DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - About midway through Tuesday’s first Next Gen Test session at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR had the teams “grid up” and do a mock race run. The 17 cars participating all lined up and ran a flawless, but exciting 10-lap sprint session together.
Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Todd Gilliland led laps but it was primarily an exercise in drafting. A successful lesson. The cars were able to run two and three-wide and there was a lot of shifting and jockeying for position throughout the field on the iconic 2.5-mile high banks.
New Toyota teammates Busch and Hamlin spent much of the remaining afternoon making laps in a drafting session for two. And cars – including one driven by two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – turned laps and experimented with drafting partners until 8 p.m.
In the end, rookies Harrison Burton and Austin Cindric and the veteran Logano topped the speed chart. Burton’s speed of 184.264 mph in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford was tops in the first session. Cindric’s lap of 190.621 mph in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford led the second session of the day, over Logano and Earnhardt, Jr.
NASCAR officials said they were very satisfied with Tuesday’s tests and confirmed the new cars will use the 510-horsepower, 7-inch spoiler package at the big tracks, Daytona, Talladega, and also at the newly repaved Atlanta this year.
The speeds on Tuesday weren’t quite what is to be expected for practice, qualifying and race day for the season-opening Daytona 500, but NASCAR Senior Vice President for Innovation and Racing Development John Probst does feel optimistic the cars are in good shape and fans will be pleased with the racing.
“I don’t want to jinx it, but I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot to put on a good show,” he said.
He conceded when the teams come back for the Daytona 500, he fully expects the cars to be faster – the team’s having picked up the intensity for the season’s biggest race.
Drivers were similarly encouraged by both the single car runs and drafting sessions on Tuesday.
“We don’t have them quite handling the way we want yet,” Logano said after the full field session. “They’re pretty new still to us. Bumping and shoving gets the cars moving around a whole lot and Kurt, myself, Denny and Ricky (Stenhouse) we were out there shoving each other pretty hard and racing like we were trying to win the Daytona 500.”
“But it was fun just to try to understand what the pack is going to be like,” Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner, explained. “Drafting is still drafting and a lot of the same things that worked in the past will still work now. But some things have changed. It was intense, to say the least.”
Another former Daytona 500 winner, Trackhouse Racing’s newest addition, Kurt Busch was equally as optimistic.
“Things are good,” the 2017 race winner said. “We’ve had some speed and we’re going through a checklist of items.”
Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota suffered a problem and parked about an hour and a half from Tuesday’s checkered flag, but there were no other major incidents and no accidents on a windy, chilly day and evening. The teams will be back Wednesday for another session, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Unlike Tuesday, fans will not be allowed inside the speedway on Wednesday.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Back Behind The Wheel
The Daytona International Speedway crowd got a double treat of sorts on Tuesday – a chance to preview the new NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen cars before the Daytona 500 and a chance to watch one of the sport’s most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., drive around one of his favorite tracks.
Earnhardt is filling in for newly-crowned NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the two-day Next Gen Test at the track. The 47-year-old two-time Daytona 500 winner is set to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next weekend, but was eager to take this opportunity to try out the series’ new car.
“Just trying to learn everything we can,” Earnhardt said.
“It’s been fun and a great learning experience,” said Earnhardt, who said he had originally planned to be down in Florida for the test as an observer – expecting to gain some knowledge to help in his role as a race broadcaster for NBC Sports.
“But the chance to be behind the wheel is even better,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. It’s been fun.”
Denny Hamlin’s Woes
With only about an hour and a half left in Tuesday’s Next Gen Test session, Hamlin pulled his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the Daytona garage and parked.
“We blew up,” Hamlin said. “It started getting a little weak at the end but overall I was pretty happy with how the car was handling and drafting. Overall, a good test.”
Despite the early exit, Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and a perennial championship contender, put in a hard day’s effort at the high-speed office – leading laps in the mock race, drafting and looking solid in single car runs. Disappointed not to finish the two-day test, the team was at least encouraged by the work on Tuesday.
“I was pretty happy with it overall and not a lot I would change – not a lot I could change,” he added with a smile.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola spoke with the national media Tuesday during the NASCAR Next Gen Test session at Daytona, less than a week after announcing he will be leaving fulltime racing at the end of the 2022 season. He emphasized again that was “fulltime” racing and said he would still be open to doing some one-off races should the right situation present itself in the future.
Almirola, 38, of Tampa, Florida, said the impetus of his decision really came down to his desire to spend more time with his children. His nine-year-old daughter Abby rides horses and likes to perform on stage and his 10-year-old son, Alex, is into team sports like baseball – a sport Almirola excelled in before focusing on his racing career.
“I couldn’t keep going week-in and week-out, chasing my dreams and watching them through Facetime,” Almirola said. “I felt super guilty.”
“There’s a short time before they have car keys and are asking what their curfew was,” he added. “And that weighted into my decision more than anything.”
Almirola, a three-race winner in 10 fulltime NASCAR Cup Series seasons, said he told the SHR team and his longtime sponsor, Smithfield, of his decision during the holidays. And he’s hoping having it out a full season ahead of his move, will allow him to “get his ducks in a row” and possibly chart his course going forward.
“I do have interest in still being involved [in racing],” Almirola said, adding, “I really don’t have an answer to what’s next.”
“I don’t have a ‘Plan B,’ never have and don’t know what that looks like.”
Many drivers find their second act in television broadcasting and Almirola has garnered positive reviews for his work in the booth during NASCAR telecasts. He said that’s very much on the table and said he was committed to remaining in racing in some form.
“I’m just ready to be a little bit more normal,” he said smiling. “I’m ready to be home with my family.”