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 Dale 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, Ala. 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 Feb. 20 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," Team Penske driver Joey 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," the 2015 Daytona 500 winner Logano 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 Daytona 500 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, January 12 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. IS 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, Fla. 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."
NEXT GEN CAR, NEXT GENERATION SPONSOR FOR RCR
Richard Childress Racing announced a new sponsor for driver Tyler Reddick’s No. 8 Chevrolet just before testing began at Daytona International Speedway Tuesday. The 3CHI - a company that specializes in hemp-based products - will be primary sponsor on Reddick’s car for the Daytona 500 and several other races this season.
The official news was a good birthday present for Reddick, who turned 26 on Tuesday, and a historic day for NASCAR, really. This is the first hemp-based consumer brand to partner with a NASCAR team and be featured in this high-profile way.
The 3CHI brand “follows all federal requirements for full legal compliance," the team said in announcing the news, assuring that the company’s “production and distribution of its products strictly adhere to a policy of safety above all else and sales are for responsible adult use only to consumers aged 21 and older."
“This is a first-of-its kind partnership, both within motorsports and within the sports industry as a whole," RCR President Torrey Galida said. “We’re proud of our role as industry leaders in the category and look forward to introducing a pioneer in hemp-based consumer products to NASCAR, as well as educating fans about 3CHI’s innovative, science-based products."
For his part, Reddick couldn’t have been more pleased to start off the year with another new sponsor. Although the two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is still looking for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory, he has six top-five finishes in two fulltime seasons - including runner-up finishes at Homestead, Fla. and the Charlotte ROVAL last year.
“This is a pretty good birthday present," Reddick said smiling. “I’m good with it."
“Everyone has a huge opportunity in front of themselves to take advantage of this brand new car or take advantage of this ‘reset’ if you will," Reddick said about the Next Gen cars and his opportunity to turn laps on Wednesday.
“We’re all starting over, if you will. We all have to go through the learning process all over again."
“Everything’s different, it’s completely different," he said.