Column: ‘We need to fix it’ safety concerns dogging NASCAR

Oct 2, 2022, 11:55 PM | Updated: Oct 3, 2022, 11:56 am

Alex Bowman (48), Joey Logano (22), Austin Cindric (2), Justin Allgaier (62) and Ty Gibbs (23) are ...

Alex Bowman (48), Joey Logano (22), Austin Cindric (2), Justin Allgaier (62) and Ty Gibbs (23) are involved in a crash in Turn 1 during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Skip Williams)

(AP Photo/Skip Williams)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR’s beleaguered new car somehow made it out of Talladega Superspeedway in the cleanest race yet of this year’s playoffs.

It did little to quell the safety concerns surrounding the Next Gen car that debuted this season. The first four playoff races were a disastrous mess of car fires, broken parts and blown tires, and after Alex Bowman became the second driver sidelined with a concussion, the veterans snapped.

Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner for Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, led the charge by calling for a complete redesign of the Next Gen and an overhaul of NASCAR leadership. Then Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, spoke up and accused NASCAR of taking a step backward in safety.

“I’m just so disappointed and shocked that we went backwards,” Elliott said.

Then he went out and won an unusually calm race by Talladega standards: of the six cautions, only one was for a multi-car crash. The winning crew chief, Alan Gustafson, acknowledged “it was certainly a bit tamer than I expected” and attributed it to the performance of the Next Gen.

Gustafson certainly understood that the midpoint of the playoffs is not the ideal time for an intense debate over driver safety. Bowman and Kurt Busch both suffered concussions when the back of their cars hit the wall; Busch has been out 11 races, while Bowman was diagnosed with his concussion last Thursday — four days after his crash at Texas.

“We know this is an inherently dangerous sport, but I want him to be as safe as he possibly can be,” Gustafson said of Elliott. “I feel like collectively, in this garage, there’s a huge resource of intelligent people where we can push this forward, get to a position where it’s not a topic, not something these guys are having to worry about week in and week out.”

That message was delivered to NASCAR by Rick Hendrick, the most powerful team owner in the sport. He said NASCAR “said they’re working on it” but Hendrick’s sense of urgency increased after Bowman, his own driver, was concussed in what seemed to be a routine hit.

“These guys are stars. You spend a lot of money bringing them along over the years. Then to have ’em hurt, you have sponsors and everything involved, they’re in the playoffs, they get knocked out of the playoffs,” Hendrick said. “And it’s not about the playoffs, it’s about safety, having a guy that wants to be able to race again. We have done really well in the last 10, 15 years with safety in so many ways. But this car, from the rear impact, it’s just like you’re sitting on a piece of steel.

“We need to fix it as soon as we can.”

The Next Gen was an industry collaboration designed to improve the racing, increase parity on the track and reduce costs. The racing for the most part has been better, and 19 different Cup Series winners (including Ryan Blaney’s non-points All-Star victory) is measurable proof the competition has improved.

The car in many areas has been reinforced and is much safer, particularly when drivers are hit in the door or a car lands on its roof. But part of the cost-cutting meant building a very durable car that could withstand crashes and reduce the fleets needed for a 38-race season.

The drivers say they warned NASCAR throughout the development phase the car was too stiff, and many walked away from minor crashes this year complaining it was the hardest hits they’ve ever taken.

Bowman and Busch are the only two drivers to miss races with concussions, but The Associated Press learned of at least two other drivers who believe they suffered concussions earlier this season. A person with direct knowledge of the situation shared the number but was not comfortable sharing further details because the information is private.

NASCAR will be busy this week headed into Sunday’s elimination race at the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Series leadership has used computer modeling on potential changes for the rear clip, rear bumper structure and center structure, and has a crash test scheduled for Wednesday in Ohio.

NASCAR then has a previously scheduled owners meeting on Friday at 23XI and the drivers have been summoned to a Saturday discussion at the R&D Center. NASCAR President Steve Phelps met privately with Hamlin before Sunday’s race.

The computer modeling and ongoing discussions are taking too long for the drivers’ liking. NASCAR has acknowledged that any improvements wouldn’t be implemented on the cars until 2023; there are five races remaining this season.

“Our drivers are so important, we don’t want ’em hurt, so if it meant buying all new clips Monday morning, I’d do it. I’d be happy to do it,” Hendrick said. “I’m all for whatever it takes. I think the teams could fix it. If NASCAR wants to do it, I think everybody working together, we could do it in a hurry, test it, have it on the cars ASAP.”

It’s not that simple, though, because the Next Gen is a spec car with single-source parts suppliers. The manufacturer would have to make enough new parts for every car and, assuming it can even be done with urgency, smaller teams would have to figure out how to afford unplanned purchases.

Gustafson said setting a timeline for corrections is secondary right now.

“I think the first step is we need a solution, right?” Gustafson said. “That is a good goal for us as an industry to collectively look at what’s the best solution we can come up with in the short term. If we can get the solution figured out, implementation, you can worry about that later.

“I think the solution is the key right now. To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist.”


More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

1 year ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

1 year ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

1 year ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

1 year ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

1 year ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

1 year ago

Column: ‘We need to fix it’ safety concerns dogging NASCAR