On Monday, NASCAR’s competition department held their annual media roundtable meeting at the Research & Devleopment Center. At the briefing, NASCAR officials provided details that included updates on the Cup Series‘ Next Gen car, confirmation of continuing COVID-19 protocols and heat races for the Bristol dirt race in March, and the return of expanded grids for Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races without qualifying.
Next Gen car
The seventh-generation Next Gen car, the début of which was pushed from 2021 to 2022 after the pandemic disrupted the testing process, received various developments from NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation John Probst. For example, the three manufacturers (Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota) have all submitted their designs for the car which have been approved and will be revealed in late spring. However, NASCAR has long expressed an interest in attracting more manufacturers, and among the Next Gen car’s goals is to do so with lower costs and IMSA-style rule and body changes.
The car’s next and final test session is set for 16–17 March at Richmond, which will be followed by Goodyear tyre tests. Seven NASCAR-sanctioned Next Gen car tests—all of which used a generic car dubbed the P3—have taken place beginning with Austin Dillon at Richmond in October 2019. Joey Logano (Phoenix), Erik Jones (Homestead), William Byron (Fontana), Cole Custer (Dover), Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (Charlotte), and Chris Buescher (Daytona) have all also spent time testing the car. IMSA team Action Express Racing also built their own Next Gen car for an independent test on the Daytona road course last August and supplied said vehicle to NASCAR for the Charlotte test, the first with multiple cars at a time.
“In hindsight, when we were on target for 2021 and now we’ve gone through all of this, we look back and boy, we probably would’ve had our tongues hanging out right now if we were to launch it in 2021, which we could’ve done,” Probst said. “I think we’re certainly on schedule. We’re probably actually being able to spend a little more time since we pushed it out to 2022, focusing on a lot of the line-item costs.”
The tyre tests will take place at Richmond, Darlington, Texas, and Bristol. Additional tests will alo take place for wheel-force transducer and organisationally.
While much of the conference’s focus was on the Next Gen car, the current Gen-6 vehicle was also discussed. For the Cup races on the Daytona road course, Darlington, Nashville, and likely Circuit of the Americas, the car will utilise the low-downforce, high-horsepower package; the setup, which caps at 750 hp, is generally held in high regard by fans compared to the 550-hp package used in other events. The Daytona RC will also continue to use the chicane coming to the start/finish line, which was added for 2020’s race to slow down cars and allow for safe entry into turn one.
Other race-related updates included the confirmation of qualifying heat races for the Bristol dirt event. The format was used for the now-defunct Truck race at Eldora, while an asphalt version was briefly used in the Xfinity Series for Dash 4 Cash rounds in 2016. The Cup Series also technically has qualifying races with the Bluegreen Vacations Duel prior to the Daytona 500.
On pit road, NASCAR revised the too-many-men-over-the-wall penalty by clarifying that a crewman who slips while reaching over the pit wall for a tyre will not be penalised.
Off the track, sensitivity training is now required, with NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell commenting, “I would say that our mantra to be as inclusive as we possibly can has never been stronger.” The training drew major headlines during the 2020 season as various industry figures like drivers Kyle Larson, Mike Wallace, Hailie Deegan, and Josh Reaume have all attended or been ordered to go through after being suspended or disciplined for actions deemed racist, ableist, or anti-Semitic.
The competition department also confirmed COVID-19 protocols implemented when last season resumed will return, including rapid reporting and screening. As usual, masks will be mandated.
“We’re constantly monitoring what’s going on in terms of the virus, also as it relates to the communities that we’re going into,” Vice President of Racing Operations John Bobo commented. “We always want to be a good guest in every community and be aware of everything that’s happening there.
“We continue to put as many tools as possible into the protocol toolbox. Like last season toward the end of the year, we did a lot of rapid-antigen testing as part of a secondary screening as people were coming into the track. We’re going to continue this season as well as part of secondary screenings to do rapid-antigen testings if requested by the position, and it’s a great tool when we need to use that.”
The pandemic safemeasures also included condensing the race weekend, resulting in nearly every practice and qualifying session being cancelled in 2020 outside of certain exceptions. For 2021, only eight Cup races will feature practice and qualifying: the Daytona 500, Bristol dirt, Circuit of the Americas, Coca-Cola 600, Nashville, Road America, Indianapolis road course, and the season finale at Phoenix. The 500, 600, and Phoenix races are included as major events, while all other dates are new to the Cup schedule.
In lieu of qualifying, NASCAR implemented a metric-based system that set the starting grid based on variables like points standing and finish in the previous race. The system will return in 2021, as will expanded fields for the Xfinity and Truck Series for races that use it instead of traditional qualifying; as sending smaller teams home without qualifying would be too much of a hassle, NASCAR elected to increase the Xfinity and grids to 40 entries each from 36 and 32, respectively.
For 2021 lower series races with qualfiying, 36 will be the maximum allowed. Otherwise, both series will have 40 total. This decision was also spurred by multiple new teams preparing for full-time seasons, with newcomers like Big Machine Racing, Jordan Anderson Racing, and Rick Ware Racing in the Xfinity Series and Rackley WAR and Spencer Davis Motorsports in the Trucks.