We are now ten races into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule which also means that drivers and teams are ten races into their adjustment period with the Next Gen car. And more, there have been races on Super Speedways, short tracks, a road course, intermediate tracks and even a race on dirt so there has been an opportunity to get a feel for the new machine on every type of venue on which the sport competes.
One of the believed benefits of this new car was that it would place the smaller teams on more of a level playing field with the power organizations that have dominated the sport for many years. Because much of the Next Gen is produced by vendors with little to no modification by the teams being allowed by NASCAR, those teams with less funding, in theory at least, have access to the same equipment as their more heavily financed rivals.
But is that actually happening?
Michael McDowell drives for mid-tier Front Row Motorsports on the NASCAR Cup Series. According to the 2021 Daytona 500 winner, the car has in fact aided the smaller teams in some ways while, at the same time, not making a big difference in other areas. The veteran driver points to one particular aspect that is slowing the development of the Next Gen for all teams, not just his.
“I think it’s done what we anticipated in some regards,” the 37-year-old veteran driver explained. “The hardest thing for us has probably been the challenge of the limited amount of practice that you have. With the newness of this car, you want to try a lot of things because it’s so new. You want to try different packages, different geometries, different springs- stiff , soft, bars, no bars. There’s a lot of things you want to work through that you can’t work through in those 20 minutes that you have leading into the race.”
McDowell has accumulated three top-ten finishes through these first ten races and currently sits 23rd in the standings. At the same time, there have been three results outside the top-25 in the running order during the early part of the season.
“I feel like it’s kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit as far as the small teams being able to perform because there have been tracks where it seems like we’re closer to the competition than we were last year and there’s been tracks where we feel like we’re pretty similar,” he pointed out. “I think that’s going to change in the next few weeks and definitely in the next few months, we’ll have a better handle of what we need to do to get us closer to the competition. I hope it plays out how we anticipated it.”
While he is very much acquainted with the competition aspects of NASCAR’s new machine, he is not sure of just how the Next Gen might be affecting the financial side of things for his teams and others like it.
“On the business side, I’m not really sure as far as the expense and whether it’s saving the teams money and all the things that go along with what made this move really important,” McDowell said. “From a competition standpoint, I feel like we’ve closed the gaps at some places and at others we’re similar, but I feel like there’s the potential that we will be able to close the gaps even more. I feel good about what the car has done.”
Some might point to the results achieved this season by Trackhouse Racing and Petty GMS Motorsports as examples of what the new car has done to benefit smaller teams. McDowell says those analogies are, to a degree, misleading.
“I think the car has done a good job as far as leveling those things out, but those organizations also had a big influx of cash and capital come into those programs,” he said. “And as you guys know, in motorsports that’s a big part of development and having the right resources and funds to get the right people and do all of those things so I’m not surprised that those teams are more competitive than they were last year. I don’t think that is a great indication of where all the small teams will be because those weren’t small organizations, those were big organizations that got bigger with new ownership and new opportunities so I think those circumstances are a little bit different. But I do feel like there is more of an opportunity with this Next Gen car than with the previous generation.”
Still, McDowell likes the direction Front Row is heading in. The start to this season has been one of the best of his career to date.
“I think it is, other than 2021, as far as having three top-tens in the first ten races, that’s definitely the best start we’ve had minus last year,” he agreed. “I think there’s a lot of potential with this Next Gen car for us to have more good results and be in contention and we were optimistic about that going into this season that this could be a good year for us to have an opportunity to shine and to get better results. I think there’s still a lot to come this year and I’m looking forward to the tracks that we have circled and seeing where we can stack up against the competition.”
Ultimately, the new car will benefit those who make the right adjustments. McDowell hopes his team can be among those.
“There’s a tremendous amount of development going on right now and there seems to be teams who are sorting it out pretty quickly so we have to make sure we keep up with the rapid pace of development of a brand new car.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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