NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR president Steve Phelps committed to safety, communication with drivers

October 13

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

NEW YORK — NASCAR president Steve Phelps pledged to meet with drivers more often as he tries to open the lines of communication with the athletes who are the faces of the sport.

There is just one issue when lines of communication are increased. Phelps and NASCAR executives will listen, but then they'll have to decide how to react to what they hear.

Drivers typically have varying views, and they aren’t all going to agree. What if NASCAR listens and then opts to do something different from what the majority of drivers want?

Phelps isn’t worried about that, especially when it comes to developments designed to make the Next Gen car safer.

"We have a common goal, which is to make sure our drivers are as safe as they can be in that Next Gen race car," Phelps told FOX Sports on Tuesday.

"And so when you come at it from that perspective, I'm confident that we are going to get to the same place, and we're all going to be marching in the same direction."

Brad Keselowski on the Next Gen car meeting with NASCAR

Brad Keselowski compared the NASCAR safety meeting to Festivus, meaning it was an airing of grievances.

Drivers spent 75 minutes in a meeting with Phelps and other NASCAR executives Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway to discuss issues with the car that debuted this year. Two drivers missed the race at Charlotte because of concussions, and another driver was out due to a broken ankle.

NASCAR showed the drivers data from a crash test Wednesday, which suggested that its proposed changes to the rear and center of the car chassis will allow the car to crush more, meaning a driver will absorb less energy when the rear of the car hits a wall in a crash.

"I thought the meeting was incredibly productive," Phelps said Sunday during the Cup prerace show on NBC. "The drivers were candid. We showed them a path forward on the rear of the car to try to take out some of the stiffness that exists with a bigger crush panel.

"We want to hear what they have to say. We care about what they say." 

Phelps said Tuesday that weekly meetings with drivers will take place the rest of the year, either in-person or remotely.

"We're going to try to get something with the drivers this weekend," he said as the series heads to Las Vegas. "We want to hear where their concerns lie and want to update them as different things are happening and as we're progressing."

Christopher Bell on Next Gen crash test data

Christopher Bell said the data NASCAR showed drivers from the crash test Wednesday indicated that changes to the rear bumper construction, rear clip and center clip will bring improvements for drivers.

NASCAR had been communicating with a seven-member driver council that has former driver Jeff Burton as its executive director. But the organization had not had a full field drivers meeting in several months, and drivers seemed frustrated about that after Kurt Busch's crash in July. Busch has missed more than three months now, and Alex Bowman will miss at least five weeks because of concussions.

"As great as the driver advisory council has been, there's nothing that is as good as having an all-driver meeting, right?" Phelps said on the prerace show. "And we probably should've had one months ago to try to deal with the safety issues and what the drivers were feeling in the race car.

"So that's on me."

No NASCAR national series driver has died because of an on-track accident since Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. That record shows NASCAR’s commitment to safety, Phelps said.

"Are there things that we need to do to this race car that make it safer? Yes, particularly in the rear of the car," he said during the prerace show. "But there are also things of this car that are safer than the last car.

"We’re going to continue to iterate on the car, working with our drivers."

The Next Gen car was designed by Dallara for NASCAR, which has approved a single vendor for most parts and pieces in a quest to create parity and equality among the teams. That has slowed the process for change because in the past, teams could work on new designs and develop parts and pieces on their own.

In some ways, the Next Gen car has delivered as hoped. There have been 19 winners this year, and at the majority of the tracks, the racing has been solid, though passing on some road courses and short tracks has been a challenge.

Eventually, the hope is that the Next Gen car lowers costs and makes assembling cars more predictable. But the parts and pieces are being changed and improved — and damaged — so frequently this season that teams have indicated they are spending more than initially budgeted.

Denny Hamlin on the safety meeting with NASCAR

Denny Hamlin said the safety meeting with NASCAR didn’t change his opinions on the Next Gen car, but it was informative.

NASCAR’s team owners are hoping for more revenues from NASCAR, and they went public last week with their frustration, saying that NASCAR wants them to slash costs, which would mean massive layoffs and a weaker product.

Phelps said on the prerace show that NASCAR will work on increasing revenues for the teams, as well as looking at ways to cut costs.

"There's a balance there, like any good business: revenue in, expenses and look at the profitability on the bottom line is critical," Phelps said. "And so we're going to do that.

"I'm confident we're going to do that and get to a good place for the race teams moving forward. We’re not going to talk about the negotiations here."

With an increase in attendance and the race parity this year, Phelps hopes he can navigate the sport through these current controversies.

He indicated Tuesday at the SportsBusiness Journal’s World Congress of Sport that one of the keys will be more changes in the Cup schedule. The 2023 schedule includes the first Cup race on a street course — partly along Lake Michigan in Chicago — and the All-Star Race marking a return to North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, which had been closed for decades. 

"We're going to keep being very aggressive in the schedule," Phelps said. "Our ‘24 schedule, I think, will probably be the most aggressive schedule that we've ever had in terms of continuing to get variation.

"I won’t talk about what that is. Because frankly, I'm not sure." 

Phelps wouldn’t name where NASCAR will go next. Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s Senior VP for strategy and innovation and the nephew of NASCAR Chairman Jim France, indicated on The Dale Jr. Download this week that the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia, Mexico and Canada are among the places he would like to see Cup races.

Changing the schedule, Phelps told FOX Sports on Tuesday, creates interest.

"Everything’s on the table," he said. "New markets? Absolutely. Are there [other] formats? We need to continue schedule variation. It's important because what we've seen is that when we have scheduled variation, events are sold out, they seem to drive interest from a ratings standpoint, [and] sponsors are thrilled."

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What to watch for

For just the fifth time this year, NASCAR goes to a track where it had a points race earlier in the season.

But there will be a big difference from Las Vegas in March to Las Vegas in October. With this weekend being the 30th race since the first Vegas outing, teams have learned a lot about what makes the car go fast.

Still, look who was out front early in the Vegas race in March: Christopher Bell. And he has been fast all year, not to mention his huge comeback victory Sunday at Charlotte to advance in the playoffs.

Ross Chastain led 83 laps throughout the race. Denny Hamlin led 31.

Those three Round of 8 drivers likely will be ones to watch this weekend. If they can be fast this time around, they won't want to squander an opportunity to win and advance to the championship.

And don’t rule out Kyle Busch, who led 83 laps in a backup car in March. It would be sweet for him for what could be his last victory with Joe Gibbs Racing to come in his hometown.

Thinking out loud

NASCAR is hoping there won’t be much, if any, testing for teams in the offseason, other than some three-driver tire tests. With the offseason testing schedule this year, it has been a grueling 2022, and teams will be scrambling to update their fleets with the changes to the rear and center clips.

But with the upcoming safety changes, NASCAR needs to know the impact on the racing product. As such, a test or two open to all organizations during the offseason — while not great when it comes to costs and getting cars ready — might be necessary.

NASCAR still needs to work on the ability to pass on short tracks and road courses. Maybe it can go to Richmond and Virginia International Raceway on back-to-back days to test some ideas.

Social spotlight

They said it

"Involvement over the radio and instructions over the radio that could not even be construed as anything else — those are the things that you can’t overlook. ... Blatantly pulling over and changing the finishing order on the last lap is what makes it over the top, especially with instructions from the pit box." — NASCAR SVP of Competition Scott Miller on the Cole Custer penalties

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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