By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. — With three drivers racing for their first career win Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, it would be easy to point to NASCAR’s new Next Gen car and say it increases parity.
But that would be a little disrespectful to Chase Briscoe, the winner, and Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick and their teams. They should run better regardless of the car, as they are in their second full-time seasons with their organizations, and all three are solid race-car drivers.
Briscoe, Reddick, Chastain battle for win
Highlights from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway.
It’s safe to say, however, that the Next Gen car has not favored one organization more than another (though Joe Gibbs Racing probably has had the most frustration).
Four races into the season, the car has been run on a high-banked superspeedway (Daytona), a couple of intermediate tracks (Fontana and Las Vegas) and a relatively short track (Phoenix). For the most part, it has met or exceeded expectations.
“[Kevin] Harvick and I were talking before the race that we’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Cup veteran Kurt Busch said. “And the anxiety level or the nervousness of going into the season has been put to rest.
“Have we seen green-flag pit stops yet? Not quite. But, still, it’s early. And the racing we’ve seen is a pretty darn good show.”
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Busch isn’t just giving a corporate line. The races have met most entertainment expectations. Phoenix had stretches of long green-flag runs with maybe not as much action as hoped, but the late restarts provided drama. And as Briscoe noted postrace, there were comers and goers.
“The old car, you saw one guy be fast, and he was just fast the whole time,” Briscoe said. “You couldn’t really catch him.
“This car, you have really fast short-run guys, really good long-run guys. It’s interesting to see how that plays out throughout the race.”
Ross Chastain on final restarts at Phoenix
Ross Chastain describes his philosophy on the final restarts at Phoenix in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Concerns about whether the cars are safe have lessened with every hard crash. Chastain maybe had the hardest crash at Fontana, and the team reported that the car crushed and responded to the accident as expected, with Chastain suffering no injury.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s head nearly hit his steering wheel at Daytona, but that was more about him going to a new head-and-neck restraint. He shortened the length of some tethers after that accident.
Harrison Burton flipped at Daytona, and that’s the crash NASCAR is continuing to study. His car was hit four times and was going at less of a speed when it got airborne than other cars in the same accident.
“We were actually sliding faster mph than what the 21 [of Burton] was when the 21 got hit,” Busch said. “That’s when it kind of raised it up a little and got him lifted.
“When you’re playing ping-pong balls at 180 mph [at Daytona] while sliding, I’m not sure [that] you’re going to be able to keep them on the ground. It’s a fact of the matter, but the cars that did slide, it seemed as though they were just fine. I wouldn’t say there is an issue.”
Some drivers have also battled numbness in their legs, as the pedals are mounted differently; they are mounted on the floor rather than hanging from underneath the dash. Reddick has had it the worst, but he was able to adjust his pedals starting at Phoenix, where he was thankful he had no issues, considering the amount of time he needed to use the brake on the one-mile track.
“No matter where you put your seat, it’s kind of important to have your legs comfortable for you,” Reddick said. “You know, not too high, not too low.
“You don’t want to cut circulation off having the pedals too low, on the edge of your seat or having your legs really having a lot of weight or force on the bottom of your seat cutting your circulation off that way.”
Tyler Reddick appears relieved after solving the leg numbness issues by adjusting the pedal location in the car
Watch the relief of Tyler Reddick after his team solved the leg numbness issues by adjusting the pedal location in the car.
The other issues have focused on the wheels and tires. As teams get used to one big center lug nut (instead of five smaller lug nuts) and an aluminum wheel (rather than a steel wheel), NASCAR has seen wheels come off in three of the four races. That is an obvious safety concern if another car strikes a rolling wheel and launches it.
NASCAR continues to issue four-race suspensions to the crew chief and two crew members for a wheel coming off, but those suspensions are being appealed, with the appeals likely based on the fact that teams are having trouble telling if the wheel is tight. There is a concern that buildup on the wheel and the drive pins could give a false sense of security. NASCAR is continuing to monitor the issue.
Drivers also have had trouble trying to limp the cars to pit road when they have flat tires. The cars sit so low to the ground, and the tires don’t have inner liners (the new 18-inch wheel and similar circumference mean there isn’t enough room for inner liners). That frustrated teams at Daytona and Fontana. Whether the fewer issues in recent weeks are because teams are being more careful about air pressures or because they have just not flattened all four tires as much is debatable.
But all in all, the Next Gen has done what NASCAR hoped. We’ve seen four different winners in four races, including two first-time winners. And there appears to be more parity among organizations.
If anything, Briscoe said, the drivers who have experience racing on dirt have an advantage. It has nothing to do with the surface but has to do with the 15-20 minutes of practice time that teams now get on a race weekend.
“The dirt guys have always had to figure that out quickly,” Briscoe said. “The guys that grew up late model or pavement racing, they don’t necessarily have that.
“They go and test and run hours of practice. The dirt guys, you got to figure it out quickly, adapt.”
Chase Briscoe explains why dirt drivers have an advantage in the Next Gen
Chase Briscoe explains why he thinks drivers used to competing on dirt have an advantage with the Next Gen car after Phoenix.
Drivers also are spinning out on their own just trying to find the limit.
“This still feels like a stock car to me,” Fontana winner Kyle Larson said. “It just has a lot less side-force feeling to me. It’s just you have a lot less room to catch it.”
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Thinking out loud
NASCAR is leaning toward having drivers choose their lane on restarts at Atlanta, even though it is expected to race somewhat like Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR doesn’t let drivers choose at those two tracks because it can increase the possibility of teammates working together at tracks where they often do so too much for fans’ liking.
Atlanta is expected to race a little like Daytona and Talladega thanks to a reconfiguration and repave that added banking and narrowed the track.
But without knowing exactly how it’s going to race, it’s better to have the choose rule than not; it’s better to err on adding that strategic play, rather than not having it at all. Plus, there could be an added bonus. If fans do like it at Atlanta, maybe NASCAR should use it for Daytona and Talladega.
Stat of the day
Briscoe’s win set a Cup record, as it marked the 10th consecutive race with a winner under the age of 30.
They said it
“I was crying the whole last lap.” — Chase Briscoe after his Ruoff Mortgage 500 win
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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