Next Gen organizational test wraps at the Roval, with drivers sharing early impressions

CONCORD, N.C. — Early driving impressions from NASCAR Cup Series regulars are trickling in as two days of testing the 2022 Next Gen model wound to a close Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval.

Competition officials continued to tweak on some of the car’s challenges, working with teams to improve the model before its on-track debut in February, and teams and drivers absorbed their first chance to tune on the vehicle. Even with some issues still to be resolved, initial reviews tended toward the positive.

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“It’s a great step to take for NASCAR for the foreseeable future,” said Spire Motorsports driver Corey LaJoie. “It’s a nice race car, a little bit heavy, NASCAR’s built some clips to build crush zones to mitigate some of that energy that’s going to be transferred to the driver in a crash, and those guys are taking it very serious overall with having a test go very smooth with a majority of the teams here. I think it’s been way more positives than negatives so far.”

Like the test’s opening day, the 21 assembled teams logged laps without major incident. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace each looped their cars in relatively harmless solo spins, and Chris Buescher continued after scuffing the right-front fender on his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in the first half of the day.

Among the impressions and topics discussed by drivers during the second day of Next Gen testing:

Steering vibrations continued to be a struggle for several teams, who reported some wear and design issues with parts in the steering rack. John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation, said that in some instances set-screws had backed out of their positions and that officials were working on a long-term fix. Some drivers suggested that the issue could not be resolved in the two-day window of this organizational test.

“Some guys have it all the time, some guys only have some of the time,” said Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman about the steering issue. “We’ve been on both sides of that. I think we’re on steering rack four or five, so we’re working really hard at trying to fix it. I think the advantage to having so many cars here and so many people here is that there’s a ton of smart people working on fixing it. So obviously, we all got to get that dialed in.”

Early impressions also suggest the competitive balance in the garage could make incremental shifts, with LaJoie among those hopeful that smaller organizations could gain on the Cup Series’ powerhouses. LaJoie’s No. 7 Chevy tester was eighth on the unofficial speed chart after Monday’s opening day.

“For us to have a competitive car right out of the jump at a road course where I’m a mid-pack guy at best,” LaJoie said, “for me to be able to acclimate to these cars quicker, get the most as I can out of the braking zone and figure out the sequential shifter, for me — like I tweeted last night — I’m super positive about the opportunities it presents a smaller team to close that gap with the bigger teams.”

MORE: Additional Next Gen tests set

Chalk some of the early potential for parity up to the elimination of wheel-hop with the car’s new independent suspension, bigger and more forgiving brakes, and the new sequential shifter. The driving characteristics are all-new, and the mastery of the old way of muscling a stock car around a road-course layout needs to be relearned — or un-learned — for the new vehicle.

“I feel like with the current car, there’s so many variables,” said William Byron, “so when you go into braking zones, you’ve got to feel your rear tires, you’ve got to match up the RPMs and make sure you get the downshift right, and if something in that sequence goes off, you’re off. So with this car, let’s just go as fast as you can in that braking zone, be as aggressive as you can and get the downshift done whenever you have time to.

“So I think it’s gonna make for a lot more aggressive passing, because I think guys are gonna dive-bomb and if you’re close to the guy, you’re going to obviously try to outbrake him.”

NASCAR continued to work on rectifying some previously reported issues with heat inside the cockpit, adding ducts and vents to some of the windshield and window areas in an effort to improve ventilation. Conditions were far warmer at the 2.32-mile Charlotte track on Tuesday after a cool, damp Monday, but still less oppressively hot than the Sept. 7-8 session at Daytona International Speedway.

“It’s hotter down there, but you’ve still got to get the things to where you know, you’re not cooking turkeys inside the race car,” said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. “So I think it’s close. I think they’ve done a good job of developing it, you know, that’s with all these tests the last few days and then you know the three, four tests we have coming up in the winter is trying to work some of the bugs out. I think it’s getting there.”

The Next Gen car’s growing similarity to some of the components used in sports-car racing prompted the question of whether Cup Series drivers might explore finding rides in IMSA’s season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona or in other road-racing events next year. Bowman was among the stock-car crowd saying sign me up.

“I’d race a lawnmower, so yeah for sure, I’d love to run some sports car stuff,” Bowman said. “Looking at my racing skills, I don’t know a sports-car team that’d be like, ‘yeah let’s get him in our car,’ but … I think, you know, it’s way more similar to a sports car than anything we’ve ever had. So I definitely could see some crossovers there and some sports-car guys coming over for road-course season. Not that they weren’t already successful when they came over in the past, but being extremely successful right off the bat, because of how similar they are now.”