AVONDALE – Adjacent to Jimmie Johnson Drive stood the legend himself, who returned earlier this week to Phoenix Raceway to drive NASCAR’s retooled and revamped Next Gen-7 car.
Johnson’s final NASCAR race took place in the Gen-6 car before he moved to IndyCar for two seasons in 2021, but the seven-time Cup Series champion was back on the track – along with 2022 Cup Series Champion Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski – to test offseason modifications made to the car’s rules package.
The testing procedure included multiple 90-minute practice sessions, followed by a 30- to 40-lap run with the drivers to evaluate the new modifications in race-like conditions over two days. NASCAR tested aerodynamic changes in the underwing, a smaller rear spoiler, updates to the steering and braking systems and a muffler that will likely be used in February’s Clash at the Coliseum and July’s Chicago Street Race.
Johnson immediately noticed the changes since the last time he got behind the Next Gen wheel.
“This car’s a lot different than what I drove here in 2020,” Johnson said. “It is a fun car. I find the shifting, some of the technology on the car, the suspension of the car, there’s a lot of neat areas to work and a whole new drive train that goes with that. The experience in the car is semi-familiar.
“I’m very happy to be here today to get a better handle of things. I think the new tire, the sidewall profile of the tire and certainly the aero balance of the car is dramatically different from what I’ve experienced before.”
Drivers had their hands full adjusting to the new car last season and many credit the new car’s difficulty for the record number of race winners (19) during the 2022 Cup Series season.
Apart from the muffler, changes to the Next Gen rules package will attempt to improve passing ability and overall racing quality on shorter tracks. The drivers returned mixed reviews and hinted at another potential learning curve for this upcoming season, which begins with the Clash at the Coliseum on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.
“We changed a few things and tried some different things. I’d say directionally we found a couple that were better, maybe not as big as we’d like it to be,” Logano said. “But hey, we still got another day of testing, we can go a little bit more extreme on some things and try and come up with a package that works.”
Added Bell: “I was excited about the short spoiler during single-car runs, and then whenever we got in traffic I was very disappointed with the lack of difference between the short spoiler and the big spoiler.”
Tuesday and Wednesday’s laps at Phoenix Raceway won’t help prepare Johnson for next month’s Daytona 500, a longer track with steeper banking. He will lean on his immense experience to bring home a third checkered flag from the “Great American Race.”
Johnson will not race a full-time schedule this season, but he has plenty of opportunities to consider right now. The former driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet has spent time recently helping Hendrick Motorsports develop the “Garage 56” car, a car similar to the Next Gen car that Hendrick plans to race in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. He only hopes to get the invite from his former race team to compete in the historic race that dates back to 1923.
“Seat time is everything,” Johnson said. “Drivers, teams, you can try to do what you can on the (simulation), but being at the track is where you learn everything. To run a limited schedule, we have to keep our expectations realistic about the job ahead of us.
“It’s a very competitive sport with a lot of great teams and drivers. I assume as I continue to get seat time in these cars, I’ll understand where to find speed and continue to make myself more competitive.”
He also hasn’t completely shut the door on racing in Indy Car this season. While unlikely, Johnson mentioned the possibility of racing “The Double,” the feat of competing in the Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day.
“I may not have said it publicly, but I always felt like (2023) would be a year that I would try and run some Cup races or even the double – that’s certainly something I’ve had my eye on,” Johnson said. “I’m going to really stay focused … on the NASCAR side and trying to drive in the handful of races here and be involved with the team and help our two drivers out.”