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Drivers see Next Gen progress during Charlotte test days as NASCAR refines rules package

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 12/17/2021 Alex Andrejev, The Charlotte Observer

NASCAR this week continued testing various configurations to refine its rules packages for the Next Gen car in 2022.

The sanctioning body is targeting the use of a 670 horsepower engine package for a majority of its races next season, NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said during Friday’s test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I would say we’re more than likely going with that number across all of our tracks,” O’Donnell said. “ ... Everything we’ve seen so far, that tells us (that is) the horsepower we want to target and go with.”

Teams tested three configurations Friday using the 670 horsepower engine target, indicating a shift away from the 550 horsepower engine package used at intermediate tracks such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Homestead, Kansas, Las Vegas and Texas, among others, last season. A separate engine package would be used for superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega in 2022, O’Donnell said, as well as at Atlanta given the track’s recent repave and reconfiguration for next season.

Drivers have typically been in favor of higher horsepower. No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver Denny Hamlin was vocal about his preference for a 750 horsepower package at Darlington during the spring race in May, calling it “slick” and “a driver’s racetrack” despite Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance in that race.

Other drivers involved in Friday’s session were receptive to the proposed change as NASCAR works to finalize additional details such as spoiler heights and locations, as well as aero packages, ahead of its 2022 kickoff at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 5-6.

“Drivers want 10,000 horsepower and no downforce,” No. 42 Petty GMS Motorsports driver Ty Dillon said. “... But our sport is not all about what the drivers want. We need a great race for our fans.”

Lap times on Friday hovered between 29 and 31 seconds, a majority of which were between 30 and 31 seconds, which was close to the practice times posted ahead of the Coke 600 at Charlotte in the Gen 6 car in May.

No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver William Byron said that he saw the differences in horsepower being minor in terms of how those packages challenge a driver.

“It’s really about adapting to whatever they give you as quickly as possible,” Byron said. “I think there were things about the 550 (horsepower) package that were driver-induced, like how well you had to block in your mirror and how much you had pay attention to what was going on around you with side-drafting.”

NASCAR returned to the Charlotte oval this week following an earlier organizational test at the same 1.5-mile track in November. The sanctioning body adjusted its test schedule, moving an earlier scheduled session at Phoenix and adding the two-day Charlotte test that took place this week. There was a day between Wednesday’s and Friday’s on-track sessions in Concord for data evaluation. Driver response about Next Gen’s progress was largely positive.

“I feel that from the last test here in Charlotte, it was a month ago, we are in a whole different place,” No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet driver Daniel Suárez said. “Just better, overall better. The car is driving better, in traffic it’s much better, I think that we’re heading in the right direction. I think that we’re still playing around.”

Teams were able to make group runs that more closely simulated a live race, with the hard racing inducing a few spins. The warmer temperatures on Friday also contributed to more tire falloff and made it more difficult for drivers to find grip on the track, they said.

“Cars are on edge,” No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver Tyler Reddick said. “And that’s a good thing.”

No. 6 RFK Racing Ford driver Brad Keselowski tweeted in response to Reddick’s comment, saying that was “probably (his) favorite thing” about the new car.

“The car already has more downforce, but it has no sideforce at all,” Suárez said. “The sideforce is what all of the drivers are used to having that feeling and driving sideways and it can be OK. But this one you don’t have as much.”

“I’m excited for the challenge,” he continued. “I’m very, very excited with this new car. I think everyone is enjoying the journey.”

Suárez also said he was confident that NASCAR teams would have a good product by February.

“I feel like we’re making big steps and hopefully we’ll continue that way,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing all these little races. I’m having a blast out there.”

There will be more organizational tests next month at Daytona on Jan. 11-12 and at Phoenix on Jan. 25-26. A Goodyear tire test is also planned for early January at Atlanta.

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