DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The first-day-of-school feel to preseason NASCAR Cup Series testing at Daytona International Speedway had some element of a class reunion. There was plenty of new – new car, new superspeedway rules package, new faces in new places — intertwined with a handful of throwbacks.
There was Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in a fire suit, sharing an extended chat with NASCAR President Steve Phelps before clambering into the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Just a few stalls over in the garage was 50-year-old Jacques Villeneuve, the former Formula One world champion whose last Cup Series start came in 2013.
The spectator gates were open on a sunny but brisk Tuesday for fans to take it all in, watching as Next Gen cars for 2022 made another tune-up before returning for the official season opener, the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). NASCAR competition officials established the superspeedway package for the new model, satisfied with the speeds shown early on during the first of two days of testing at the 2.5-mile track.
Cup Series officials organized a 10-lap group run two hours into the opening-day session to get a better feel for the aerodynamic draft, this one 16 cars strong – twice the number of teams that formed a Daytona pack here last September, and Next Gen’s largest representation yet in superspeedway-style racing.
“It was great. It was intense, that’s probably the right word for it,” said Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who noted close-quarters competition with Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others. “The cars, we don’t have them quite handling the way we want yet. They’re pretty new still to us, if you didn’t know. The bumping and shoving gets the cars moving around a lot. Kurt, myself and Denny and Ricky, we were out there shoving each other pretty hard.
“We were racing like we were coming to the end of the Daytona 500. I don’t know why we do that, but it’s a race. It’s race cars and it’s on a race track, it turns into a race and we race each other.”
The speeds and the car’s performance in the multi-car group led NASCAR officials to confirm the superspeedway configuration for 2022 – an engine-output target of 510 horsepower combined with a 7-inch rear spoiler to keep speeds in check.
That rules setup will be used at Daytona and sister track Talladega Superspeedway (2.66 miles) as has been the tradition for NASCAR’s largest and fastest ovals. But competition officials also formalized the newly redesigned Atlanta Motor Speedway will be on that short list this season when it returns to the schedule with fresh pavement and steeper 28-degree banking, up from the previous 24-degree tilt. Three teams used the same 510-horsepower, 7-inch spoiler configuration during a Goodyear tire test at Atlanta last week, and the setup will get its first points-paying test in the annual Great American Race.
“Now granted, there’s no trophy. There’s no points. There’s no money on the line. So I think the level of intensity when they come back will be ratcheted up significantly,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation, “but I think that if you look at what the cars were able to do as far as spreading out, grouping back up, moving around, definitely three-wide a couple times, I feel like we’re in a really good spot, put on a pretty good show February here in the 500.”
Probst said that officials set a target lap time of between 48 seconds flat (187.5 mph) and 48.50 seconds (185.567 mph), with the anticipation that speeds would pick up for race week. He said that once the rules configuration was confirmed with a group run in the first half of Tuesday’s test, NASCAR officials took more of a hands-off approach, leaving teams to dictate the rest of the organizational test. Another significant pack formed at 6 p.m. ET, with 11 drivers gaining more experience in the Next Gen draft.
Tuesday marked the first major January test for Cup Series teams at Daytona since the days of NASCAR Preseason Thunder ended back in 2014. Harrison Burton was 13 years old at the time, but the rookie was among the first to mix it up in the draft during Tuesday’s Thunder reboot, putting his Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford in formation with its Team Penske affiliates, driven by fellow first-year driver Austin Cindric and former 500 winner Logano.
Logano was scheduled to participate only in Tuesday’s test, with Penske teammate Ryan Blaney tagging in for Wednesday’s driving duties.
Old hands Hamlin and Busch, now teamed in Toyotas for the first time, gave the two-car tandem a full-fledged trial later in the afternoon. Busch starts his first season driving for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing team this year, and the two veterans took turns delivering aero pushes and side-drafts around the Florida high banks.
“We were just trying to go through checklist items,” Busch said. “Denny was up front, and our car wouldn’t quite break that threshold and then it was just a matter of drivers connecting their cars and you do that through rhythm, balance and time together. So yeah, we were pushing each other around there tandem, just seeing how it would play out. Lap time picked up a ton. It’s just real sketchy when you’re doing it. It’s not as stable as the old car just yet, but these cars, they go through a lot more attitude changes, whether you’re up front, in the back, side-drafting. The car just moves around, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. It makes it tougher on the drivers to try to digest everything that’s going on.”
Hamlin was in the thick of the dinnertime draft along with Busch when his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota showed signs of smoke before dropping off the pace. Crew chief Chris Gabehart indicated in a statement from JGR that the engine failure will end Hamlin’s test early.
“We blew up. It started getting a little weak toward the end, but overall I was pretty happy how we drafted today and how the handling of the car was, so overall, pretty good test,” Hamlin said. The three-time Daytona 500 winner enters the season opener as the favorite, and he gave the car a spirited shakedown before his engine’s expiration.
“I stayed pretty aggressive,” Hamlin said. “This is pretty much going to be my only practice for the 500, one where it’s kind of freebie. It was 50-50 whether we thought we were going to bring this car back in one piece or not, so we just can’t get that aggressive on race week with our practices.”
Tuesday’s test was scheduled from noon to 8 p.m. ET. Wednesday’s on-track schedule is set to run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET, with live streaming to continue on NASCAR’s YouTube channel. Tune-in details for watching live-stream feeds from both days can be found here.
The last preseason test for the Next Gen car is scheduled Jan. 25-26 at Phoenix Raceway.