Drivers cautiously optimistic after NASCAR safety meeting

Drivers cautiously optimistic after NASCAR safety meeting

One of the most vocal NASCAR Cup Series drivers when it comes to safety with the Next Gen car didn’t have much to offer in terms of details about the meeting held Saturday with NASCAR officials.

“I’m not going to say much about the meeting,” Denny Hamlin said after qualifying. “I think you’ll get some information from some other guys. But uneventful. Informative.”

Hamlin’s reservations about discussing the car and the meeting was a result of concentrating on getting into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Sunday is the second elimination race in the postseason, and Hamlin is 21 points above the cutline. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said he’s expressed everything he can about the car.

“There are plenty of other people starting to speak out now, which is good,” Hamlin said. “Not all the sound bites have to come from me.”

One of Hamlin’s teammates, Christopher Bell, described the meeting as tense from the drivers’ side. There was a lot of discussion between the two sides, and a data presentation from NASCAR senior vice president of innovation John Probst. Bell believes there was likely more NASCAR wanted to share but time ran out before Cup Series practice because of all the back-and forth between the two sides.

“NASCAR did a good job of trying to answer the questions that the drivers asked, but you can tell that there is frustration,” said Bell, who admitted he was one of the quiet ones in the room. The elder drivers like Hamlin and Kevin Harvick did a lot of the talking.

Bell added that NASCAR President Steve Phelps provided an update on the crash test that was held last Wednesday in Ohio. Officials went through updates on the rear bumper and were satisfied with the results to confirm the changes they plan to implement to the rear clip, bumper structure, and center clip.

“I believe they showed us the data from the crash test Wednesday,” Bell said of the presentation, “and what they showed us was better for the driver.”

Bell called it a step in the right direction.

“We want to feel less inside the car,” he said. “You look at it from outside and watch crashes, and it doesn’t look like anything is happening, but our body seems to be absorbing a majority of the impact instead of the car absorbing the impact. We just want the car to help us out to where we’re not absorbing as much.”

RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski faces the Next Gen issues as both a driver and a car owner. Nigel Kinrade / Motorsport Images

Plenty was said in the meeting, according to 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski.

“It was maybe a little bit of a Festivus, but that’s OK,” said Keselowski. “Sometimes we need that.”

As both a driver and owner, Keselowski has been in meetings with NASCAR before Saturday morning and understands it takes time to get things accomplished. With that, frustrations come out. Keselowski also reiterated what he told the media in Talladega, that the car was born during a pandemic when not a lot of testing could be done with it, and now it’s going through growing pains.

“There are things happening,” Keselowski said. “I think was more of an FYI of how everybody feels.”

Richard Childress Racing driver Tyler Reddick described the meeting as “productive” and that while it went over details everyone already knew, it helped to make sure that NASCAR and the drivers are on the same page in figuring out what the plan is going forward.

Joey Logano felt it was open and honest meeting — matching a NASCAR spokesman’s description of it as candid and frank — that allowed drivers to get things off their chests.

“The frustrating part is it took way too long to have that meeting,” said Logano. “That meeting should have happened Monday after Kurt’s crash, not waiting until Alex had his crash and at least hear us out. I’m not saying they weren’t working on it after Kurt’s crash, but the communication in person is so important.

“We used to do Zoom media, and can you tell me that when you did all those Zoom calls that it was as good as being in person? No, you can’t say those interviews are worth a crap compared to being in person. And it’s the same thing when you’re talking about your life in a race car. It’s a little bit more important than that, and we should be in person having those meetings a lot, not when we need to but before we need to, and I think those messages were heard loud and clear.

“There is a plan to try to help the rear impacts, as you guys know, but we need to stay focused on the rest of the car as well. There are a lot of other spots on the car we want to make better as well.”

Logano feels sometimes drivers need to act out to make change happen. Hamlin and Harvick were among the leaders in being the loudest voices.

On the other side, however, is Corey LaJoie. The Spire Motorsports driver didn’t say much after the meeting but what he did say was strong.

“A lot of guys think they’re smarter than the data,” said LaJoie. “I’m not going to talk about which side I’m talking about, but I don’t agree with a lot of the comments made.”

While drivers appeared pleased that such a meeting took place, there was also acknowledgment about what comes next. Keselowski understands it’s unrealistic to implement changes for this season, with how quickly teams rotate their fleet of cars. Chase Elliott also noted that the frustration is warranted “in some areas,” but everyone has to be practical about how quickly things can get fixed.

“We have a lot of single-part suppliers that you have to buy from now, so to ask them to make changes that they can get to all the teams in a timely manner is going to be very difficult,” said Elliott. “It would have been difficult if we were all still building these cars at our own shops. It just takes time.”

Hamlin said now that drivers have heard what NASCAR plans to do, it’s time to sit back and wait for the results to materialize in the next three to six months. Logano said it’s about keeping NASCAR honest now.

“We got a meeting out of it — and I hope that’s not why we had the meeting, because a couple of drivers got fired up in the media,” he said. “I hope that’s not how we make change in our sport. I hope that’s not what we do. I think we’re better than that.

“I hope we’re better than that but, like I said, sometimes your emotions will get… I don’t want to say the best of you, but sometimes you have to act out a little bit to make change happen and make sure you’re heard. It seemed like it definitely made something happen.”