DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Toyota dominated NASCAR’s top series the last three years, winning nearly half the races and two championships. It forced Chevrolet and Ford to play catch-up.
Chevy was fastest in its bid to close the gap by building a new Camaro, which is making its debut at Daytona International Speedway. Ford is expected to be next with a new body, a plan team owner Roger Penske revealed is on schedule for 2019.
Assuming that happens, all three car brands will have unveiled new rides in back-to-back-to-back years.
It’s Car Wars in NASCAR, where manufacturers are constantly making changes to not only keep up with each other but in hopes of finding an aerodynamics advantage in the ultra-competitive racing world where thousandths of a second matter.
“We’re in a pressure sport, I can tell you that,” said Jim Campbell, vice president of Chevrolet’s performance vehicles and motorsports. “We definitely understand that piece of it.”
The Camaro already made a splash during Speedweeks, landing the pole for the Daytona 500 when Alex Bowman put the No. 88 on the front row. The new Camaro also won a qualifying race with Chase Elliott, Bowman’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
It had to be a relief after 2017. Chevy won 10 races, but none in the final 10 weeks of the season, and didn’t advance any drivers into the championship event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The bowtie brand also lost the manufacturers’ championship for the second consecutive year, which hadn’t happened since 2000.
Even though Jimmie Johnson surprisingly won the Cup Series title in 2016 for Chevrolet, the performance of the Chevy SS — on and off the track — was far from ideal.
Sales of the rear-wheel-drive V8 sport sedan were downright awful. In 2014, the manufacturer sold a measly 2,479 of them in the United States. Sales of the $50,000 performance sedan picked up in recent years, but topped out at 4,055 in 2017.
So the Camaro became the obvious replacement.
“This is our first opportunity to refresh and come with a new model,” Campbell said. “You can’t do it at will.”
Ford updated its Fusion in 2016. Toyota tweaked its Camry in 2013, 2015 and again last year. Now it’s Chevy’s turn.
“This one was really important to us, No. 1, to make sure we connect the track and the showroom together,” Campbell said. “We want authenticity: fuel-injected V8, rear-wheel drive configuration, manual transmission. That’s how you buy it in the showroom; that’s how you race it on the track. … We selected the Camaro because we could stay with that authenticity.”
Ultimately, the car’s success will be determined by its results on the track.
Although Daytona is the debut site, the bigger tests will come in the next few weeks at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
“I feel like here it’s hard to identify where the Camaro shines because of the ride-height rule, all that goes with that,” Johnson said. “I think Atlanta will be the start of that. … Kind of Atlanta into Phoenix, I think we’ll have a better idea.”
Ford will have to wait a year.
“We’ve got to race all year,” Penske said. “We’ll have a new body next year. I think one thing that’s going to be different is that this (NASCAR laser) system is going to be sure that all the cars are on the same platform, and I think that’s going to bring us closer together. … I think that’ll certainly help us if we have any disadvantage. But I’m not going in crying the blues for sure.”
Toyota won eight of the final 10 races in 2017, including the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.
Chevy watched and waited, believing its Camaro would make a difference in 2018.
“This is a big deal,” Campbell said. “We’re in a performance sport. Thirty-nine manufacturers’ championships, over 30 drivers’ championships. Last year was one year.”