LINCOLN, Ala. — There is a generation of seasoned, experienced drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series who have gone many years without having to worry about their personal safety behind the wheel of a Cup car. There is another generation of younger drivers just arriving in Cup who have never had to worry at all.
But after what has felt like generations of NASCAR racing being safe to the point of being outright sterile, the mood of the highest level of stock car racing is being colored by a rediscovered sense of vulnerability and anxiety — and the idea that the chances of not climbing back out of a Cup car in one piece are higher than they’ve been in many years.
“I can’t say I’ve ever had the thoughts that I’m having right now in my career,” Joey Logano said. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and there’s been concerning things — obviously some great improvements — but I’ve also never seen three drivers out at the same time. So you do get a little concerned about that.”
Insinuations that NASCAR’s Next Gen car has issues keeping the driver safe and preventing injury have gone from a murmur to a rumble to an outright roar after a pair of injuries in last week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. Cody Ware suffered a foot fracture after a vicious collision with the outside wall, and he’s been on crutches and in a boot in the garage area even after being medically cleared to race by NASCAR. More alarming, though, was the fact that a seemingly minor incident led to Alex Bowman being sidelined with concussion-like symptoms — the second driver to be concussed in the Next Gen car after Kurt Busch suffered such an injury at Pocono.
Those injuries come just ahead of this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, where the risk of violent accidents that test the limits of both mechanical and physical endurance is higher than anywhere else NASCAR races.
Speaking to the media on Saturday morning, drivers expressed a wide variety of views on the topic — a major one being bewilderment as to how NASCAR, whose track record on safety has been immaculate since its last fatality 21 years ago, could have gone backwards in that area.
“I don’t feel like we should have ever been in this position to begin with, to need to go forward. We should have gone forward with a new opportunity and a new car, in my opinion,” Chase Elliott said. “You have all these years of experience and knowledge and time of racing and crashing these cars and the teams working on them and build them, and it just blows me away that we can have something new, in 2022, that offers all this technology and all this time and experience of so many just super talented people in this sport, and we allow it to go backwards.
“Especially with safety — it’s just super surprising to me that we allowed that to happen. But we did, and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here making sure we’re making the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex this week from happening and what happened to Kurt.”
The issue has been the rigidness of the Next Gen car, which is nearing the end of its first full season of competition. In development, the Next Gen car was made more capable of withstanding intrusion into the driver’s cockpit, such as was seen when Ryan Newman was hit in the driver’s side roof and window area during the 2020 Daytona 500.
But while the car is better equipped to withstand the sort of extreme impacts that could seriously injure or even kill a driver, the tradeoff has been that drivers are sustaining much more physical force from minor impacts than they did in the past — particularly in the rear end of the car, which does not easily crumple if a car backs into the wall.
The process of fixing the Next Gen car’s safety issues is already underway. Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports reported Saturday that NASCAR is crash-testing updates to the car’s rear clip and rear bumper structure next week at a facility in Ohio. A Friday meeting between NASCAR and its Drivers Advisory Council was also a major point of discussion on Saturday morning. But improving the Next Gen car from a safety standpoint isn’t as simple as making it crumple more or exchanging a few parts and pieces.
Chase Briscoe pointed out that in the design of the Next Gen car, the fuel cell is situated in-between the rear clip and bumper structure — meaning a much greater risk of fire if those areas give too much. And beyond that, there is also the potential for change for the sake of change as opposed to change that is actually effective and makes the drivers safer.
“You don’t want to do something just to do it. We need to actually validate that it’s gonna be better and not worse,” Briscoe said. “I mean, I don’t think we need to just do something for the sake of doing something. We need to actually go through and make sure it’s actually gonna be better, and I think those things do take time.
“But if we can do something this year that’s for sure better, then yeah, we need to do it and we need to do it as quick as possible. We don’t need to see guys continuing to get hurt.”
Several of the sport’s most veteran drivers have drawn their sword directly at NASCAR, with one of the most outspoken being Denny Hamlin. Hamlin continued a series of recent invectives against NASCAR competition officials on Saturday, outright calling for new leadership and the complete redesign of the Next Gen car at one point while continuing to chide the sanctioning body for ignoring red flags raised by drivers in the car’s development.
“We just were late to the party,” Hamlin said. “We brought up these concerns with NASCAR last winter … We threw up red flags over a year ago, and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing that this car’s got to be on the racetrack at all costs. At all costs.
“… They listen and they’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear to make you think that they’re doing something. But in the end, they’ve got more problems than they have people to handle it.”
Whatever changes are to come to the Next Gen car, they will not occur overnight before the green flag flies in Sunday’s race at Talladega. And when the green flag does fly, the race will proceed as normal without any sort of drastic action or demonstration by drivers as was suggested in internet rumors during the week — a crash in Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race that left driver Jordan Anderson with second degree burns across his body was a chilling reminder that racing can be dangerous no matter how seemingly safe, tried and tested a vehicle is.
Given that, Sunday’s race will come with no assurance that each driver in the field won’t be the next to get injured in the Next Gen car, a reality that is made even more unsettling by the amount of things that are out of a driver’s control in superspeedway racing. Meaning that the best any driver can focus on is the things that they can control both from behind the wheel and in the driver’s seat.
“I’ve put more effort in this year on making sure my headrest is right, the stuff I can control,” Logano said. “I can’t build the car, I can’t design the car and change the structure to it and those type of things to make it better. But I can control my seat, my gear, my stuff. So I’ve got to just worry about that stuff and just go race.”