Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, said Saturday in a rare public offering of opinion that the sport has taken an unacceptable step backward in safety with its new Next Gen car.
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. And 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's 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 impact was absorbed by the driver. Busch is out for an 11th consecutive race; Bowman crashed on the 98th lap last 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 on 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,” said Elliott, who is teammates with Bowman at Hendrick Motorsport, before qualifying at Talladega. Christopher Bell won the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series playoff race with a fast lap of 180.591 miles per hour to top reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Larson.
“No one’s immune to it; it could be me next week,” Elliott said. “It could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. I just hate to see us go backwards and I’m afraid that we have.”
Elliott last week crashed when a tire failed while leading at Texas. Although he's been voted the most popular driver by fans the last three years, the 26-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott very 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 have publicly called out NASCAR for not doing enough to keep the drivers safe.
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.”
Busch drives for Hamlin at 23XI.
NASCAR is adamant it is working tirelessly to address issues, and rules changes were made to address a sudden rash of car fires in the playoffs 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 ample time to develop the car and discover these new 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 step forward, not stay the same or go backward, especially in the safety category.”
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NASCAR driver Jordan Anderson, 31, was airlifted out of Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday with burns from a crash in the Truck Series race.
Anderson’s truck was spinning across the track when flames began shooting from underneath the Chevrolet. The truck continued to spin and slide toward an interior wall and Anderson appeared to be halfway out of the window when it came to a rest aligned with the wall.
Anderson scrambled to the top of the wall and away from the flames. He was initially seen in the infield care center and then airlifted to a Birmingham hospital.