When we look back on it following its first NASCAR Cup Series season, the Next Gen car is destined to go into the books as a success even though keeping wheels attached with a single lug nut is a challenge and “broken toe link” has become synonymous with “kiss winning goodbye.”
First and foremost, the car has performed well on the intermediate and big tracks, beginning with rookie Austin Cindric’s upset in the Daytona 500 and continuing with wins by the likes of Alex Bowman in Las Vegas and Joey Logano on the normally treacherous Darlington oval. Secondly, the Next Gen car can take a beating without quitting.
Still, repeated instances of wheels coming detached and toe links failing are sending engineers back to the drawing board in search of a 100% fix on one issue and perhaps a tweak on the other.
NASCAR has suspended 10 crew chiefs over the wheel issue
As expected, the weekly penalty report released Tuesday contained the name of crew chief Cliff Daniels and two crew members on Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Chevy because a wheel came off the car shortly after pitting on Sunday at Sonoma. Only a last-minute save by the team kept Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott’s car from a similar fate.
With the NASCAR Cup Series off this weekend, the suspension begins June 26 at Nashville, which will be the final race that Denny Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart must miss over a similar infraction.
The penalty to the Larson team is the 10th NASCAR has issued this season over a wheel coming loose on the track, and the list covers a variety of teams, new to old and big to small:
- Justin Haley, Kaulig Racing at Daytona and again at Kansas.
- Kaz Grala, The Money Team, at Daytona.
- Todd Gilliland, Front Row Motorsports, at Fontana.
- Corey LaJoie, Spire Motorsports, at Phoenix.
- Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, at Circuit of the Americas.
- BJ McLeod, Live Fast Motorsports, at Talladega.
- Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, at Dover.
- AJ Allmendinger, Kaulig Racing, at Dover.
- Larson at Sonoma.
Meanwhile, no one is keeping score on broken toe links, but they’ll ruin a team’s day every bit as much as a loose wheel will. The difference is that toe links are somewhat fragile to save cars from breaking stuff that’s more complicated and expensive.
What is the toe link that keeps breaking in NASCAR Cup Series cars?
The first thing to know about the rear toe link is that breaking one by scraping the wall can cause residual damage that will take a driver out of the race just like a cut tire will after brushing that same wall. The difference is that the design of the Next Gen car has reduced the number of cut tires, and toe links don’t automatically fail after contact.
So, what is the toe link?
Your average passenger car’s tires all stand at a 90-degree angle to the ground, which is optimal for city and highway driving. However, stock cars must perform optimally on banked tracks, which requires setting wheels at an angle to keep as much of the rubber as possible flush with the road.
Teams make that adjustment via the toe link, a rod that connects the rear hub assembly with the upper control arm.
The toe link is a vulnerable part out of necessity
The engine is everything in racing equipment, but the tires are a close second. The hub assembly holding the wheel upon which the tires are mounted resides further inside the rear fender of the Next Gen car than in Gen 6 models. That makes tires less vulnerable from contact by cars swapping paint.
However, the wall is another matter. A car that gets loose on the high racing groove coming out of corners can slam the right rear quarter into the barrier. If the impact is severe enough, something has to absorb the energy of the blow. By design, that something is the toe link.
As NBC Sports columnist Diandra Leslie-Pelecky explains, if something back there has to break (and the energy created by a hard hit will break something), it might as well be the toe link. With just two connections, it’s an easy part of the suspension to replace. While the time required is measured in laps, not seconds, fixes can be made in the pit stall.
We’ll have more conclusive data at the end of the season, but the hunch is teams are better off repairing two or three toe links per season that dealing with the collateral damage of six or seven cut tires.