NASCAR's most popular driver says the sport has taken an unacceptable step backward in safety with its new Next Gen car, a rare public offering of opinion Saturday by Chase Elliott.
NASCAR's top drivers essentially have turned into an angry mob as they head into Sunday's playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are both sidelined with concussions, and Cody Shane Ware will race with a broken foot. All three drivers were injured in crashes in NASCAR's new Next Gen car.
The car had a honeymoon phase when it debuted at the start of the year because it delivered on its promise to improve the racing and level the competitive playing field. While the Next Gen faced some bugs in the first seven months, the car is now experiencing serious problems during the playoff portion of the season.
That has created a growing sense of urgency from the drivers that NASCAR must soften the rear of the cars in the interest of safety.
Bowman and Busch were both injured when the rear of their cars hit the wall. Because the Next Gen was designed to be durable, their crashes looked routine, when in reality most of the energy from the impacts was absorbed by the drivers. Busch is out for an 11th consecutive race. Bowman crashed on Lap 98 on Sunday at Texas, radioed his team to say it was the hardest hit of his life, appeared unwell on his in-car camera and yet continued to drive 231 laps. He was diagnosed with his concussion Thursday.
"These types of incidents that result in injuries ... I'm not a doctor, but I've watched a lot of cars back into the wall and the guy would be fine," Elliott, who is teammates with Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports, said Saturday before qualifying at Talladega, adding, "No one's immune to it. It could be me next week. It could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. I just hate to see us go backward, and I'm afraid that we have."
Elliott last week crashed while leading at Texas when his tire failed. Although he has been voted the most popular driver by fans the past three years, the 26-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott rarely publicizes his opinions on controversies.
But the drivers clearly have had enough after the Next Gen was a disaster for a fourth consecutive playoff race. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick publicly called out NASCAR on Twitter for not doing enough to keep the drivers safe.
Pretty disappointing that our sanctioning body refuses to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for drivers getting hurt. It's the same THEY said. WE knew better. It's wrong these drivers continue to get taken advantage of by the system.— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) September 30, 2022
Completely unacceptable that those in charge have let things get to this point. I remember it like it was yesterday @dennyhamlin in the presentation of the new car to the drivers pleading that the car was to stiff. Data didn't agree. TIME TO LISTEN TO THE DRIVERS CRASHING THEM!— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) September 30, 2022
Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing but co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, continued his criticism of NASCAR on Saturday. He alleged that senior leadership tells the drivers "exactly what you want to hear to make you think they are doing something, but in the end they've got more problems than they have people to handle it."
He dismissed a rumor the drivers may boycott Sunday's race but called on the Cup newcomers to join the veterans in publicly pressuring NASCAR.
"We can't do it alone. They need to have their voice heard as well," Hamlin said. "A lot of these young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain't gonna be happy to be here when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives."
NASCAR is adamant it is working tirelessly to address issues, and rule changes were made to address a sudden rash of car fires in the playoff-opening race at Darlington. NASCAR could begin checking the air pressure levels on tires to determine if the recent failures occurred because teams are pushing past the Goodyear-recommended settings. But there doesn't seem to be a quick fix on softening the chassis.
Elliott said NASCAR had plenty of time to develop the car and discover these problems. The Next Gen was announced in 2019 as scheduled to debut in 2021, but in 2020, NASCAR moved the debut to this season because of COVID-19 slowdowns.
"Heck, we had plenty of time to test this car and crash it, do all the things that we need to do to ensure that some of these things that are happening now weren't happening," Elliott said. "We had a ton of time to do that, and this car was delayed an entire calendar year on top of that. We got an extra year of time to work on it, and we're still in this position.
"There's no excuse for going backward. We have too many smart people, too much technology, too many years of crashing. We should not be in the position we are in. When you come out with a new product, you should take [a step] forward, not stay the same or go backward, especially in the safety category."