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It's been a rocky year for NASCAR's new Next Gen cars, weathering a barrage of safety issues and a steady drip of criticism from multiple Cup Series drivers, but the league is making strides in communicating the steps being made to address those concerns, according to NASCAR Hall of Famer and director of the drivers advisory council Jeff Burton.
“We made a lot of progress in identifying issues and working hard to alleviate those, and the communication the last month has gotten much, much better,” Burton said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The communication from NASCAR all along was really good, but getting all the drivers [in a] weekly meeting at the track where by far the majority of drivers have been attending… Now everybody much more understands what is being done to help with these problems.”
Tensions reached a fever pitch this year after several disastrous wrecks in the Cup Series rendered multiple drivers with severe concussions, most notably Kurt Busch’s crash at Pocono Raceway that forced him to miss the entire 2022 playoffs. Unable to overcome the debilitating effects on his inner ear equilibrium, the 2004 Cup Series Champion now intends to retire from full-time competition.
Amid the backdrop of public and prominent criticism of the Next Gen car, Burton, who also works as an analyst for NBC Sports, explained how NASCAR officials are hosting multiple all-drivers meetings like they did at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this month to air grievances and foster dynamic, meaningful change through a healthy dialogue.
“These meetings have also allowed conversations between drivers and NASCAR at a level that we’ve never really had before,” Burton continued. “We’ve never — for, say, a month straight — got all the drivers, all the key principals from NASCAR, in one room together and discussed issues. Not, ‘OK, here’s the start/finish line. Here’s the restart procedure.’ Not that, but (on) issues with the car.”
“That communication has been really good for everybody, because you have a lot of different opinions, a lot of different ideas, a lot of different thoughts of what we can do and everybody being able to get in a room and debate, discuss, and leave there with, ‘OK, let’s go do this.’ That’s been phenomenal,” Burton added.
Now that NASCAR has crash-tested a new rear clip, center clip and bumper structure, Burton believes a target date to integrate those consequential changes should be around the Daytona 500 in February. Reflecting on the concussion Alex Bowman suffered from a rear impact collision at Texas Motor Speedway last month, Cup Series managing director Brad Moran outlined on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that supplemental evaluations are also in the works for other safety items like the cockpit head and neck braces.
“Ultimately, what I think happened was there was a recognition of an issue, [and] NASCAR went to work on trying to help that issue,” noted Burton. “But there are meaningful changes that are happening right now, [and] the great thing about this process is we’re now thinking about things that we wouldn’t have thought about if we weren’t all in it together.”
“We have a lot more knowledge about it than we did a year ago, so there is an evolution that’s happening with the car but also with seats, seat foam, uniform, fire extinguishers, energy-absorbing foam. … We’re discussing all of it, and we’ve never done that before,” added Burton. “Did we take some steps back to get where we are? Yeah, we did. But ultimately, down the road, we’re going to end up in a much better place.”
“Everybody is lined up wanting to make it better — the fans, the drivers, everybody. We’ve never been in this position. I hate that it went bad to get here, but once it goes bad, what are you going to do? You have to work forward,” Burton stressed. “It is definitely moving at a rapid pace with a lot of collaboration, and I’m really excited about that.”
Though Burton says the first round of discussions were driven, in part, due to the whirlwind of emotions on the part of everyone in the room, talks are more positive now as cooler heads prevail.
“That’s the lesson for all of us to learn,” said Burton. “Let’s don’t let it get to that point. So, next year … you’re going to see NASCAR and drivers meet more. … More interaction, more collaboration on a weekly basis, and I think that in and of itself will go a mile.”
“I want every fan to understand something,” Burton continued. “NASCAR never built a car wanting to get a driver hurt. Nobody wanted to see a driver be injured … but when you are a fraternity of [drivers] and you’re seeing your guys be injured, it’s an emotional thing. It’s like, ‘Damn it, we can’t have that.’”
“To be honest with you, that’s a good thing that drivers are looking at that and thinking about that… It’s a good thing that we’ve evolved to the point where drivers are saying it’s not acceptable, [and] we have to fix it,” Burton concluded. “There is nothing wrong with that. That helps move the sport where it needs to be.”
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