Chevrolet working hard to get back to NASCAR prominence

Chase Elliott has three of Chevy’s seven wins in the Cup series this season. 

It wasn’t long ago that Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship in a Chevrolet from Hendrick Motorsports. His victory in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November of 2016 delivered yet another Cup Series title, and to date his last.

Since then, the future Hall of Famer has only three victories in 107 starts, the last coming at Dover in June of 2017. What’s worse, he hasn’t reached the Championship 4 since 2016. Even worse still, he didn’t even make the 16-driver field for this year’s Playoffs, a once-unimaginable stumble and a first for him. In a perverse way, his recent woes mirror those of the Chevrolet nameplate itself.

For the third consecutive year Chevrolet doesn’t have a car among the Championship 4. Two Fords and two Toyotas advanced to the finale in 2017 and 2018, and this year’s lineup features three Toyotas and a Ford. Understandably, that stings Jim Campbell, director of Chevrolet’s racing programs.

“It always hurts when you don’t have anybody in the Championship 4,” Campbell said Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re a performance sport, so there are no excuses. We’ve got to do better and we expect to do better. Look at the history of Chevrolet racing: 39 manufacturer’s championships and 31 drivers’ championships. But that’s all history. We’re interested in the next chapter.

“We’re clearly focused on our Chevy teams, and our division is preparing. Obviously, we want to run a great race (Sunday) and obviously go for the win. It would be an individual win, not a championship win. Then we’ll focus on 2020, when we have some good things coming.”

Chevys have been backsliding since Johnson’s last title, winning only 21 times in those same 107 starts. That compares to 47 victories by Toyotas and 39 by Ford. After winning the NASCAR Manufacturers’ Championship 13 times between 2003-2015, Chevy yielded to Toyota in 2016 and 2017, then to Ford last year. (Toyota has already clinched this year’s title). This year’s scorecard (with one race remaining): Toyota 18 victories, Ford 10 and Chevrolet 7. Of those seven, Chase Elliott won three and Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and part-time Cup racer Justin Haley one each.

Chevy certainly isn’t going down, but the lack of competitiveness is troubling for a manufacturer that once ruled the sport.

Campbell offered several examples of what he and his people are doing to right the ship.

“We spend a lot of time on our competitiveness on the track,” he said. “We’ve had long‑term relationships with the big three teams. Fifty years with Richard Childress, 35-plus years with Rick Hendrick, 10-plus years with Ganassi. And a lot of the affiliates (Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty) have been with us for quite a while.

“We’ve had some amazing young drivers who turned into winning drivers who turned into championship drivers who then retired. We have a younger crew now. If you take Jimmie and Kurt Busch out of it, our average age is like 26-years-old. What’s exciting is that at one point, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the young guys. We’ve got the young guys now. (Among them: Elliott, Bowman, Byron and Bubba Wallace). It’s an amazing thing to watch how they’re progressing.

“Secondly, we switched from the SS to the Camaro ZL1, and we were hopeful we had done a great job. I think the car is actually like at the back half of the season. Six of the seven races we won were in the back half of the season, so I see improvement there. Next year we’re coming out with a ZL1 1LE, our highest performing production car. It has higher performance elements from aero to chassis, so we’ve incorporated those into the 2020 race car.”

But there is only so much a manufacturer can do. Chevy helps its primary teams with expert personnel (generally for aero help), parts and pieces, tools and helping with engine and aero processes. Campbell is pleased that his major teams – Hendrick, Childress/Petty and Ganassi – are working so well together, especially on the 2020 car.

“We send in people to work on specific projects that help all the teams,” he said. “Some live in the Charlotte area and some come in and stay for a while, working on something for as long as needed. In that regard, the amount of cooperation among our teams has us in a really good place. After all, we need each other.”    

Which made Saturday’s presser all the more difficult.

“To be up here (addressing the media) and not have a championship driver is painful,” Campbell acknowledged. “This is racing. If you have highs and lows, it’s all about how you respond. When you’re winning and vying for championships, you focus on how you keep the momentum going. When you’re not (winning), it’s all about digging in and getting back on the trajectory of success.”

As for the teams that qualified for the Playoffs, and how we’ve arrived at the Championship 4:

Based on regular-season victories and points, the 16-driver field included all four Toyotas from Joe Gibbs; three of the four Fords from Stewart-Haas; three Fords from Team Penske; one of two Fords from Roush Fenway; three Chevys from Hendrick; and two Chevys from Ganassi.

The Fords of Ryan Newman and Aric Almirola, the Chevy of Busch and the Toyota of Erik Jones were eliminated after the Round 1 set of races at Las Vegas, Richmond and Charlotte.

After Round 2 at Dover, Talladega and Kansas City, the Fords of Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer, and the Chevys of Bowman and Byron were eliminated from the championship field.

And after Round 3 – with races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix last weekend – the Chevys of Elliott and Larson, and the Fords of Ryan Blaney and defending champion Joey Logano were eliminated.

Left standing for the 267-lap, 400-mile race are Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in Toyotas, and Kevin Harvick in a Ford. Except for Hamlin in and Logano out, that’s the same Championship 4 as last year.

Regardless of where they finish on Sunday, this year’s champion will be the highest finisher from among that foursome. The odds favor a Toyota, but don’t discount that lone Ford. Save your money and don’t bet on a Chevy, at least not this season.

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