Why Start New NASCAR Teams in the Gen-6 Car’s Last Year?

The NextGen race car prompted a lot of people to start new NASCAR teams. They all targeted 2021, when the new car was to make its debut. Then COVID struck and NASCAR delayed implementing the NextGen until 2022.

So why did these new NASCAR teams spend millions of dollars running a car they’d never use again?

The answer is because there’s much more to building a winning race team than having a fast car.

NextGen and New NASCAR Teams

The NextGen race car was designed to save owners money and improve competition by taking much of the car production process out of the teams’ hands. All teams will buy the same components from the same suppliers — and none will be allowed to invest millions of dollars in research to modify those components. Because everyone is starting from scratch, a new NASCAR team won’t be at an immediate disadvantage not having a years of experience with the car, thick notebooks full of data, and employees who know the car inside out.

A number of primarily XFINITY operations have made (Kaulig Racing) or are eyeing (JR Motorsports) moves to Cup. But perhaps the most important impact of the NextGen car so far is bringing in new NASCAR teams. Three new teams announced plans to start racing in 2021.

And then came COVID

Much of the design work on the NASCAR NextGen car was complete. Even with COVID restrictions, the NASCAR R&D Center development team could likely complete the testing they’d planned. The problem was getting cars built. The companies that had signed on to provide the NextGen components had to grapple with their own COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Even harder to overcome, though, were global problems getting raw materials from place A to place B. It didn’t look possible to get the required number of cars to the teams in time for 2021.

NASCAR announced at the start of April in 2020 that the NextGen would instead make its debut in 2022.

So why wouldn’t the new teams also delay their debuts?

Sure, the wheels were already in motion with sponsors. Announcements had been made. But if NASCAR could walk back the NextGen, why couldn’t the teams delay starting? What’s the point of spending money to competing with a car NASCAR will never run again? What’s the point of running around the track at the back of the pack?

Why Racing in 2021 Was the Right Choice for New NASCAR Teams

Although it’s true that none of the data collected will be relevant to the NextGen car, there is far more to building a new NASCAR team than having a good car. I’d argue that these new teams have gained a lot than it’s cost them to run the 2021 Season.

Racing Gen-6 Was a Minimal Investment

Technical alliances have proven a huge benefit to new and smaller teams.

Trackhouse Racing, 23XI and LiveFast purchase cars from their partners (RCR, JGR, and SHR respectively).

  • Trackhouse, which had been planning to locate in Nashville, worked out of RCR’s shop.
  • 23XI leased the old Premium Motorsports shop this year. They’re planning a permanent shop in Huntersville)
  • LiveFast is co-located with B.J. McLeod Motorsports

None of these new NASCAR teams had to establish any facilities that would only be useful this year. They could direct their money (as they planned) to establishing the facilities they need for the NextGen car. Because the industry is contracting, they had no problems finding people with experience running the Gen-6 car.

While other teams are closing down one program while starting another, these new teams only have the ‘starting-up’ part to manage.

Conservation of Charters

NASCAR introduced charters in 2016 to try to ensure that owners teams were an investment. In other words: When an owner sold a team, there had to be more in it than just the cost of the property and inventory. Charters are absolute gold for a new NASCAR team, as they ensure a starting spot in all 36 races of the year.

A number of owners viewed the introduction of the NextGen car as a good time to leave the sport or scale back. The delay of the new car did nothing to change those plans, which meant that a number of charters were available to buy or lease for 2021.

  • 23XI bought Germain Racing’s charter. Regardless of whether 23XI had started competing this year, they would had to have bought the charter now if they wanted it.
  • Marks had a hard time finding a charter to buy and ended up leasing a charter from Spire Motorsports for 2021. He hoped he might be able to buy the charter during the year.
  • LiveFast is charterless at the moment. has the old 32 charter. Thanks to @DustinTannerVT for correcting me!

Although Marks was hoping to buy the charter he had been leasing, Spire sold two of their three charters to Kaulig Racing instead. Last month, Marks snapped up the entire NASCAR portion of Chip Ganassi’s racing empire, which gives Trackhouse two charters. That gives Marks (and his drivers) a peace of mind for the future.

23XI is still looking for a second charter so they can expand to a two-car team in the future, so if you see any charters for sale, do let Denny and Michael know.

Relationships

Along with CGR’s physical assets and charters, Justin Marks will inherit about 240 employees as soon as the current season ends. He won’t need to keep all of them, but it’s a big boost for his new NASCAR team to have an already-running machine. People are the most important asset in a team and it takes time to make relationships work.

Even for the other two new NASCAR teams, having started in 2021 means the 2022 machine will be much more smoothly running. People know each other a little better. You’ve gotten all the embarrassing miscommunications out of the way. The owner knows who works with who well. These new teams will also have had an additional year to develop a relationship with their technical alliance partners and their manufacturers.

The Crew Chief

The most important relationship is between the driver and the crew chief. You can give a driver the best equipment in the world, but if the driver and crew chief can’t communicate, you won’t win races.

For that matter, you can’t win races if the crew chief and the crew can’t communicate either.

Crew chiefing is half technical and half psychological. You have to worry about spring rates and tire pressures, but you also have to buck up the tire changer who just made a mistake or calm down the driver ready to ram into the guy who just bumped him. You have to motivate everyone from mechanics to engineers.

As of race 22, Suarez has run 93.7% of all possible laps, while Wallace has run 99.0% of all possible laps. Each has 2 DNFs due to crashes. The two drivers are giving their team as much time as possible to get to know each other. That’s extra important given the lack of opportunities to test or practice. It’s also enough time for the owners to decide whether the partnership looks promising, or if it might be time to look for a new crew chief.

Proof of Performance = Sponsors

Most new NASCAR teams struggle in their first year. These new NASCAR owners hadn’t planned on having to spend that first year competing against entrenched powerhouses in the Gen-6 car. One might worry that a bad season could scare off sponsors.

COVID disrupted everything. These teams might have been able to make a force majeure argument to delay sponsorships, but they didn’t. If there’s one thing you must have to be a NASCAR owner, it’s confidence in your ability to perform. 2021 gave these teams a chance to show what they can do in an adverse situation.

While none of the teams has had a playoff-worthy performance, it’s been better than I expected. It’s had to benchmark LiveFast because they’ve had four different drivers. But Wallace and Suarez stand in 20th and 22nd place as of 22 races into the season.

For comparison, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe — both racing for powerhouse teams — are 23rd and 24th.

The Gibbs drivers are all ranked ahead of 23XI, but the lowest-ranked JGR car (Christopher Bell) is 15th. Yes, I know Bell has a win, but as I’ve shown before, drivers who get into the playoffs on the basis of only road course or superspeedway are almost always eliminated quickly.

Both RCR drivers are higher in the standings than Suarez. Tyler Reddick is 12th and Austin Dillon is 13th.

Let’s look at how the drivers for these two new NASCAR teams have performed by race.

Rank and Finishing Positions by Race

A scatter graph (top) showing Daniel Suarez's rank as a function of race number and a bar graph (bottom) showing the finish for each race.  Suarez drives for one of the new NASCAR teams in 2021.

Suarez got Trackhouse’s first (and so far, only) top-5 at the Bristol dirt race, but he’s had a handful of top 10s and top 15s. His ranking has been hurt by an early crash at Daytona, and two other P36 finishes.

A scatter graph (top) showing Bubba Wallace's rank as a function of race number and a bar graph (bottom) showing the finish for each race. Wallace drives for one of the new NASCAR teams in 2021.

Wallace has been a little more consistently in the middle, with only one really bad finish to his credit. He got 23XI’s first top 5 a few weeks ago at the second Pocono race.

Looking at these graphs should remind you (again) why you shouldn’t try to draw conclusions from the first five races of the season.

Comparisons of Existing to New NASCAR Teams

We can compare the drivers for the new NASCAR teams to the drivers in the seats these two drivers used to occupy. Let’s look at the spectrum of finishes via a horizontal bar diagram.

Just because I like the way they look.

A horizontal bar chart comparing the types of finishes for Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer, who currently occupies the car Suarez used to occupy.
Data are for 2021 up to race #22

To be fair, this would look different if we compared Suarez 2021 with Custer 2020, which was Custer’s first year in the #41. Custer won Kentucky in 2020 and finished the year in 16th place. This year, he’s in 28th place and SHR is struggling company wide. But if I were approaching potential sponsors, I’d use this graph to convince them of the Trackhouse — and Suarez’s — potential.

A horizontal bar chart comparing the types of finishes for Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones, who currently occupies the car Suarez used to occupy.
Data are for 2021 up to race #22

The comparison between Wallace (ranked #20) and Erik Jones (currently ranked #25) is a little more straightforward. But again, this is the kind of data you take to a sponsor and say ‘If we could do this this year, wait’ll the NextGen.’

You Know What to Work On

This year has also given the new NASCAR owners a chance to see where their operation needs the most help.

Wallace has been sent to the back four times in 22 races (18.2%). And you can’t brush that off to newness, because those four times have been distributed throughout the season. They’re mostly unapproved adjustment penalties. 23XI can’t keep incurring preventable penalties in 2022.

Suárez has only started from the back twice, but he leads the list of most penalties for the season with 11 over 22 races. Seven of those 11 penalties were driver error (speeding on pit row and pitting outside the box). And six of those seven penalties happened under the green flag. The lack of practice means drivers get no practice with pit stops, either. Good green-flag pit stops are hard, requiring coordinating between the driver, spotter and crew chief. If I were Justin Marks, that would be the #1 thing to work on with the #99 team. The second thing would be improving pit stop times because, when you’re losing a second to the larger teams on pit road, your driver is going to feel compelled to try to make up for it.

Wallace has 3 penalties so far — all speeding on pit road and two under green.

Conclusion

All in all, these new NASCAR teams have benefited from the extra year before the NextGen car arrives. 2021 may have been far from the year they expected, but they will be much more formidable competitors in 2022.

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