s a gamble the sport had to take as the automotive industry steers away from four-door sedans, internal combustion engines and the old-school design principles at the heart of the 1970s-era stock cars NASCAR’s Cup Series has been racing and refining for decades.

NASCAR rejects sponsorship deal based on ‘Let’s go, Brandon’ chant

More than any factor in the next five to 10 years, the Next Gen car will probably determine whether NASCAR keeps pace with the rapidly evolving auto industry that is stock-car racing’s lifeblood or gets left behind on the scrap heap of irrelevance.

Come Sunday, however, when the 40-car field lines up at Daytona International Speedway, the only thing fans will care about is how the Next Gen car races. Will the 64th edition of what’s billed as the Great American Race deliver side-by-side action, hair-raising passes, lead changes galore and a green-flag finish with plenty of good cars still running at the finish?

Martin Truex Jr., who’ll start 14th in one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Toyota entries, is as curious as anyone.

“We’re racecar drivers; we’ve driven all different kinds of cars,” said Truex, 41, who was edged by teammate Denny Hamlin in the closest Daytona 500 finish in history in 2016. “But we’ve been driving the same style of car for a long time at Daytona. So now, how’s this car going to feel once we get out there in a big pack, drafting two- and three-wide, 30 cars long, with the whole field in a big wad and the air disturbed? How’s it going to feel then? We don’t know.”

Kevin Harvick, the winner of the 2007 Daytona 500, explains drivers’ acclimation process this way: “It’s driving your street car for 20 years and then going to the lot and buying a new car and trying to figure out what all the buttons do. You’re figuring out the steering and why the brake pedal feels different, the gas pedal feels different — all the little things that go with transitioning from your old car to your new car.”

‘The Next Gen car was built to be relevant’

The development of the Next Gen racecar, which took nearly three years amid a pandemic slowdown, was driven by business imperatives as NASCAR executives looked five and 10 years down the road at the sport’s future and where the automotive industry was heading. They reached two primary conclusions.

One: NASCAR needed to replenish its ranks of team owners. The founders of its most successful, multicar operations were aging — Rick Hendrick is 72; Richard Childress, 76; Joe Gibbs, 81; and Roger Penske, 85. These veterans, who account for 27 Cup Series championships among them, also account for 13 cars in Daytona’s field of 40 this year.

To attract a new generation of owners, NASCAR concluded, the sport needed to reduce the cost of launching start-up Cup Series operations.

Two: NASCAR needed to attract new car manufacturers to challenge Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota and provide a hedge in case one of them pulled out of Cup racing, as Dodge did in 2012.

Mustang is Ford’s last remaining production car, and its future points toward an all-electric version. Chevrolet is expected to phase out the Camaro after 2024 and replace it with an EV version.

But wooing new manufacturers to compete in NASCAR — whether Honda, Nissan or another company — is a tough sell when virtually nothing about the Cup cars’ antiquated technology relates to what they’re building. The conclusion: Get in step with automakers or get left behind.

“The Next Gen car was built to be relevant,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing innovation, by phone.

Given that NASCAR’s business is entertainment, Probst added, another goal in developing the new car was to improve the racing by emphasizing drivers’ skill over teams’ engineering wizardry and costly wind-tunnel testing.

“We’ve never sold a ticket to a wind tunnel,” he noted.

The upshot is a racecar that differs from its predecessor in ways both subtle and significant.

The exterior is now brand-specific, with each model more closely resembling the Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros and Toyota Camrys on the showroom floor — a change the manufacturers have long pressed NASCAR to make.

The body is segmented into three parts, with front and rear sections that can be popped on and off. Rather than fabricating virtually every piece of the car from scratch, teams will buy Next Gen components from a common supplier, which makes building the car less labor-intensive and more like assembling a kit.

Though not evident to the eye, there’s no sheet metal in the body panels. They’re made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic that has some give. So when battered cars pull into the pits for repairs, fans won’t see crews banging out crumpled steel with mallets. Instead, crews will pop off a damaged carbon-fiber panel and pop on a new one, as if a Barbie doll’s arm.

With no mangled sheet metal to puncture or abrade tires, there ought to be fewer blowouts. And because the tires are bigger (18 rather than 15 inches), that puts more emphasis on the driver’s ability to keep the car from spinning out, Probst noted.

Engineering-wise, the Next Gen car includes an independent rear suspension and rack and pinion steering that’s more reactive to slight driver adjustments. Neither technology is new; they’re “givens” on production cars. But their introduction in NASCAR is another example of the relevance automakers want to see.

Though the gas-powered, V-8 engine is unchanged, the Next Gen car makes the deeper sound that Bowyer loves because the exhaust has been reconfigured.

The L.A. Coliseum has been the scene of Super Bowls and Olympics. Now it’s hosting a NASCAR race.

And in a move Probst characterizes as “future-proofing,” the car has been designed to accommodate an inevitable transition from gas-powered engines to a “greener” powertrain — whether hybrid, electric or some variation — as manufacturers wean themselves from fossil fuels.

“Our whole purpose with this car is to be flexible enough to pivot in whatever direction we need to go that is in the best interests of our [manufacturing] partners,” Probst said, adding that NASCAR will take care not to alienate its fans in the process.

So, what will fans notice when the green flag drops at Daytona?

Pit stop aficionados will notice that tires are anchored with one central lug nut rather than five. But as the field speeds past in a 200 mph blur, the action ought to look much the same.

Inside his No. 4 Ford Mustang, Harvick hopes to prove a quick study in mastering the myriad small, essential details he was fluent in the first two decades of his Cup career.

“I’m still not comfortable with knowing what switches on what inside the racecar,” Harvick said by phone after the week’s first test at Daytona. “I still have to think about where third gear is; it’s not up and to the right anymore.”

But as a former team owner in the second-tier Xfinity Series and third-tier Truck Series, he’s convinced NASCAR is on the right track with the Next Gen car.

“In the end, I believe that the owners and the sport will come out better,” Harvick said. “But it’s going to take a few years for all the changes to cycle through.”