NASCAR & Auto Racing

Chevy Camaro muscles back into NASCAR lineup

Though he won’t be the only one behind the wheel at Hendrick Motorsports, there is perhaps no marriage made more in heaven like NASCAR’s upwardly mobile megastar Chase Elliott and the iconic Chevrolet Camaro.

And everybody on the planet is certain this tying of the knot will fare far better than the true love stories of Brangelina, Khloe and Lamar, and Madonna and Sean Penn and Dennis Rodman and Alex Rodriguez, ad infinitum.

As NASCAR’s top competitive level moves through a period of transition, with its top personalities in recent years having walked off the stage for retirement, the series on Tuesday re-introduced a chariot with as much vim, vigor and sex appeal as any driver on the circuit.

During testing of Goodyear Tires at Texas Motor Speedway, Elliott gave the Camaro ZL1 its on-track debut. To the shelves is the Chevy SS, which registered 71 victories since 2013 but is going out of production.

The Camaro ZL1 will make its competitive debut at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Its competitive Texas debut is set for April 8 at the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 Cup Series race at TMS.

Testing continues on Wednesday and is open and free to the public.

“For Chevrolet to be connected with Chase Elliott and Chase to be connected with Chevy, that’s just a great fit for everybody,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “It’s a perfect alignment of the stars.”

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson will also be behind the wheel of a Camaro in Hendrick’s reconfigured lineup, which, in addition to Elliott, will include William Byron and Alex Bowman, who will drive the No. 88, formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride.

For Elliott, the car is not the only change. He has changed numbers, from 24 to his preferred No. 9, the number of the car his father, Bill Elliott, drove and the number Elliott used in the Xfinity Series.

Camaro has a little history in NASCAR.

The Camaro SS has been Chevy’s entry in the Xfinity Series since 2013. In 1971, Tiny Lund won two Grand National races, then NASCAR’s top series. In order to fill out smaller fields, the circuit allowed Grand American Series cars to compete cars on NASCAR’s top level.

Camaro ran against the Ford Mustang in the Grand American Series from 1968-1971. With Camaro’s re-introduction, speculation is stirring of Ford’s muscle-car brand moving into NASCAR’s top rung.

The Camaro has also been featured as the pace car at races in Daytona, Watkins Glen, and Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as a number of Indianapolis 500s.

Chevrolet’s priority is all business. Executives hope there is a boost in sales of the car with exposure on the track.

The street model of the current generation of Camaro closely resembles NASCAR’s competitive car shell.

“The car looks great,” Elliott said. “From a manufacturer’s and public-eye standpoint, I don’t know how you could not identify the Camaro with the Camaro on the street. It looks the same. I think that’s something to be very proud of from Chevrolet, the work they did on that … it’s the same car.”

What kind of adjustment the 22-year-old Elliott, a Chase for the Cup qualifier last season, will need to make, he couldn’t tell at this point. More time in the car and in competitive environments will be required, he said.

To NASCAR execs, Tuesday was historic for all the right reasons.

“The car does have a personality. It’s sexy,” Gossage said. “I’ve always thought certain cars are sexier. Camaro has always been one of my favorites. I think the fans can identify with it. It’s going to help us.”

Six-shooter tradition will continue

TMS president Eddie Gossage said the track’s tradition of race winners firing off six shooters in Victory Lane will continue in April.

Gossage called off the tradition at the November race out of respect for 26 people killed in a mass shooting near San Antonio. The mass shooting occurred on the same day as the AAA Texas 500.

“I just thought ‘this isn’t the thing to do today,’ ” Gossage said. “It was too close to us. If it had happened in, fill in the blank, whatever state miles and miles and miles away, I wouldn’t have thought like that. But it happened in our own backyard, more or less, in San Antonio.

“The six-shooters are not any kind of political statement or anything like that. They’re just a silly stereotypical Texas cowboy celebration. That’s all they are. A lot of different colleges and universities shoot guns or cannons or things like that at the kickoff or when they score a touchdown. And that’s all that is.

“I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea, but you have an agenda if you’re trying to connect the dots between shooting blanks in the air and going ‘woo, hoo,’ and to some social comment on gun control and gun rights. That’s just silly.”

Danica who?

Aric Almirola finds himself in a new race environment, taking over for one-time racing sweetheart Danica Patrick in Stewart-Haas’ No. 10 Ford.

Though Patrick never found success in the Cup series, she was a wonder woman of commercial appeal.

Asked if he felt any awkwardness or pressure filling those shoes, his short answer was no. But NASCAR drivers rarely give short answers.

“I haven’t thought much about it, to be honest,” Almirola said. “There is always change, right? Whether it’s Dale Jr. retiring and someone else getting in his car, or Jeff Gordon … there’s always change. That’s something about life. The only constant is change.

“When I get in the car, all I see is a windshield and 39 other drivers that I want to beat.”

Almirola, 33, then recalled one other important detail.

“I drove the sport’s most iconic car for the last six years,” Almirola said of Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43, the digits of “The King” himself. “There’s been more pressure driving that Petty 43 car than I’ll ever had driving a black and white 10 car.”

Cup champion’s life gets busy

Predictably, Martin Truex’s life has changed a bit since winning NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup in November.

“I’ve had a lot less days off,” said Truex, driver of Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 Toyota Camry. “It’s been a lot less of an off-season than I anticipated. We’ve been really busy, but it’s been a lot of fun as well.”

Truex, the frontrunner all season, won his first Cup title by winning the Ford EcoBoost 500 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I feel the same now as I did the first time I got in the car last year,” Truex said. “We’re all at zero points again. The goal remains the same. I’m definitely optimistic and feel like we’re in a good place.”

Who is that guy?

Second-generation driver Ryan Blaney walked into the media center at TMS looking as if he had taken a jog with Forrest Gump. The driver of Penske Racing’s No. 12 Ford, a Round-of-8 qualifier in last season’s NASCAR playoffs, has grown an epic mustache and hasn’t cut his hair since no-telling when.

“I thought it looked good,” the 24-year-old said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “I went on a cruise and I had a mustache for the cruise, and I decided to keep it … and for this test too.

“It’ll all get cleaned up Friday. I have an appointment to shave this and cut my hair off. Start looking like a professional and not a homeless person.”

With 14 top-10 finishes a year ago, two poles, and a first-career victory, he has enough money for both a razor and roof over his head.

On Wednesday, Blaney will join fans in the grandstand for a pizza lunch. He’ll also take the obligatory selfies and sign autographs.

“I think it’s cool fans come out for test sessions. They go out of their way during the week when most are working – whether they take off work or call in sick or whatever – and come watch us for a couple hours.

“That’s really cool. So I said I was going to go up and meet some folks and show some appreciation. And Eddie [Gossage] told me there was going to be some pizza there, so that’s good … works out for everybody.”

Georgia on his mind

Elliott, a Georgia native, was wearing his heart on his head. That is, a Georgia Bulldogs cap.

The driver of Hendricks’ No. 9 attended the College Football Playoff championship game, pitting the Bulldogs and Alabama, on Monday in Atlanta.

The result obviously wasn’t the one he wanted.

It’s all good, he said.

“As a longtime Georgia fan, I haven’t had a ton to cheer for since probably the early 2000s,” Elliott said. “You’re not always going to have your day. You stick with them long enough and trust in the process of what they’re doing, it makes you proud to be a fan when they do have their day. I believe they will some time.”

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