Tyler Reddick’s first full-time NASCAR season was a strange one: the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, depriving him of the opportunity to really familiarize himself with his car. And despite the lack of practice and qualifying, he finished 19th overall in the championship, nabbing three top-fives along the way. And he’s also one of the few drivers who has had the chance to test NASCAR’s Next-Gen car.
We had a chance to talk with Reddick about his impressions of the Next-Gen car earlier this week.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Elizabeth Blackstock: I didn’t feel like I could write a full picture of the car until I’d talked to someone who’d actually driven it. Would you mind starting with some of your biggest takeaways and impressions of the car from your test at Darlington?
Tyler Reddick: I’d heard stories and feedback from other drivers like Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, my teammate Austin Dillon. But when you go to Darlington, I’d say for 50 years, it’s been one of the toughest race tracks on our schedule, so I really wanted to have some insight before I did that test based on how challenging the car was to adapt to. I heard all these comments that say it’s hard to drive, it’s hard to feel, it’s this, it’s that.
When I strapped into the car for the first time and made my first laps in it, I didn’t really have anything I didn’t like about it right away. The biggest thing about it, I’d say, is that this car has a lot more mechanical grip, and it’s taken away a lot of the side force that really stabilizes these heavy 3400-lb cars on corner entry. That being taken away really makes mechanical grip into the corner—and how drivers turn into and lift in the corner—much more sensitive. It’s much more important to keep the car under control.
With what we have now, you can just drive it up into the corner as hard as you want. Normally, the first thing that gives way is the front end, the tires. And how this Next-Gen car is, it’s totally possible to drive into the corner too deep, lift too quick, give it too much brake and too much steering input, and you’re going to back it straight into the fence. It’s going to, from my experience at Darlington, challenge the drivers from our generation.
It was just a very exciting test. The car is symmetrical, you have to drive the daylights out of it, and it’s not stuck to the ground 15-20 laps on tires at Darlington. When I experienced that, it was a lot of joy, but I was working my tail off to keep it on the trace track and keep it pointed straight and keep it out of the fence.
EB: How do you think you’re going to have to change your driving style in order to accommodate this kind of car?
TR: I think my driving style will fit pretty well at tracks like Darlington, the abrasive, bigger race tracks—the mile-and-a-halfs, the one-point-threes. If we go to bigger tracks with this downforce and horsepower package, I think it could be a really good fit. I didn’t get to drive or personally experience what this car is like to drive with less horsepower and more downforce, but from what I saw in my test, I feel like less downforce would be good for this car, and keeping the horsepower in the 650 area is a good deal. Because they are challenging to drive, for sure, as the grip wears away. And I feel like they should be.
With what we have now, yes, it’s challenging. We’re fighting the race car. But we’re never really at risk of taking a slide that ends your day and backs you into the wall. You mostly take a slide that costs you a lot of momentum. You still have to drive the cars really hard like you had to this last Sunday at Kansas. Everyone was driving the cars hard up on the fence, bouncing off of it, but like, your penalty for making a mistake isn’t as huge. With the Next-Gen car, you have to respect that if you overdrive it, you can crash it pretty easily. You have to respect the car, and I find that a very nice, rewarding, refreshing challenge that hopefully we’ll have at a lot of these other big tracks.
EB: I’ve heard a lot of similar feedback that it has a lot of potential and that you do have to respect it. Specifically, what is it that you have to do in order to respect this car, to drive it within its limits but at its limit?
TR: You can go over the limit for sure, but the two big things that have been talked about pretty broadly are the amount of side force that really isn’t in the Next-Gen’s body, what with it being symmetrical. It really takes away a lot of the side force that’s been holding the car to the ground so well. The side skirts go all the way to the ground and seal off any air from being able to pass underneath the car, to the shape of the right rear quarter panel. All those things really hold the car to the ground. Now we’ve opened it up. We’ve got that underbody belly pan that’s carbon fiber, so you can’t bottom it out or you’ll break it. There’s wear blocks to keep it from bottoming out, so there’s air passing underneath the cars. The quarter panels are much shorter and not as long or as close to the ground.
What probably got me at first when I was driving the car and having to manage it through the corners and keep it straight during the test, it’s easy to forget that you’re on a much smaller of a sidewall with the Goodyear tire on the 18-inch wheel. You’ve got a wider tire, a wider surface area that has a lot more grip, especially when you take off on new tires. But especially at a place like Darlington, you really notice that when the tire grip goes away, that thinner sidewall, you can’t resaturate the tire as much. When you do step over that limit, the penalty you pay is twice as big and happens twice as quick because you don’t have as much flex within the sidewall of the tire. You just have to understand that and shift your mental limit of how much you can lean on the tire and the car in the corner. In this car, if you even barely go over the limit, it’s going to have a bigger moment because it makes more grip when it has grip. When you lose it, you lose it in a big way, especially with the side force not being there.I
It’s definitely a big challenge, but I love it. It made driving around Darlington an absolute blast all by myself. I know that everybody watching could see the car wiggling around as I was going through the corners, where you don’t see that quite as much right now. With this Next-Gen car, I can’t wait. I hope we see a full field of them with the power we have right now and the downforce on them, the lower downforce package. You’re going to see guys from literally lap one to lap 40 or 50 into a run having to wage war not only with the other competitors on the race track but with their car to try to make it drive better. It’s very exciting.
EB: How do you think it’s going to respond when it’s in traffic?
TR: That’s the thing—and that’s why I think less downforce is probably a good thing. In my opinion, I’ve always been the guy that likes more power and less downforce, but as I mentioned how much you have to respect the car because you can’t overstep the limit and have the side force of the car straighten you out when you make a mistake, I could see the concerns of the other guys who have driven this car with the higher downforce package on the mile-and-a-half tracks where you have all this grip but when you overstep the limit, you’re going to have a harder time catching it when you’re in dirty air if your car relies on all that downforce to make grip. Traffic will be very interesting, but as crazy as it sounds, the more downforce these cars have, the worse they are in traffic. We’ve been able to make this high-downforce package work at a lot of race tracks because we’re running so close to wide open that the draft you have on the straightaways can wash out the deficit you have in the corners. But truly, the less downforce the cars make, the less they need to go around the race track. I think the drivers will have a better time racing side-by-side and doing battle if the car relies on less downforce when we race it.
EB: You had a little bump-and-grind with the wall. How did the car respond to that because that is, like, a thing that happens during races?
TR: Normally if you spin, it’s not going to be a good thing. It sounds repetitive but it comes down to the side force. Never, in the races I’ve run at Darlington, have I spun going into Turn One. I’ve gotten loose, but normally I can catch it. Normally you’re tight going into Turn One. But again, this car, if you lift too hard or try to do too much on corner entry, you’re not just going to get tight or a little bit loose. You’re going to spin it out.
And that’s what happened. I was trying to push the issue, try to find some more speed in Turn One by driving in deeper and using more steering and brake inputs to turn the car. I just over-rotated it. Without the side force being there to hold it in place, the thing just completely came around. It came around so fast that it caught me off-guard. Normally if you spin out like that, the side force built into the cars really guides it up the track and all the way down to the apron. It’s a real slow spin. Where with this Next-Gen car, it spun around and was almost facing completely backwards before I could even blink. So I did like a 360 up by the wall, but as the smoke was clearing out of the cockpit, I thought I was down by the apron, but I was still right up by the wall where I had spun. So the front of the car was still coming back around, and the right front corner kind of clunked the wall as it finished doing the 360.
At that point, I’d blown all the tires out, so I rolled it down to Turn Two and just parked it there, and the guys brought tires out, and we took it back to the garage and loaded it up. It was the last run of the day, so we were pretty much done anyway.
Crashes are going to look a lot different. When people spin, they’re not going to spin down the race track. They’re going to spin and be right in the racing groove. It’ll be another thing the drivers will have to learn the hard way. The way you save a car in a spin will be a lot different.
EB: What kind of safety technologies are coming along with that since the car is spinning and staying in that racing groove?
TR: A lot of times when drivers spin in Trucks or Xfinity or ARCA, they either overcorrect or they back into the wall completely. Cars spinning out and backing into the fence isn’t anything new. It happens. But this car, from my understanding, is structurally very sound. They did a lot of work making the chassis really safe. The crashes we saw at Kansas with Bret Holmes’ center section caving in, this car’s a lot more resilient to those kinds of impacts.
I don’t know a lot about it other than that, just from sitting in it and driving it, realizing the front clip is literally bolted to the center section, and the back clip is bolted to the center section. I’ve never really tested anything like that, and I didn’t hit the wall hard enough to do any bad damage. All we damaged was the splitter, which was allegedly being replaced for the test at Texas. So, I didn’t really damage that much. We just had to repaint the right front portion of the fender. But the car looks really safe. It definitely feels a lot different on the inside. The bars and everything inside the car appear to be a little bit different to what we had. But that makes sense when you crawl up and look under the car, or in the front fender well and look at the suspension, or crawl into the rear fender wells and look at the independent rear suspension, it’s like, “wow.” It’s totally different. And it does drive a little different on the track, too.
EB: So, your first full-time NASCAR season kind of threw you into the deep end because you got, like, no practice or qualifying before races. And I know there have been other drivers who have tested this car, but do you think that even the little bit of testing you’ve had, the ability to push it past the limit and spin, to see what it’s like—do you think that’s going to help you next year?
TR: Yes, absolutely. Obviously you don’t want to crash NASCAR’s Next-Gen prototype, right? I got in this thing, and I want to find those limits. I don’t want to crash it. And I went over the limits thousands of times in this test, but I did it in places that I could keep from damaging the race car. Unfortunately the last lap that I ran of the day was the one where I spun and caught the wall a little bit.
I mean, us as drivers, we’re going to overdrive these race cars, so I think it’s important that we overstep the limits in controlled settings. This Darlington test was the perfect place to do that with the different tire falloff we’re going to have and the different tire combinations we went through at that tire test. It’s important to push and understand where your limits are as a driver right now with this car and what you can do to better prepare and improve. What can I improve to be readier for this car when it rolls out? I mean, it’s going to be fun. A fun learning experience for all of us, but especially for those that haven’t gotten to test it yet.
EB: If you could just pick one thing, what’s your favorite thing about this car so far?
TR: Well, it’s with Darlington in particular. With the cars we have right now, we can run below the transition and banking into Turn One and kind of run down below the white dotted line on a section of track that has less banking. Darlington kind of widened out because we have so much more downforce on our cars in recent years. My favorite part about this car is that it has all this mechanical grip, but that doesn’t mean you can run the apron going into Turn One and run that narrower line. If you touch it, or touch too much of it, even on new tires, it can crash you. So what was just so exciting was that I’m at Darlington doing this tire test, and it feels like old-school Darlington in the sense where you have to respect Turn One. I feel like we could see guys, where if they get a door on them, the guy on the inside is going to have to decide, if the outside guy doesn’t let me go, I’m going to crash trying to pass him on the inside. I feel like it could return to that old, narrow, challenging race track that it was years and years ago. It still is challenging, but I just feel like it’s narrowing back up, and it’s going to make it more challenging for drivers when we race there. And that’s what we need. This car needs to challenge us, and Darlington is the perfect track to lay that out for the Next-Gen car and for us whenever we get there.