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Friday 5: Chevrolet’s struggles harken back to 1982

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Ten races into the Cup season, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s debut is starting to reach historic proportions.

Not since 1982 — before Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon were born — has Chevrolet failed to lead a lap in three races in the same season. It’s already happened this year. No Chevrolet paced the field at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Richmond.

Only 11 times in the 656 Cup races run since the beginning of the 2000 season has Chevrolet failed to lead at least a lap in a race.

A couple of other races nearly joined that list this season. Chevy teams led three of 200 laps at Auto Club Speedway and five of 334 laps at Texas Motor Speedway.

That Chevrolet didn’t lead a lap at Las Vegas and struggled to do so at Auto Club and Texas — tracks where aero plays a key role — is a concern.

The Camaro’s woes, though, are not surprising. There can be teething problems when working with a new car. Look back to last season when Toyota ran a new Camry body. Toyota won one of the first 10 races (same as Chevrolet this season with that victory by Dillon in the Daytona 500).

In the first 10 races of last season, Toyota teams won one race, had eight top-five finishes and 23 top 10s.

In the first 10 races this season, Chevrolet teams have won one race, had 12 top-five finishes and 28 top 10s.

Keep in mind that there are more Chevy teams than Toyota teams, so Chevy teams should have better numbers.

Take out the two restrictor-plate races, the Daytona 500 and the spring Talladega race, this year and last year and the numbers are closer between the models.

Toyota had one win, seven top-five finishes and 21 top 10s in the first eight non-plate races last year

Chevrolet has no wins, eight top-five finishes and 20 top 10s in those same events this year.

This doesn’t guarantee that Chevrolet will continue to struggle. Toyota won two of the first 17 races last year — both by Martin Truex Jr. — before winning 14 of the final 19 races.

One difference is that NASCAR employs the Optical Scanning Station this season to tech cars. The station has been credited with helping Ford, which has the oldest body among the manufacturers, remain competitive because of how closely the station can scan a car. More rigorous inspections can keep cars even. Of course, that also could make it more difficult for Chevrolet teams to find the speed in their cars to be more competitive.

The two Chevy drivers who have shown the most promise this season are Larson and Elliott.

Larson has been the top-finishing Chevy driver in four races and Elliott has held that honor three times.

Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 and scored an eighth-place finish at Texas. He noted this week that his team has more work to do with refining his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

“We need more raw speed out of our car,’’ he said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.

“We’re finding some things, for sure. We look back at Richmond. We weren’t really a big factor, but our car drove really good. So, we’re still trying to figure out where we were so far off, but we had the handling down to a T. I felt like we were the best car there handling-wise but speed-wise we were one of the slowest.’’

Said Dillon on Friday at Dover: “We’ve been decent all year long, we haven’t had the speed and there are reasons for the speed not being there. As far as Chevy as a whole right now, we’re working to find the speed.’’

Here’s a look at the Cup races since 2000 where Chevrolet did not lead a lap in the event:

April 21, 2018 — Richmond

March 26, 2018 — Martinsville

March 4, 2018 — Las Vegas

July 24, 2016 — Indianapolis

Sept. 12, 2015 — Richmond

August 22, 2015 — Bristol

June 28, 2014 — Kentucky

October 20, 2002 — Martinsville

October 28, 2001 — Phoenix

August 19, 2001 — Michigan

September 17, 2000 — New Hampshire

2. Learning the way

Paul Menard, in his first season with the Wood Brothers, scored the team’s first stage win of the season last weekend at Talladega.

The Wood Brothers are aligned with Team Penske, so that means Menard takes part in competition meetings with Penske drivers Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and their teams.

“We’re all very different people and we have different perspectives, which is interesting,’’ Menard said. “The way that Brad breaks down his car is much different than Joey and much different than Ryan.’’

Menard compares his time with the Wood Brothers with his early time at Richard Childress Racing.

“When I first went there, we had some really fast cars and then we got off,’’ said Menard, who drove for RCR from 2011-17. “So in the last couple of years, every week was trying to dig out of a hole basically. This year there’s really no hole to dig out of, kind of have a proven package and more fine-tuning than swinging for the fences.’’

3. Father vs. son

Today’s Camping World Truck Series race at Dover will pit David Gilliland against his son Todd in a race for only the second time.

The only other time they ran against each other was in July 2014 in a Super Late Model race at Irwindale Speedway. Also in that race was David’s father (Todd’s grandfather) Butch to make it a three-generation race.

David Gilliland said Thursday he’s excited about today’s race.

“I’ve got into a lot of races in my career,’’ David Gilliland said. “I’ve looked forward to a lot of them and nothing’s been like this.’’

Said Todd: “It’s cool. We’re hoping to beat each other, but also you just kind of focus on the real race out there. It’s going to be good.’’

4. A different driver each race

The Xfinity Series has had a different winner in each of the first nine races of the season.

Should there be a 10th different winner Saturday at Dover, it would tie the 1987 season for the second longest streak of different winners to open a season. The record for most different winners to start a season is 13 in 1988.

The winners this year have been: Tyler Reddick (Daytona), Kevin Harvick (Atlanta), Kyle Larson (Las Vegas), Brad Keselowski (Phoenix), Joey Logano (Auto Club), Ryan Blaney (Texas), Ryan Preece (Bristol), Christopher Bell (Richmond) and Spencer Gallagher (Talladega).

5. Soon …

A week from today Matt Kenseth will be back in a Cup car. He makes his return in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 at Kansas Speedway in place of Trevor Bayne. Kenseth’s schedule hasn’t been released yet, but he will run at Kansas and the following week in the Monster Energy All-Star Race.

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NASCAR video: Martin Truex Jr. takes a lap around Daytona

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Martin Truex Jr. borrows Jeff Burton‘s NASCAR On NBC Toyota Camry to take us on a ride around the Daytona International Speedway and provide some insight ahead of tonight’s Coke Zero 400.

Denny Hamlin says contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing is done

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DETROIT — Denny Hamlin said Monday his contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing is essentially done and just awaiting an official release by his team and sponsor.

“It’s just whenever they want to announce something,” Hamlin told NBC Sports after helping Toyota Racing Development unveil a redesigned Camry model that will make its debut with the 2017 season.

“It’s probably a better question for Gibbs and (sponsor) FedEx, but I think they’ll release something when they’re ready.”

Multiple sources familiar with the deal said the sides had agreed to terms. The sources requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Hamlin, 36, is entering the final season of a four-year extension that he signed in June 2012 (while he still had more than a year left on his current deal).

The defending Daytona 500 winner has 29 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories with JGR since moving full time to the premier circuit in 2006.

He finished sixth in last year’s standings, the 10th time in 11 seasons that he has qualified for the playoffs (he missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2013 because of a four-race absence for a fractured back).

“Everything seems to be good,” Hamlin said. “I love where I’m at. Love my sponsor. Love my manufacturer. I don’t see any of that changing.”

Toyota unveils new Camry for NASCAR

Michael L. Levitt
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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.

Preview New Hampshire Motor Speedway from inside the car (VIDEO)

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Race two of NASCAR’s championship chase heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Jeff Burton hops in the NBCSN Toyota Camry to preview what drivers will face on the track.