Cup Drivers Wanted Harder to Drive and They Got It

The Next Gen is leveled the playing field and challenged drivers thus far.

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Snappy loose.
Hard to drive.

It’s all the same to Austin Dillon. The Next Gen is a handful behind the wheel for Cup Series drivers and it’s what a lot of them wanted over the past several years.

Between the lower profile tires, increased horsepower, reduced downforce and near complete elimination of sideforce through symmetrical bodies, the new Cup Series cars are hard to hold onto once they get sideways.

"There just isn’t a lot of forgiveness in this car is the best way I can put it," Dillon said during a midweek press conference. "That’s what makes it hard to drive and you have moments where you talk about snappy loose.

"Snappy loose comes from just pushing too hard and getting over that edge, in my opinion. It doesn’t come back when you get to that point. You have about one shot of catching it."

The previous generation of car, regardless of rules package, featured a tremendous amount of sideforce. Even if the car got sideways with low downforce, the sideforce would catch the car and give drivers a couple of seconds to catch it.

"With the old car, you could catch it and keep driving it off of the right rear a really long time," Dillon added.

Dillon says those extended moments just don’t exist with the Next Gen.

"This car when you get that first moment – if it doesn’t come back after that and you’re still kind of in a slide, you better lock the wheel left and just spin out because the next thing that’s coming is the wall," Dillon said. "Every time you make a correction throughout the corner, you’re putting yourself on edge and you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position making those corrections."

Throughout the entire weekend at Auto Club Speedway and through practice at Las Vegas, there have been over a dozen spins or crashes from drivers simply losing control of their cars. The race at Fontana featured a tremendous amount of passing and parity with teams previously relegated to the mid-pack now able to race up front.

Some of that is the spec nature of the Next Gen, but former driver Casey Mears sees a correlation between difficulty to drive and quality of competition.

Erik Jones’s No. 43 Petty GMS Camaro is a team, even under a different banner last season, that typically ran outside the top-15. Jones has been a contender every week this season and led laps at Fontana. He says some of it comes down to engineering decisions but also feels like he can now make a bigger difference behind the wheel.

"I look at most drivers in this series, and if you put most of them in a race winning car situation, they would have an opportunity to do it," Jones said. "I think the difference comes down to the finesse parts of it -- restarts, passing, traffic.

"I’ve seen a lot of guys take fast cars and when they are out front it’s fine, but as soon as they get back in the field they can’t come through. That's the hardest part of being a driver in the Cup Series. But right now, with this car, I also think the driver is going to make an even bigger impact than in years past."

AJ Allmendinger watched the Cup race at home on Sunday, but the full-time Xfinity Series driver and part-time Cup driver liked everything he saw from an analyst standpoint.

"Fontana looked like a handful but that's what we want as drivers," Allmendinger said. "That's what we've talked about over the last few years with high downforce and low horsepower on those race tracks. I didn't feel like it put on good racing outside of restarts and Fontana with this car was a handful. We saw comers and goers, so overall, it was a great race.

"At the end of the day, you want the cars to be hard drive. It's what we asked for and that's the way they are."

Christopher Bell captured the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas. After three years of wide open, full throttle qualifying sessions, Bell says time trials had become fun again.

"I'll tell you what, that's a hell of a lot more fun than qualifying the 550 (horsepower) package, though," Bell said.

That’s the same Christopher Bell, by the way, that was laughing and smiling last week even after spinning out in practice.

Cole Custer of Stewart-Haas Racing says all of it is a recipe for compelling racing.

"You probably don’t have the sideforce that you want in the car to really have the confidence that you want, but it makes it very interesting as the driver to kind of find that limit and try not to go over it and we saw a lot of guys do that last weekend," Custer said. "And that’s why you saw a lot of teams up front you didn’t before.

"It’s gonna be a crazy year. … I think it is a little bit more of an even playing field just because nobody has figured out this car completely yet. It’s anybody’s game right now."