Next-Gen Taking NASCAR Cup Back to the Future

It’s been since 1970 that NASCAR’s highest-level featured dirt tracks and quarter miles.

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What was old is suddenly becoming new again.

For the first time since 1971 at Bowman Gray Stadium, the NASCAR Cup Series will stage an event at a quarter-mile short track on Sunday in The Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Southern California. This comes one year after the Cup Series contested a dirt race for the first time since 1970 when Bristol Motor Speedway was temporarily converted into a clay-covered half-mile.

Simultaneously, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway are poised to undergo extensive renovations for likely returns to the NASCAR rotation in some capacity and those venues haven’t seen NASCAR weekends since 2000 and 1996 respectively.

While the new car gets all the headlines, 2018 champion Joey Logano says 'Next-Gen' actually refers to the new frontier the Cup Series will embark on this weekend.

"I've been saying this all along, it's not the Next-Gen car, it's Next-Gen NASCAR," Logano said. "Everything is going to change with it. … It's different cars, different tracks, different formats. You name it. Going back to a lot of our roots is great."

The 2022 schedule, and more changes are on the way, is a concerted response from the sanctioning body to gives fans more of what they’ve asked for over the past two decades. Most notably, there are fewer intermediate tracks than in the recent history of the Cup Series.

One of those tracks, Atlanta Motor Speedway, has been redesigned with higher banking in the hopes or providing two more races like those at Daytona and Talladega.

Fairgrounds Speedway isn’t the only short track rumored to be added to the Cup Series schedule over the next decade as Auto Club Speedway is still slated to undergo a renovation into a high-speed half-mile in the coming years.

The agreement between NASCAR and the LA Coliseum is three years -- with NASCAR holding an option on the final two years if it decides the event was a success.

"We’ll all sit down as a group and talk about what went well," said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "What we could possibly tweak. If we want to go ahead there for an additional year, or there’s other areas we may want to explore, domestic or even outside of the U.S., as well."

All told, it was an investment by NASCAR to deliver a type of racing that hasn’t been seen at the highest level of the sport in 51 years. That it could find a way to do it in the second largest media market in the country was a bonus on top.

O’Donnell says that 70 percent of the expected 60,000 fans have never purchased tickets for a NASCAR race before. For their part, drivers are largely enthusiastic about racing on a track that will test both their throttle response skills and resolve.

Hendrick Motorsports youngster William Byron says having more tracks with character is important. He cited the Fairgrounds and Hickory Motor Speedway as the types of tracks NASCAR should race at. And certainly, the LA Coliseum fits that description, too.

"Tracks where you’re not air blocking as much as you’re just racing your car against the other guys and are not worried about aero and what the implications are for the guy behind you," Byron said. "I think anytime that is less of a story and we are talking about pure driving and how to use the brakes and the throttle around the track is good."

That’s what the Next-Gen and a schedule that is more short track and road course focused appears to be about.

"I think it is going to be great," Byron said. "I don’t know how this track is going to race, but I certainly think there are a lot of good tracks out there we could be going to."

Byron even says the car drives like a Super Late Model on the short tracks thanks to the rack and pinion steering system that replaced the longstanding truck arm suspension.

Corey Lajoie raced at Bowman Gray Stadium in the ARCA East Series with finishes of second and first. He’s raced at third-mile Columbus Motor Speedway in Ohio. Lajoie has continued to race Super Late Models in his spare time as a Cup Series regular.

He believes there’s room for these types of tracks somewhere at the highest level.

"I definitely favor short tracks, because that's what I grew up on," Lajoie said.

Martin Truex Jr. was a byproduct of the old Busch North Series in New England. He watched his father compete on tiny bullrings in that environment too and agrees that it’s some of the most exciting racing in stock car competition.

"We’ve had it at Martinsville over the years, not much more than that," Truex said. "Definitely, going back in time you look at North Wilkesboro and Martinsville and places like that we’ve had it and those races are a lot of fun. They’re always exciting. I don’t know where the Coliseum is going to fit in this discussion, but it definitely has the potential to be pretty wild. We will see.

"I grew up racing up North, and I raced on a lot of small racetracks. They were always full of contact and lot of excitement. Hopefully, we can put our Cup Series spin on that with the drivers we have and the talent throughout the field it’s going to be exciting."

And it’s only the beginning.