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NASCAR Cup Series

Sonoma Momentum Puts Elliott Closer to Victory

The focus placed on Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet through the first 16 races of 2018 has centered around their struggles.

The manufacturer’s lone victory came with Austin Dillon in the DAYTONA 500 as they continue to show growing pains associated with the new Chevrolet Camaro body style in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

However, Chase Elliott’s season, especially over the past two months, tells a different story.

A fourth-place finish Sunday at Sonoma Raceway was Elliott’s fifth top-10 in the last eight races.

While he hasn’t yet competed for victories like he did at the conclusion of 2017, the month of June marked significant progress in the right direction.

He captured three top-10 finishes, marking the longest streak of the season for the No. 9 team as they head to Elliott’s strongest track, Chicagoland Speedway.

In two starts, the 22-year-old has never finished worse than third and led multiple laps in each race.

While his second-place finish was ruled encumbered after last September’s playoff opener, the performance mirrored his run as a rookie and showed his skill at the 1.5-mile track.

It’s a place where he excelled in the NASCAR Xfinity Series as well, scoring a victory in his first career start at the speedway in July 2014 behind the wheel for JR Motorsports.

A strong showing in Sunday’s Overton’s 400 would be extremely timely for Elliott and Chevrolet as a whole.

Mirroring Toyota’s performance from the second half of 2017 is an attainable goal for Chevrolet teams. Toyota struggled for the first half of the year with their new Camry body before dominating beginning in July and going onto capture the championship with Martin Truex Jr.

A turnaround must be mounted now for Chevrolet to see a similar scenario unfold and emerge as a weekly threat. 

While Sonoma’s road course layout doesn’t allow for an accurate performance measurement, it can demonstrate momentum and Hendrick Motorsports is gaining it heading into the summer stretch.

Placing Elliott, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson in the top-11 in Northern California marked much-improved results for the organization.

Now Elliott can continue to lead the HMS climb with another impressive outing at Chicagoland.

He has been on the cusp of his first win for years now but his best opportunity may present itself on Sunday and could put HMS and Chevrolet in a position for a second-half resurgence.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Camaro ZL1 Ups the Ante in Ford-Chevy NASCAR Wars

Rivalries are the lifeblood of all sports, and the more heated, the more passionate, the angrier, the better.

Think Duke-North Carolina.

Think Dodgers-Giants.

Think Alabama-Auburn.

Think Cowboys-Redskins.

These fans loathe each other. It isn’t just dislike, it’s I’d-disown-my-own-kid-if-they-married-one-of-those-fans rage. And all that bile and all that disgust and all that hatred is a beautiful thing, because it engages fans and gets them fired up.

Now, think about the long history of NASCAR and some of the rivalries we’ve seen over the years. There have been some titanic rivalries over the years in stock-car racing.

Petty vs. Pearson.

Waltrip vs. Yarborough.

Earnhardt vs. Gordon.

Bobby Allison vs. the world.

But I would humbly submit that the most intense rivalry in the entire history of NASCAR is Chevrolet fans vs. Ford fans. The Bowtie Brigade and the Blue Oval Boys despise each other with rage and passion. They own t-shirts with cartoon characters peeing on each other’s cars.

And within that group exists a subset who might be even more fired up: owners of Ford Mustangs vs. owners of Chevrolet Camaros. If you don’t believe me, try reading Camaro6 or Mustang6g and check out the ill will each side has towards the other. It’s ugly and it’s personal.

I mention this now, because on Thursday, Chevrolet dropped a huge bombshell: Next year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Chevrolet will race the Camaro ZL1.

The production ZL1 is a weapons-grade supercar, producing 650 horsepower, with o-60 miles per hour acceleration of 3.5 seconds, and a quarter-mile taking just 11.4 seconds. This is a seriously bad-ass muscle car that along with the Corvette represents that best Chevrolet has to offer in terms of technology and performance.

And the Cup version Chevy unveiled Thursday is just stunning. It looks fast sitting still.

As for Ford, well, in the Cup series, they race the Fusion, a sensible, practical, four-door, front-wheel drive car that’s available as a hybrid.

Doesn’t seem like a very good matchup, does it?

On the other hand, Ford does have its own ZL1 fighter, based on the Mustang. It’s called the Shelby GT350 and is a tremendous high-performance car — fast, agile and sexy as hell.

You get where I’m going with this, right?

If you want fans to be fired up about Ford vs. Chevy in NASCAR, the battle ought to be ZL1 vs. Shelby GT350, not ZL1 vs. Fusion. It would be a home run for NASCAR to have these two high-performance halo cars battling each other and Toyota on track every week.

Will it happen?

I asked a buddy at Ford Thursday night and the response I got was “As of now we’re sticking with Fusion.”

As of now.

My fervent hope is that by 2019, it’s Shelby GT350 vs. Camaro ZL1.

That’s a rivalry NASCAR fans could get real, real excited about. It would be good for the fans, good for NASCAR, good for Ford and good for Chevrolet.

And boy, would it be fun.

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Categories
Commentary

Chevrolet Struggling at Critical Point of Season

The constant fight for supremacy among manufacturers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series proves to be one of the most compelling battles each season.

Chevrolet and Ford seemed to hold an advantage over Toyota when it came to the results column earlier this year. However, the tides have turned as the Playoffs approach.

For the second consecutive race, Chevrolet only placed one car in the top-10 with A.J. Allmendinger finishing ninth in Sunday’s I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at Watkins Glen International.

Now Chevrolet is searching for the speed that Toyota has.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s struggles to begin the season were well documented while Furniture Row Racing’s two car stable showed consistent speed.

Both organizations are now dominating and for the second straight weekend, all six cars placed in the top-10 at Watkins Glen in addition to capturing the top-four positions.

Toyota’s rise highlights concern for Chevrolet. While the manufacturer already has five cars in the post-season with wins, it will take an improved level of performance to compete for back-to-back championships.

Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson carried the banner through the first half of 2017, winning a combined five races and contesting Toyota’s top car of Martin Truex Jr. on a weekly basis.

However, both Larson and Johnson performed poorly in recent months.

In the seven races since Larson’s victory at Michigan in June, he has posted five finishes outside the top-20.

The decline has been worse for Johnson. Following his win at Dover, his best finish has been 10th at Michigan and New Hampshire, and he has placed outside the top-25 five times in nine races.

Both competitors showed championship promise early in the year, but now it will take a significant turnaround to climb back into contention.

With four events remaining before Chicagoland, Chevrolet has time to improve. Michigan and Bristol will be very telling on where the manufacturer stands as bowtie drivers won both spring races.

Showcasing strength will instill confidence heading into the post-season but continuing to struggle over the next month could mean an early exit to the Playoffs.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chevy Drivers Fall Just Short of Fuel in Closing Laps at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Many fans and members of the media pegged Ford and Toyota as the top manufacturers this week considering the recent successes of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing at Daytona International Speedway, but Chevrolet was in the mix for the win as the white flag waved on Sunday night, too.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson led the field with one lap to go. He put himself in position and flexed the horsepower of his Chevy when he slingshotted around eventual race winner Kurt Busch to move from fourth to third in the closing laps.

At the same time, Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott was in the lead. But Martin Truex Jr. put a move on the Hendrick Motorsports driver with three laps remaining to take the lead temporarily before Larson overtook him.

“I knew Kurt would be aggressive, so I knew I needed to get by him first,” Larson said. “I got by him, and Chase Elliott ran out of fuel on the next straightaway and then we were coming to the white [flag] next time by.”

Elliott led 39 laps, but he has still yet to get that elusive first Cup victory.

“It was a disappointing finish to a good day,” Elliott said. “Just one of those things you can’t do anything about. I’m happy with how the team performed, and we are going to learn from it. We’re looking forward to getting back at it in Atlanta.”

His HMS teammate Kasey Kahne also had a strong showing by leading seven laps after leading none in 2016, but the 14-year veteran also ran out of fuel.

“I thought it was a great Daytona 500,” Kahne told POPULAR SPEED. “I kind of gave Kurt his push to the lead, and my car ran out of gas, so I didn’t get to see what happened. But I like the stages — I think it’s going to be a great part of NASCAR for a while.”

Although HMS had a disappointing day with Elliott and Kahne’s 14th and seventh-place results respectively and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting Did Not Finishes, it’s still a championship caliber organization for the Chevy staple. As for Ganassi, Larson and Jamie McMurray can hold their heads high after both made the playoffs in 2016 and led a combined 29 of 200 laps on Sunday.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
News

Gordon to Pace Daytona 500

It was announced Friday afternoon four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Jeff Gordon, will serve as the pace car driver for the 59th running of the Great American Race behind the wheel of the new 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

“To me, you go down the list of prestigious things I have done, this is right at the top of the list,” Gordon said. “This is truly an honor to be asked to drive the pace car for the Daytona 500.”

A winner 93 times at the Cup level, Gordon won every race in a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, so it’s only natural he will drive a Chevrolet at the front of the field Sunday afternoon.

He was a Daytona 500 victor three times, with wins coming in 1997, 1999, and 2005.

“Driving for Hendrick Motorsports for 23 years as a driver, to be able to lead this field in a Chevrolet Camaro but also have two Chevrolets in my rearview mirror, that makes it even more special,” he said.

One of those cars will be his old ride, the No. 24 now driven by Chase Elliott, and the other will be the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whom Gordon subbed for last season for a handful of races while Earnhardt dealt with lingering concussion symptoms.

After he steps out of the pace car, he will head up to the FOX broadcast booth to resume his broadcasting duties with Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.

The Daytona 500 can be seen on FOX Sunday at 2 P.M. ET.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Loyalty Only Goes So Far, and Other Manufacture Musings

The 2017 NASCAR season is almost officially underway, and with the new season comes a lot of changes.

Perhaps the biggest change is the manufacturer switch Stewart-Haas Racing made from Chevrolet to Ford in the off-season. For many diehard fans, it will take some getting used to seeing a team which had run Chevrolets change over to Fords.

In what came as a shock when it was announced that Stewart-Haas Racing would be leaving Chevrolet, it shows the role manufacturers play in gaining the slightest competitive edge.

Loyalty only goes so far.

It’s easy to be loyal when things are going well, and the results are showing on the racetrack. But as soon as there is an opportunity to gain an edge under a different banner with a different badge on the front of the car, teams and drivers are hard-pressed to look away.

Just because things have been one way for so long, does not mean they are not subject to change. In recent years, it has been uncommon, though not unheard of to make a manufacturer switch.

Joe Gibbs Racing left Chevrolet after 2007 to head up Toyota’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series efforts 2008. Since the switch, they have garnered one championship with Kyle Busch in 2015.

Team Penske won the Cup title in 2012 with Brad Keselowski in a Dodge, in what was the last year of a Dodge team at the Cup level before they hopped over to Ford beginning in 2013. Team Penske is yet to win a title since making their manufacturer change.

Furniture Row Racing switched from Chevrolet to Toyota beginning in 2016 with Martin Truex Jr., who is now joined by Erik Jones. Since switching to Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has forged a close working relationship with Toyota stablemates, Joe Gibbs Racing, and are now frontrunners nearly every week, though they have yet to win a title.

As much as fans wish their favorite driver would stick to one manufacturer for the duration of their career, it hardly ever happens. In fact, it’s a rarity when a driver remains with one brand.
Even the biggest stars of NASCAR, past and present, who have been linked to one manufacturer, drove for different manufacturers at different points in their respective careers.

Dale Earnhardt’s name is synonymous with Chevrolet, yet he began his career in a Dodge Charger. He even ran two seasons in a Ford Thunderbird in the early ‘80s.

Richard Petty had a majority of his success under the Mopar banner, driving Plymouths and Dodges, but even he was not loyal to one brand his entire career. In fact, like Dale Earnhardt, he raced for all of Michigan’s Big Three automakers. After beginning his career running Mopars, he switched to Ford in 1969, but later he ran for General Motors in a Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, and retired in a Pontiac.

Tony Stewart’s career began in a Pontiac and then Chevrolet when the Pontiac division of General Motors disbanded. In 2008, he ran his lone season in a Toyota before he formed Stewart-Haas Racing running Chevrolets, and now though he is out of the driver’s seat, his team will pilot Fords.

Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth both left Fords at Roush Fenway Racing for the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Among the short list of active drivers who have remained steadfast to one manufacturer are Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who have run their entire Cup careers in Chevrolets. The now-retired Jeff Gordon ran a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in every Cup start he made – but it’s worth noting he ran a Ford in the XFINITY Series prior before joining Hendrick Motorsports at the Cup level.

Hendrick Motorsports has remained faithful to the Chevrolet brand, while Roush Fenway Racing has been with Ford since their inception in 1988. Wood Brothers Racing has had a strong partnership with Ford Motorcraft and have only housed Fords and for a time, Mercury, which falls under the Ford umbrella.

As for Dodge, which NASCAR has been without since 2013, there is hope.

Dodge has been on the record as wanting to throw their hat back into the ring. If Dodge were to rejoin the fray, all three of America’s Big Three automakers would be back on the track, which is exciting to a lot of the sport’s core fans.

Ray Evernham, who helped usher in Dodge’s return to NASCAR in 2001, has been vocal about a potential return to the sport, stating, “Dodge has a long history in the sport and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to be able to come back and add to that history. I’m hoping it happens.”

As a fan, do you still care who drives what car and manufacturer, or are those days long gone? Let the staff at POPULAR SPEED know your opinion by tweeting @POPULARSPEED. We would love to hear from you and continue the conversation.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.