The 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season saw the continuation of a trend that has been hard to ignore the past few years.
While NASCAR has strives for parity between brands, the last few years in the premier series has been a bit of a lop-sided affair when it comes to the win disbursement. One of racing’s most storied rivalries has been Ford vs. Chevrolet, which drew some battle lines in NASCAR during the mid-1980s when Bill Elliott was running roughshod over every superspeedway on the circuit. That struggle stayed consistent up through the mid- to late 2000s, with Dodge and Toyota getting a piece of the pie that Pontiac long left behind following its departure at the end of 2003.
But the brand battle dynamic has shifted a bit in the last decade. No longer is it Chevrolet vs. Ford, or Mopar vs. everybody. It’s now Chevrolet and Ford teams up against what is essentially a single factory-backed program that has been taking it to the competition for the past two years.
While Joe Gibbs Racing has been the standard bearer for Toyota Racing Development since 2007, its recent dominance when you factor in the alliance/merger of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team is becoming almost late 1990s Hendrick Motorsports-esque dominant the last two seasons. A quick glance at the season-ending stats is telling:
Top 5s: 64
Top 19s: 99
While Chevrolet prides itself on being the winningest brand in history, it has become the Oldsmobile of the early ’90s as the 2010s have come to a close.
Top 5s: 44
Top 10s: 107
Despite having more than six times the number of cars as Toyota, Chevy has almost a third of the wins, about two thirds the top fives and 10% more top 10s after the 36-race season. This helps to illustrate where the Chevrolet teams typically run: in the back half of the top 10.
That’s not to say Chevrolet is not competitive, but it’s at a distinct disadvantage, which helps to explain why its last championship was in 2016 — and with a bit of dumb luck by way of a late-race caution at Homestead-Miami Speedway that saw Carl Edwards about to cruise to a walk-off title before calling it quits. Instead, he did the Rambo 2 long walk off into the sunset.
In the four crown jewel races this year, it was all Toyota and one Ford, and when Chevrolet was in the picture, it required a squint to see if it really was a Camaro in tow.
Winner: Denny Hamlin (Toyota)
Highest-finishing Chevrolet: Sixth
Notable: Toyota finishes 1-2-3
Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. (Toyota)
Highest-finishing Chevrolet: Fourth
Notable: Toyotas finish first and third
Winner: Erik Jones (Toyota)
Highest-finishing Chevrolet: Second
Margin of Victory: 4.058 seconds
Winner: Kevin Harvick (Ford)
Highest-finishing Chevrolet: Third
Margin of Victory: 6.118 seconds
The performance gap between Chevrolet and the competition has been glaringly obvious ever since the Camaro debuted in 2018. A look at the stat sheet will show it won in its first outing at the Daytona 500, but that was courtesy of a last-turn wreck of Aric Almirola by Austin Dillon – and it was the last restrictor place race. so it’s kind of hard to hang your hat on that one. Dating back to Kyle Larson’s win in 2017 at Richmond Raceway, Chevrolet went 39 races until Chase Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen International in August 2018.
From that race through this season, Chevrolet has won nine races. Not to discredit anyone at this level, but of those nine, they included an Elliott win at Talladega Superspeedway (crapshoot races where half the field gets wrecked), Justin Haley at Daytona International Speedway in July due to not pitting when the rest of the field did before it rained, Kurt Busch out-dueling his brother courtesy of a green-white-checkered finish, leading only the final lap of the race, and Elliott’s improbable win at another wildcard event, the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, after becoming meme material and burying the car in the first-turn tire barrier.
This isn’t meant to disparage; rather, there is a clear performance disadvantage for the Chevrolet teams at this time, and there has been since the 11th-hour rule changes that came down in 2018 that seemed to affect the Chevrolets more so than the Toyotas or Fords not fielded by Roush Fenway Racing.
So what gives? How can two years go by with the one brand that is synonymous with NASCAR and always a presence continue to be outgunned to this degree? Even when the Ford Taurus came into NASCAR in the late ’90s engineered from the outset to make absurd downforce, the 4-year-old Monte Carlo of Jeff Gordon had something that allowed them to be on par (just as dominate) on intermediate tracks.
Has the new low horsepower/high downforce/drag package this year upset the balance that NASCAR seemed to have found at the end of 2018? It isn’t like the Ford teams where Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske are about on equal footing while the Roush Fords are only featured, it seems, at Daytona and Talladega. The best Chevrolet teams are usually back half of the top 10, with the Richard Childress Racing/Richard Petty Motorsports/JTG-Daugherty Racing/Germain Racing cars all fumbling around in the high teens/low 20s. There were flashes of brilliance at the front this year by Elliott, Alex Bowman, Busch and Larson, but they all seemed to be short lived and not with much consistency from race to race.
Toyota, on the other hand, seems to always have its footing. The talent pool at the Cup level is about as deep as you can get with two champions on the team, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a driver barely old enough to buy a beer who’s getting up to speed while teamed with some of the most prolific winners of the last five years.
But Toyota also has a talent pool in which you can barely touch bottom. Christopher Bell comes up to the Cup Series for 2020, replacing Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 95, which amazingly started running like the rest of the JGR cars about the time the change was announced. Weird! It would appear from the outside that the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team is now the new Furniture Row team acting as the de facto fifth Gibbs car. Time will tell if it can bring as much to the table as Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. did.
Beyond Bell, the rest of the roster in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series is equally stocked with talent. Brandon Jones, Christian Eckes and Harrison Burton are all names we’ll be hearing more of in the not too distant future, while many are waiting for Hailie Deegan to gain some experience and make the next step in her career path from the regional NASCAR series.
Chevrolet has arguably a more experienced and proven crop of drivers ready to move up, but the issue seems to be the lack of performance with the current Camaro iteration or the low horsepower package. Given the limited shelf life of the current generation car, is there much to be gained from investing in further development to get on Toyota’s level for 2020? The arrival of a new car in 2021, coupled with the imminent departure of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, the cornerstone of Chevrolet’s success since 2002, will bring about its own challenges. A group of talented and eager young drivers is some successful veteran guidance and leadership during this transition.
Then there is the structure of the Toyota camp. There’s JGR, a satellite organization with LFR, with one engine supplier in TRD. That’s a pretty buttoned-down arrangement and a boon for a group that deep with factory support to be aligned with one another. It kind of reminds me of when Penske was essentially the only Dodge team in its 2012 championship year. Not much in the way of factory involvement at that point, but it’s Penske, and it’s an entity unto its own as far as motorsports is concerned, and brand make is largely irrelevant.
Sharing among the Chevrolet teams is not exactly transparent, but for good reason. There are essentially three major team owners, two engine programs and an array of mid-pack satellite organizations that are competitive on short tracks and Daytona or Talladega (and Pocono Raceway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway based on their unique layout) but can’t muster the consistency over a multiple races. While Chevrolet teams have engineers from Pratt & Miller, there’s still a technology gap that has yet to be crossed by each of the teams. Perhaps the advent of the next generation car for 2021 will help usher in that change to help make these teams more competitive and relevant.
Given what NASCAR is investing in and banking on the new car and sponsor alignment, it is crucial that the Chevrolet teams come out of the box strong, swinging and make their debut a success. Compounding their task is the uncertain future that surrounds the Camaro. As coupes and even sedans are seemingly falling out of favor with most manufacturers, it’s been suggested that the Camaro might not be long for this world. Would the need for a car to compete help spur it on for a few more years? The Dodge Challenger has been riding around on its current platform since 2008 with no replacement in sight either.
Toyota will no doubt have a response readied as well, and with its current strategy of pouring all of its resources into one team with some satellite support, it won’t be spread thin when that change happens. However, this is where Chevrolet with sheer numbers might have an edge. A new car and platform will benefit from as much data acquisition and feedback as it can muster. This might be a change made out of necessity, forcing it to adopt a more cooperative strategy with one another if it wants to get it back to the days when Dale Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon were the odds-on favorites to win for almost 20 years.
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