NASCAR's lofty expectations for its new Cup Series car create a lot of pressure to fulfill them

·7 min read

NASCAR is very, very excited about its newest Cup Series car. 

The hyperbole hose was cranked up on Wednesday as NASCAR officially unveiled the "Next-Gen" cars that Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota will use during the 2022 season. Next season's cars are drastically different than their present-day counterparts, both in construction and design. 

That different design is evident. It's clear to any non-NASCAR fan that the cars look different. The front bumpers and hoods look different and the rear quarterpanels are shorter. Construction-wise, every car — no matter the manufacturer — will be assembled with parts from over 20 vendors. The days of teams building their own cars from their own parts are numbered. 

NASCAR has a good reason to be excited. If all goes according to plan, the car will help lower costs for team owners over the next few years, provide more compelling racing, allow Goodyear to use tires that wear quicker, and decrease the importance of aerodynamic grip.

Will all of that happen? No one can say for sure.

Lofty proclamations about its newest car models are nothing new for NASCAR. The sanctioning body has been similarly excited when it introduced the polarizing Car of Tomorrow in the mid-2000s and the current Cup Series car in 2013. Every car comes with high expectations. 

But this latest car has the highest expectations of any new car in decades. And that comes with a lot of self-inflicted pressure. 

"We really wanted to get back to a promise that we had made to the fans, which is to put the 'stock' back in stockcar," NASCAR president Steve Phelps said. "That was something extremely important to us and our fans. But just as important to our fans is the racing on the racetrack. It's hard to believe that the racing could be any stronger than it is last year and the first 11 races this year, but this car has features that will make it even better.

"Simply put, this car will make our sport healthier and stronger."

Controlling costs for teams

Phelps' last line is a big reason why NASCAR is putting so much pressure on the new car to be a resounding success. As television ratings have fallen over the last 15 years, ownership costs have risen while sponsorship revenues have failed to keep up. Making team ownership an easily profitable enterprise like ownership in any other major American sport is a big priority. No one wants to own a team to lose money. 

NASCAR hopes that the new car will eventually be cheaper to build and maintain than the current model and provide teams cost certainty as they will be capped at seven cars per team car — 28 cars for a four-car team — starting in 2022. 

That eventuality, however, may not be for a little bit. Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, said that his team would be prepared for increased costs at first with the new car. 

"I think for us personally, we budget on the safe side to say this car will probably be slightly more expensive for a couple years, then we kind of see what happens after that," Hamlin said.

"I think that crashes will play a bigger factor in your bottom line than what the current car does. Ultimately when you have parts and pieces when you crash, you're manufacturing those pieces, that costs less than buying a piece off the shelf. It just is. You always can manufacture cheaper than you can buy retail. I think what will be a bigger question mark will be where the sustainability of the teams will be. We'll probably know that three quarters of the year into the first year, we'll understand the economic model quite a bit better, have a better understanding where that model is in the future.

"Ultimately right now, we are making a lot of assumptions."

The chase for better racing — whatever that actually is

The push for cost-containment for owners may ultimately be easier than the never-ending push for better racing. 

NASCAR significantly changed its car rules ahead of the 2019 season in an attempt to keep cars closer together on the track. Those changes included added downforce everywhere and reduced horsepower at larger tracks. A year later, NASCAR cut downforce at shorter tracks after its changes clearly made for less compelling racing. 

The downforce additions at larger tracks have stayed. Drivers can now go flat-out with ease at intermediate tracks while running by themselves, and NASCAR has gone to great lengths to praise what the added downforce has done for the racing. Yet NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell said Wednesday that NASCAR was looking to cut downforce with the new car and make the cars harder to drive. 

"I think first and foremost, this will be more in the hands of the drivers, which all of our fans want," O'Donnell said. "So when you look at the aspects of the car, particularly around the aerodynamics, reducing some of the downforce that's out there, the cars will be harder to drive in the corners."

It's hard to hit a moving target and it sure seems like NASCAR's goals for better racing are never actually set. It's cut and added downforce with regularity over the last seven years in an attempt to capture a mythical formula for great racing. Based on O'Donnell's comments Wednesday, that chase is bound to continue into 2022 and beyond. 

What's success? What's failure?

NASCAR executives went out of their way to make sure to state just how good things were in 2021 as they were touting just how great things will be in 2022 and beyond. Those proclamations are, as of now, based on simulation data and only simulation data. But it didn't stop Phelps from making them.

"I have been told by our engineers with all the sim data that we have that the car actually will be racier than the existing car," Phelps said.

"But you're right; you look at the competition on the racetrack over the last year and a quarter, it's arguably the best racing we've ever had. Ten winners in 11 races, the competitiveness that exists, the cars are racy and the drivers are driving the wheels off these cars."

As of now, NASCAR hasn't had more than two 2022 cars on the track at the same time during testing. While it's undoubtedly learned a lot from its simulations, there's no substitute for actual track time. It's a risky game to brag about how much better something will be in the future. It's especially risky when that bragging is about a product that's still in its testing infancy.

On a macro level, the new car will be a success if NASCAR continues to be a relevant sports series on the periphery of the mainstream American sporting landscape in the next decade. On a micro level, there will be no real way to define what success or failure is with the new car for quite some time despite the lofty proclamations. There will undoubtedly be hiccups over the next eight months and teams will likely have some unforeseen issues at Daytona in February in the car's first race weekend. 

NASCAR realizes that. And why it's preaching patience while bragging about what's to come.

"I think everyone will want to judge it after the Daytona 500," O'Donnell said. "That’s the nature of our business. But in reality, I think you do need to take the full year, and even into 2023, candidly, because you’ve seen even between last year and this year the difference even with a lot of the rules in place, the number of winners we’ve had this year and just the difference in how different teams are performing.

"So we’ll take a look at each and every track. I think it would be fair if you looked at the first time we went to a venue, how did that relate to the second race, what are the changes that we may or may not have seen, and then it’ll be our job to work with the industry and make sure that the reasons for this car and the reasons we put it together remain intact. That’s to deliver the best racing possible and make sure that we keep it within the bounds of allowing as many teams to go out there and compete and compete for wins."

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