More Practice Could Help Improve the Next Gen Car

When I started writing about NASCAR in 2007, drivers usually practiced Friday morning in preparation for that afternoon’s qualifying. Two Saturday practices gave them time to dial in their car for Sunday’s race.

COVID proved that NASCAR could race without any practice or qualifying. But qualifying is a time-honored part of racing and the only true test of raw speed. The current qualifying format isn’t all that different from pre-COVID days.

Practice, however, didn’t return to its previous form. Instead of three practices, drivers have only one. Instead of 45- or 60-minute practice sessions, they’re 20 minutes at most tracks.

Veteran drivers, like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, have been the most vocal advocates for more practice time.

“I wish practice was a lot longer,” Jimmie Johnson said at Dover. “At least 45 minutes – and yes, I’m lobbying for more practice. I know that has been a conversation. I think it would be beneficial for all.”

Johnson’s 11 Dover wins are the most by any driver in the track’s history. He was fifth fastest in practice but qualified 27th and finished 28th. Last week was the latest in a series of struggles he’s had to learn the Next Gen car.

Some newer drivers are also in favor of at least a little more practice. Daniel Hemric is in his first year driving the Next Gen car for Kaulig Racing.

“I think roughly 75% of the tracks we’ll go to this year are my first time driving those tracks,” Hemric said. “I’d love a little bit more (practice) just to be able to understand what I want, what I need.”

“I don’t know if we need multiple hours, but 20 minutes is kind of short,” Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe said. “It’d be nice to be able to change springs and just do a little bit more.”

Practice isn’t just for the drivers

Although drivers get the most press, they’re not the only ones affected by the abbreviated schedules. The Cup Series garage hosts four to five-hundred people on a typical weekend.

Few of the crew members I’ve surveyed want a return to the old schedule. Three 12-hour (or more) days in the garage were exhausting. Most, however, would prefer spending more time making their car fast than shepherding it through inspection.

I asked Ryan Blaney about crew members’ attitudes toward the current practice schedule.

“They like downtime, too,” Blaney said. “But at some point, they just enjoy being at the track and working on their cars. Like today, we’ll be done by noon and they just gotta go find stuff to do.”

But here’s another argument for more practice I haven’t heard made. More practice and more leeway for changes could help improve the Next Gen car at tracks where it currently disappoints.

NASCAR has struggled to address the Next Gen’s deficiencies at short tracks and road courses. Formal testing sessions are expensive in terms of money and people’s time. Three or six cars on a track cannot predict how 36 cars will race.

NASCAR expects Goodyear to ‘fix’ the Next Gen problem. It’s possible tires won’t entirely solve the problems with passing at short track and road courses. Even if tires do help, NASCAR needs to understand why the Next Gen didn’t race as expected. That information is critical for future generations of the race car.

The 36 chartered race teams combined have at least 20 times the number of engineers in NASCAR’s R&D Center. The three-dozen crew chiefs share NASCAR’s goal of making their cars fast and capable of passing. Why not bring all that intelligence — and passion — to bear on the problem?

NASCAR won’t get the kind of detailed data they would get from formal testing. But giving crew chiefs more time to experiment could produce greater insight into the Next Gen car.

Won’t more practice give big teams an advantage?

The elite teams (those with more money) already have an advantage. For example, teams with bigger support packages from their manufacturer get higher priority for simulator time. Simulator runs are a major factor in determining a setup. Larger teams also have more engineers to make sense of the simulator data.

“The car, the shocks, the nose weight – all of the major pieces of the puzzle are in place,” Johnson said. “It just puts so much pressure on unloading correct.”

Let’s reward teams that are flexible and innovative in real timed. Practice will give an advantage to drivers who can accurately describe their car’s behavior. Also, to crew chiefs who can translate ‘eight loose’ to a spring stiffness.

More practice puts more control into drivers’ hands. Each team has the same opportunity to tune their car to their preferences for each track. That’s far better than watching a team stuck in the back of the field because they missed the setup.

Won’t more practice cost money?

Expanding practice to 45 minutes for all cars won’t add a lot of time to the schedule. Longer practices may increase the risk of drivers crashing and needing backups. Even with minimal practice, however, that’s already happening.

Johnson said he believes practice could ease some monetary pressures.

“If we had a chance to change some springs in practice, had a longer session and it was allowed for us to make some more conceptual changes to the car, I think it would take the pressure off and the expense off, of all of the other tools that we need to create and work with to unload so spot on,” he said.

Allowing more changes might require some cars to undergo a second inspection. Thanks to NASCAR’s huge investment streamlining the inspection process, that’s possible. It might take a little schedule engineering, but it’s not out of the question.

Even if more practice does costs the teams more money, compare that cost to the costs for a team traveling to Canada, Mexico or Europe for a race. Teams lose money making the cross-country trip to L.A. for the Clash. If NASCAR can afford to construct an entire track they tear down hours after the checkered flag, they can afford to give teams a little more practice time.

Especially if it increases the potential for better racing now and in the future.

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