CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The jolts are more jarring, the impacts feel harder and the pain hangs on longer for NASCAR drivers in the first season of the Next Gen car.
Stories of sore backs, headaches and damaged ribs that don't heal as quickly as they did in the past are more common heading into the opening race of the Cup Series playoffs Sunday at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway.
Just ask Joe Gibbs Racing veteran Denny Hamlin, part of a massive wreck late in last weekend's regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. He has already pulled out of the second-tier Xfinity Series race Saturday at Darlington due to continuing soreness in his neck, ribs and back.
"It feels like I got beat up in a bar and someone was kicking me in the ribs while I was on the ground," Hamlin said Thursday. "The whole right side, it just felt smashed."
The issue of driver safety has taken center stage since 23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch's crash during qualifying at Pocono Raceway in late July. He sustained a concussion and missed the final six regular-season races.
Busch's condition led him to surrender his playoff spot, and 23XI co-owner Hamlin is unsure when he will return. Hamlin said Busch had "plateaued" in his recovery.
"He got to about 80% and stayed there," Hamlin said. "I think the rest is going to take a little bit of time."
The Next Gen car was rolled out this season to provide a durable, competitive car that can hold down costs and bring more excitement to the track by looking like something consumers could buy at a dealership. It has certainly brought parity, with 16 winners in points races this year, including first-timers Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.
Still, the buzz around the haulers and in team meetings is that the average hits and accompanying pain don't feel so average anymore.
"It seems like a recurring topic," said Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion who is the top seed for the playoffs. "And I don't necessarily think that's something everybody is just making up, right?"
More evidence came in Hamlin's radio exchange with his team moments after the accident. He is heard moaning, telling them he "hurts" preceded by an expletive.
"Certainly, from my standpoint body-wise, it took a much harder hit than what I've had in the past in any other wreck," Hamlin said.
NASCAR's ongoing crash analysis agrees with drivers: The hits are harder than in the past.
"We've heard similar things about their experiences in the car that it crashes harder or the crashes are worse," said John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering. "The really short answer is yes, the drivers are experiencing more severe crashes than in the past. But there's more to it than that."
Patalak said analysis shows some drivers at high speeds are hitting the wall at steeper angles. While cars in the past would hit at angles of about 14 to 16 degrees, some Next Gen crashes are registering in the high teens or low 20s.
"When you look at it on paper, you think, 'Well, what's the big deal, 14's really close to 19?'" he said. "But it's a massive difference with the amount of energy that's going into the wall, not parallel to it."
Two-time series champion Kyle Busch, one of Hamlin's teammates at JGR, is skeptical.
"The wrecks don't look as bad because the drivers are carrying the brunt of it and the car isn't," Busch said.
There's more work ahead on safety concerns, but Elliott believes NASCAR is paying attention.
"You never want to take a step backward," he said. "It's been great conversations, and I think it will end up making a difference."
The car, Patalak said, was never designed as a final draft. There already have been modifications in the safety foam surrounding the driver's head. More analytics could lead to additional changes.
"There are certain solutions that can't be implemented immediately," he said. "There are other solutions that can."
Team Penske driver Joey Logano, the 2017 Cup Series champion, believes the changes will likely means increased costs for financially conscious race teams.
"Here's the bottom line: Safety is expensive," he said. "I hate saying that, but it's true."
Logano, too, has felt the hits more this season than others. He and others have said the car is too rigid, but he also sees an upside.
"In some ways, it's safer than the old car," he said.
For one thing, Logano is confident the car won't cave in on the cockpit because of a significant wreck or rollover crash.
"It's the everyday hits that are more severe than they used to be," he said. "It depends on how you want to look at it."
Bubba's number switch
MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Bubba Wallace is taking the old "Be Like Mike" campaign to heart.
The 28-year-old Cup Series driver is switching numbers, just like his famous team owner Michael Jordan did during his NBA days.
Wallace will drive the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing the rest of the season instead of his usual No. 23. The switch was made because the No. 45 car, previously driven by the injured Kurt Busch, is competing for the owner's championship.
Ty Gibbs had been subbing for Busch the past several races, but Gibbs will move to Wallace's No. 23 for the rest of the season.
Wallace will continue with his crew chief Bootie Barker while Gibbs will keep working with Billy Scott. Other than the numbers, 23XI said there will be no changes to the primary partners on either car.
Jordan, who owns the team with JGR driver Hamlin, famously switched from No. 23 to No. 45 when he returned from his first NBA retirement with the Chicago Bulls in 1995. Jordan eventually returned to No. 23 during that year's playoffs.
Busch had qualified the No. 45 for the Cup Series playoffs with his win at Kansas Speedway in May, but last week he and the team announced he had withdrawn from postseason eligibility because he would not be cleared to race by the start of the playoffs, opening up a spot for someone else.
Wallace did not qualify for the playoffs and is not eligible for the driver's title, but he is in his fifth season on the top circuit and had four straight top-10 finishes this summer, while Gibbs is a promising 19-year-old but also a driver who has yet to run a full schedule on a NASCAR national series.
Steve Lauletta, the team president at 23XI, said they consulted with NASCAR and agreed the Gibbs-Wallace switch was in the best interest of the organization.
"While Ty has done a great job for us in the No. 45 car, we feel that Bubba's experience in this car, at the upcoming playoff tracks and his recent momentum will give 23XI the best chance at maximizing our points each weekend," Lauletta said.