Cup teams are quickly adapting to the Next Gen car based on the level of competition we saw at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Not only are teams finding speed in the cars and on pit road, but we’re seeing drivers get more comfortable with the handling of the Next Gen car as they push the limits, trying to find optimal speed in a car without letting the car break loose. We also saw those that did encounter lift-off over and spin adapt a bit better to the situation and recover the car by continuing to roll instead of stopping and getting stuck on flat tires.
The quote of “loose is fast and on the edge of out of control” from Harry Hogge in the 1990 movie “Days of Thunder” certainly applies these days as the aerodynamic balance of the Next Gen car, combined with the shorter sidewall tire, has resulted in a car that is a handful to drive but rewards those who can find that edge without losing the rear end of the car. We saw drivers running various lines in the race and finding the ability to pass, but as we predicted in our post-qualifying debrief on Saturday, the best move was to focus on that short-run speed because drivers are still finding that edge, and those occasional spins prevented a lot of long green-flag runs from happening.
Along with a reduction in the number of cars that spun, one of the improvements we saw in the race was that drivers are starting to adapt to how they recover from a spin. Radio communications showed us that drivers were encouraged to keep rolling as soon as they spun in order to prevent getting stuck. That resulted in drivers being able to roll back to pit road to get new tires without requiring a tow or going multiple laps down which is a positive improvement from what we saw at Auto Club Speedway a week earlier.
One of the cars that we saw with extensive damage was the No. 18 Toyota Camry of Kyle Busch, who spun due to a left-rear flat and ended up hitting the wall. The impact with the wall results in damage to the left-rear of the car with the bumper support assembly being bent as expected, but the key point that resulted in the team choosing to go to a backup car was that the greenhouse was cracked at the left C-pillar. Fixing it would have required a replacement of the entire greenhouse assembly as that is a part that is not repairable by teams per the “Body and Underwing Repair Policy,” which outlines the parts that must be sent back to the manufacturer for repair if they are deemed repairable.
Going to a backup car and having to start at the rear did not stop Busch from moving up through the field and being in a position to win at the end of the race. While the late-race strategy of choosing to go for four tires instead of two for the overtime restart did not ultimately end up working out, the backup car proved to be just as fast as the primary. Those pit stops also helped Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates gain ground on most of the pit cycles. We saw those crews getting deeper in the nine-second range this week with the No. 11 crew of Denny Hamlin even completing a 9.4-second four-tire change at one point in the race.
While Hamlin had a fast car and a fast pit crew, a mistake with the shifter coming off pit road ultimately ended up costing him the race. The sequential transaxle in the Next Gen car has a mechanical shifter but the motion is now to pull backward on the shifter to upshift and push forward on it to downshift. This is a change from the H-pattern gearbox that was in use last where the shifter was pushed forward for first and third gear and pulled backward for second and fourth gear. It looks like muscle memory may have gotten the better of Hamlin, and he ended up downshifting when he should have upshifted. That resulted in components breaking inside the transaxle as they spun at high speed from the sudden downshift.
Outside of learning how the car races and handles, teams are still getting familiar with driver comfort items such as the seat. Aric Almirola and Tyler Reddick reported some numbness in their legs during the race. This discomfort is likely the result of multiple factors due to the fact that the driver’s seat was moved closer to the centerline of the car for safety with the Next Gen car and the pedals have moved from hanging down from the firewall to now being mounted on the floor.
All of these factors combine for new reference points for the seat and pedals, so new foam was poured for the seats so drivers could find the best position for them. The likely scenario here is that we are also seeing a bit of muscle memory because drivers have spent so much time racing the outgoing car and the solutions that we’ll see will probably involve reshaping some of the seat foam or possibly pouring new inserts. That would allow drivers to be positioned in a different way, avoiding reduced circulation in their legs.
Teams will continue to adapt on the performance and comfort angles for the Next Gen car, and we’re likely to see those improvements as we head into the next few races. Pedal feel will be a bigger factor this week as the brakes will see quite a bit more use at Phoenix Raceway, so teams will be focused on making immediate improvements on that end this week.