Michael L. Levitt

Toyota unveils new Camry for NASCAR

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DETROIT – The “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” mantra won’t hold true immediately with Toyota’s latest entry in NASCAR.

Oh, the redesigned Camry – with a distinctive front end and aggressive stylings for a typically conservative automaker – might have its sales numbers goosed by strong results on the track.

But if a Toyota takes the checkered flag next month at Daytona International Speedway, it’ll be several months before fans can invest their loyalty in their showroom.

That’s because it’ll be a 2018 Camry that will be competing in the 2017 Daytona 500.

22-23 November, 2016, Anaheim, California, USA ©2016, Michael L. Levitt
A look at the 2018 Toyota Camry and the Camry model that will be run in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season. Photo: 
©2016, Michael L. Levitt

In a Monday afternoon announcement at the North American International Auto Show (where more than 5,000 journalists were credentialed for this week’s event), Toyota revealed an overhauled Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race car in conjunction with the unveil of its production counterpart that will make a debut in late summer.

Ed Laukes, vice president of integrated marketing for Toyota Motor Sales, said the car’s design was the impetus for the unprecedented move of bringing it to track ahead of market (it likely will be available to the public in August).

“As soon as they unveiled the drawings (of the 2018 car) to us, we looked and said, ‘This is such a radical design, that we really need to figure out a way to get it on the racetrack as soon as possible,’ ” Laukes said. “Rather than wait until the year after it went on sale.”

Camry chief designer Masato Katsumata was involved in helping approve the race car design along with engineers from Calty Design Research, Inc. (Toyota’s North American design studio) and Toyota Racing Development. Calty (Newport Beach) and TRD (Costa Mesa) are headquartered in neighboring cities in Southern California.

The development of the 2018 model started two years ago as TRD rolled out an update of the Gen 6 Camry that made its debut in 2013 and won 16 of 36 Cup points races last year.

David Wilson, TRD president and general manager, said the new Camry was tested last June with NASCAR and representatives of Ford and General Motors, but Monday’s announcement mostly had been kept under wraps during the building process.

To preserve the secrecy of the project, Toyota had its NASCAR team members sign non-disclosure agreements. Last September, Joe Gibbs Racing installed new windows in its fan viewing area to obscure the work done with the new car on the shop floor of its Huntersville, N.C., headquarters.

Wilson said Toyota involved its teams more heavily in the car’s aerodynamic development.

“We had them work with us side by side as we’re designing this because they’ve got very, very smart aerodynamicists,” Wilson said. “So the intent is to hit the ground running at Daytona with being further along than the past two generations” of the Gen 6 car.

22-23 November, 2016, Anaheim, California, USA ©2016, Michael L. Levitt
The new Toyota Camry that will be run this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Photo:
©2016, Michael L. Levitt

Wilson said NASCAR sets limits on the advances made with increasing downforce while lowering drag but “every time a manufacturer has a shot at building a new car and evolving a new car, you try to work closer and closer to the corner of the lowest drag and highest downforce.”

Said Laukes: “Everyone operates within the box on downforce and drag, and as long as you’re operating in that box, it passes the test. So there are always minor tweaks that everyone is doing as far as sheet metal, but it’s still going to operate within that NASCAR-approved box of downforce and drag. I think we’re always looking to try to make things better, but you can’t get radical, because then you’re outside the rules.”

The Camry will make its competitive debut Feb. 18 in The Clash at Daytona exhibition race. There will be no preseason testing at the track for the new model, but Wilson said the high fidelity of computer simulations would mitigate the lack of real-world experience.

“The tools that each of us have available now, you know what (the car) should do,” Wilson said. “There’s a tangible ‘We want to get it on the track’ feeling, but it’s not necessary.”

Laukes said the next step for Toyota in NASCAR car development would be a new model for the Xfinity Series. While Ford (Mustang) and Chevrolet (Camaro) use different models in the second-tier circuit than in Cup, Toyota campaigns a Camry.

“The current Xfinity car will live on at least a year, probably two within Xfinity,” Laukes said. “Then we’ll redesign or talk about some other future model to unveil in that time.”

The Camry has been the No. 1-selling vehicle in the country for 15 consecutive years (more than 400,000 sold last year), but Laukes said consumers overwhelmingly are moving toward trucks and SUVs away from mid- and luxury sedans.

“Things like this hopefully will stop the bleeding of people making that transition from a four-door sedan to an SUV,” Laukes said.

It’s the second straight year that a manufacturer has introduced an update to its Cup Series model. Ford updated its Fusion model last year.

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.