Why a Honda NASCAR Cup move would make perfect sense

NASCAR’s plan to revise its technical ethos and think about its long-term future has opened up the prospect of a fourth manufacturer. Could it be Honda that steps forward?

In recent years, the topic of who the next manufacturer is in NASCAR could be answered by the question: When is Dodge coming back?

But NASCAR is now edging towards its Gen7 platform for 2021, which opens the door for a manufacturer to jump in at the ground floor of what promises to be a lower-cost and more attractive version of America’s most popular racing series.

NASCAR would like to double the number of manufacturers involved, and Honda joining Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota would make a lot of sense. It’s also an idea not without foundation.

Adam Stern, a highly respected motorsport reporter for Sports Business Journal, reported that a group of high-powered NASCAR executives – including president Steve Phelps and executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell – spent time in the Honda Racing hauler at the Indianapolis 500.

At the same event, Honda higher-ups from Japan were present and sat next to Autosport for the start of the race. Coincidence that they were in town at the same time as the NASCAR folks? Perhaps.

Then there is the fact that NASCAR has been courting manufacturers outside of its trinity of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota and that the trio of brands has been asked to be more accommodating to ‘outsiders’.

Autosport spoke to a marketing chief of a current NASCAR manufacturer earlier this year, and posed the question: “If you had to bet which manufacturer would be most likely to join NASCAR for Gen-7, which would it be?” His reply, without hesitation, was Honda.

NASCAR’s leadership change will also play a part in luring more manufacturers and Jim France’s record of attracting manufacturers to the IMSA SportsCar Championship – including Honda’s performance and luxury brand Acura – could be crucial.

But equally important is where NASCAR sets its stall for the future. On the table is the powertrain, which is the number one area of competition between the manufacturers. As Brad Keselowski very eloquently outlined this time last year, stakeholders are very keen on hybrids being introduced to NASCAR soon, to ensure ‘road relevancy’.

Speaking recently, NASCAR’s Phelps said the new engine’s introduction will likely come down to whether its current manufacturers would prefer 2022 or ’23.

“We do have some time and I think with the existing OEMs and the opportunity to bring in new OEMs with the new engine, they are all aligned with finding some electrification to that engine,” he said. “What the rest of it looks like, we have some time to develop.”

Open development of a homologated, road-based, 500bhp-plus engine with a KERS hybrid system would be a night-and-day change for a ‘new’ manufacturer, otherwise faced with building 300 or so technically-outdated motors every year, each fitted with F1-standard, $30,000-a-go valvetrains. The plan is for the number of engines required to be slashed significantly, taking out a huge part of the costs of competition.

All of the above suggests a logical entry point for Honda within the next few years. NASCAR’s timeline is to introduce Gen7 for 2021 and then address the powertrain a year or two later. So the lure for a manufacturer right now is to have a say, sign up, join and influence the powertrain while ensuring the current manufacturers are aligned.

And on the powertrain subject, Autosport spoke to NASCAR’s senior vice president of innovation and racing development John Probst earlier this year, who said: “Our OEMs want to compete using their engine technology.

“I think from the Cup standpoint for us it would probably make more sense to look at topologies that include probably a combustion engine of some sort in that 500bhp-ish range, but then also use hybridisation, which is now a pretty big topic for OEMs and the population as a whole, so we could see some form of added or incremental horsepower provided to the main powerplant through some electrification.

“But we’re early with that discussion. That is on the radar for sure.”

This ties in well with Honda’s road car business. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are all highly active in this segment – with Toyota owning the lion’s share of the market.

Chevrolet and Ford have been rumoured to be considering adding hybrid power in the future to the respective Camaro and Mustang models they showcase in NASCAR.

Honda’s Accord hybrid is aimed squarely at Toyota’s similar Camry, which also just happens to be its Cup model of choice.

Manufacturer interest in NASCAR could explode in the long term. But the key could be NASCAR sealing a deal with Honda to open the floodgates.

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