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NASCAR's Problem With the Next Gen Car

What do Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, Noah Gragson, Kurt Busch, and Cody Ware all have in common? They have been the five drivers who have been injured in crashes while driving the Next Gen car since it was introduced in 2022, and for Busch, his injury ended up being a career-ending one.

Concussions have been a significant issue with the car so far, with Busch, Bowman, and Gragson all suffering concussions in vastly different crashes at three different types of tracks. Gragson's concussion came at Gateway in 2023 after blowing a tire going into turn one and hitting the wall with the driver's side, while Bowman got his after backing into the wall in turn four at Texas. Busch's crash came in qualifying at Pocono after spinning and backing into the wall, as well, but his crash appeared much more significant and was much harder.

Ware and Jones didn't have concussions or head injuries after their crashes, but both drivers ended up with broken bones instead. Ware was injured in the same race as Bowman (and he crashed in the same turn), but he went headfirst into the wall, bounced off, and crashed into the inside wall on pit road afterward, and broke his ankle in the crash. Jones, meanwhile, crashed this weekend at Talladega after being hooked in the right rear by Bubba Wallace. he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back and will miss this week's race at Dover while he recovers.

Ryan Blaney and Ryan Preece have had some nasty crashes in the Next Gen car since it was introduced, and it is somewhat surprising that with as many bad crashes as the two have had, neither one has been injured to this point. Blaney has had two crashes at Daytona, one in the race last fall and another in his Duel race earlier this year, and he also had a nasty wreck at Nashville last year when he hit a wall that didn't have a SAFER Barrier. Preece has had some ugly wrecks, too, specifically with his ones at Daytona last fall and at Talladega last spring.

Additionally, in 2022, Chris Buescher flipped in the Coca-Cola 600, Austin Cindric crashed hard at Michigan, and Gragson crashed at Atlanta, and in 2023, Denny Hamlin crashed into the outside wall in the Coca-Cola 600, and Austin Dillon had a head-on crash at Talladega. Busch, himself, had several nasty wrecks before his career-ender, including ones at Talladega and at the Bristol Dirt Race.

Only four drivers were injured on track in the Gen 6 car, which raced from 2013-2021. Denny Hamlin broke vertebrae at Fontana in 2013, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a season-ending concussion at Kentucky in 2016, Aric Almirola fractured vertebrae at Kansas in 2017, and Ryan Newman suffered head injuries in his infamous flip on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2020.

For NASCAR to go from four significant injuries in nine seasons to five in just over two seasons with the Gen7 car is unacceptable, especially when safety was supposed to be the main focus of this car. Part of the issue is the rigid structure of the vehicle, which wouldn't be a problem if the bodywork still gave way under heavy pressure and dissipated impacts, but because the car is so stiff, it doesn't break apart unless there is an extreme crash. Because the car doesn't break apart and release some of the energy from the crash, all of the energy goes straight to the driver, making minor accidents feel heavier while not making the hard crashes any easier to take.

In addition to the safety issues, the car doesn't race particularly well at anything other than intermediate tracks. It has provided incredible racing at 1.5-mile tracks, but short tracks and road courses have suffered.

The car was designed like a sports car, which makes it drive well on road courses, but that doesn't make for good racing. Part of what made road course racing good in the Gen 6 car was that it drove awfully at road courses, making the drivers work harder and punishing their mistakes. However, because the cars drive so well, it is difficult for one car to pass another without making a crazy lunge, leading to bore fests like the Watkins Glen and Indianapolis races last year.

At short tracks, the main two issues are that the tires don't wear enough and the fact that drivers shift, specifically at Martinsville, where the drivers shift on the front and back straights each lap. The lack of tire wear and lateral grip on the cars means that drivers don't make mistakes as much, and when they do, they can get a good exit anyway by shifting down and getting on the throttle earlier than the cars behind. Additionally, the cars have such good brakes that it has become almost impossible to overshoot corners and run up the track, which also creates passing because if they brake too late, they can step on the brake pedal harder and still be fine.

We saw at Bristol earlier this spring what a race with high tire wear on the Next Gen cars would look like, and it was fantastic, as drivers needed to save tires heavily in order to make them last; otherwise, they would have needed to pit every 20 laps, and they would have eventually run out of tires. On the previous set of green flag pit stops, drivers were driving until their tires blew, and because the wear was so drastic, it turned the race into a race of strategy, which doesn't often happen on short tracks anymore (except for Richmond).

NASCAR announced earlier this week that they will bring an “option” tire compound for the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro, which will be softer and wear faster than the traditional “prime” compound. If the new compounds work, they could potentially turn road course and short track racing into a good style of racing again, but if they don't, NASCAR will need to go back to the drawing board for the third time and hope that their next attempt to fix the racing will go better than the previous attempts have.

Regardless, even if the new compounds do work, NASCAR will still have the issue of safety on their hands, and safety is not something NASCAR should be willing to sacrifice. Racing is an inherently dangerous sport, and while nobody in NASCAR has been killed since Dale Earnhardt in 2001, the sanctioning body can't afford to become complacent.

Cover Image Courtesy of Car and Driver


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