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NASCAR’s 'Next Gen' car the game changer sport hoped it would become

Status quo would have suited NASCAR driver Kyle Larson just fine.

Everything was clicking in 2021 for Larson, a 10-time winner and the Cup Series champion. The sport itself needed a jump start.

The long-awaited arrival of the “Next Gen” car has turbocharged NASCAR as decision-makers hoped it would.

Even though Larson picked up just his second win last week at Watkins Glen, he views the car switch as the right move for the sport’s future.

“A lot of the race fans, they seem to like it,” Larson said. “A lot of races are the highest-rated races over the last however many years. TV viewership has been up; that’s important. Me behind the wheel, the racing has been exciting.”

Unpredictable, too.

Victory Lane has been a revolving door of winners entering the regular season-ending Coke Zero Sugar 400 Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Beginning with February’s Daytona 500, the sport’s 7th generation vehicle produced 12 different winners during the first 14 races — and 15 winners during the 26-race regular season.

“We haven’t seen anybody really take off with it, run away with the show,” said two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

Chase Elliott leads the Cup Series with 4 wins, including 3 during the past nine races. Next is a pack of drivers with 2 victories led by Larson along with Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain.

The list features the defending champion (Larson), three future Hall of Famers (Hamlin, Logano, Harvick), a rising star (Byron) and two first-time winners (Reddick and Chastain).

Additionally, Chastain, a native of tiny Alva in southwest Florida, and teammate Daniel Suaréz, the first Cup Series winner from Mexico, drive for upstart Trackhouse Racing. The second-year team headed by the rapper Pitbull and Justin Marks, an entrepreneur and one-time driver, represents the new blood and diversity NASCAR hopes to attract with the Next Gen car.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around sport,” veteran Martin Truex Jr. said.

Besides creating aggressive racing, unpredictable winners and fan interest; the new car aims to bring more teams into the garage by significantly reducing ownership costs.

Race teams now use identical parts and the same instruction manual, thereby eliminating the massive investment in research and development and subsequent advantage gained by wealthier teams.

The learning curve has challenged even the sport’s top drivers and teams.

“Trying to figure out this car and what it takes to be fast with it is definitely different from years past,” Busch said. “All the cars come from the same place now. It’s not like you have a chance of putting some engineering into the car to make it go faster. It’s all about figuring out the right pieces to the puzzle.”

Truex said limited practice windows of 15 to 20 minutes intensifies the challenge. The 42-year-old enters the Coke Zero Sugar 400 without a win; he has 28 victories since 2016.

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“Everybody’s learning on the fly and you can’t use what you know from the past,” Truex said. “It’s a lot of guesswork involved. You try to figure out what you think you need during the week and you show up to the track — and if it’s wrong you’re pretty much stuck with it.

“It’s been a challenge.”

For a sport in need of a boost, the ‘Next Gen’ car has been a boon.

“The overall consumption of the sport in every vertical is up, whether that is social, digital, TV numbers,” Daytona International Speedway president Frank Kelleher said.

Those behind the wheel have enjoyed the ride.

“The car has been outstanding for the uncertainty, the learning of it, the unpredictability, all of those things have produced a lot of drama and a lot of surprises,” said veteran Aric Almirola of Tampa. “The car has produced exactly what was hoped.”