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Long: Undercurrent of tension creates backdrop for Roval race

NASCAR President Steve Phelps says "safety is the single most important thing," as he recognizes the need to make the rear of the Next Gen car safer, and admits they should have had an all-driver meeting months ago.

CONCORD, N.C. —A tumultuous week for NASCAR comes to a close when the green flag waves today at the Charlotte Roval, but one has to wonder what’s next.

Three Cup drivers out because of injuries, driver frustration with NASCAR’s safety efforts and team executives decrying a “broken” economic model have created a swirling tension in a series that has seen a record-tying 19 different winners this season.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps to appear on Countdown to Green (1 p.m. ET on NBC)

“We’ve been doing this for a really long time this year with no time off; we’re all popping off anything right now,” Austin Dillon said, noting that the series has had only one weekend off since mid-February.

“There’s some things we can do in the offseason to make everybody excited again and ready to go. The one good thing about this car, I feel like, is the racing has been great. If you look at the metrics from the winners and lead-lap passes. Now we’ve got to satisfy the drivers because once the drivers are happy, everybody is going to be happy.”

Within the last week, NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with Denny Hamlin after Hamlin called for “new leadership” in NASCAR and that the car needed to be redesigned, team owners spoke publicly about their concerns with long-term survival and series officials held a 75-minute meeting with drivers on Saturday about safety.

“That meeting (with drivers) should have happened Monday after Kurt’s crash,” Joey Logano said, referring to the July 23 accident at Pocono that has sidelined Kurt Busch since, “not waiting until Alex (Bowman) had his crash.”

Kevin Harvick and Hamlin have been among the most vocal critics of NASCAR’s safety efforts, but Chase Elliott, who typically sidesteps any sharp criticism, shared his “frustration” last weekend with NASCAR not fixing issues with the car any sooner.

Drivers speaking up to get NASCAR’s attention is not something new.

“This,” Hamlin said last month at Kansas, gesturing to the microphone he was holding in a media session, “is the most powerful tool you can have and sometimes you have to use it to force change.”

Driver frustration has grown because they say they had been telling NASCAR about their concerns with the stiffness of the car and the harder impacts they felt for some time. While the car is safer for catastrophic accidents — such as Ryan Newman’s 2020 Daytona 500 crash and Logano’s 2021 Talladega crash, it is the more common crashes that have led to the injuries.

Busch and Bowman will miss today’s playoff race (2 p.m. ET on NBC)because of concussion-like symptoms after separate rear-end accidents. Cody Ware is sitting out this race because of an ankle fractured suffered in a crash two weeks ago. Ware will be back next week. When Busch and Bowman returns is uncertain.

This is believed to be the first time in more than 20 years that three full-time drivers have missed the same Cup race because of injuries from on-track accidents.

With that as the backdrop, NASCAR met with drivers for 75 minutes for what was described as “frank” and “candid” discussion. Christopher Bell said the meeting was “definitely tense” from the driver side. NASCAR and drivers said more meetings are needed.

Harvick was cautious in his appraisal of the meeting, telling NBC Sports and The Associated Press: “Actions are a lot louder than words. That’s what we need to see.”

Some drivers called the meeting productive, while Erik Jones described the meeting as “a lot more Seinfeld airing of grievances than a meeting from a lot of guys.”

A group of team executives representing the 16 Cup teams that own all 36 charters aired their grievances Friday to select members of the media.

The teams seek additional revenue streams and presented a seven-point proposal to June that they felt would accomplish their goals of providing long-term sustainability. NASCAR rejected the offer last week. Its counteroffer provided “a minimal increase in revenue,” according to Curtis Polk, an investor in 23XI Racing and Michael Jordan’s longtime business manager.

“The emphasis was on cutting costs dramatically. With the Next Gen car, the costs of the car are somewhat fixed. So what would that lead to? It would lead to massive layoffs at our teams.”

Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, said that two sides were “very far apart.”

Gordon stated that Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the past two Cup championships, will not make a profit this season. He also said that it had been “awhile” since the organization had done so.

For three hours Sunday, such issues should go away. And then?