Nearing the four-month mark of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season Chevrolet’s Pat Suhy admits he “could certainly feel better” about the Camaro ZL1.
Having rolled out its new body this season, Chevrolet has gone to victory lane just once in 14 races. Granted, it was the Daytona 500 (with the No. 3 of Austin Dillon) but the manufacturer has not been performing up to the standards most are accustomed to seeing, specifically from the likes of Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I don’t think the car has really showed its potential,” Suhy, the Chevrolet NASCAR group manager, said Thursday during a tour of the Chevrolet Lansing [Michigan] Grand River Assembly plant. “I know that our teams are working very hard. We’re certainly working very hard with them to understand where we’re at, and I do think there’s been bright spots. Last weekend at Pocono, especially. We saw some good speed across all three of our key partner teams. So, I think it’s coming along.”
Kyle Larson has largely carried the Chevrolet banner. Although winless, Larson has led nearly 400 laps already this season with nine top-10 finishes. Not only is Larson the highest-ranking Chevrolet driver in the standings, he is the only one in the top 10.
However, Larson has also been the outlier when addressing how the Camaro feels. Larson said back in early May the new car does not feel any different to him than last year’s model.
There has not been just one hurdle for Chevrolet to overcome. According to Suhy, most teams running the car have experienced challenges with aero performance — a variable affected by other pieces of the racing puzzle.
“There was the new car [and then] I think the new rules, the flat splitter — I won’t say caught people flat-footed, but I think a new body was just an added complication on top of what were probably some significant rule and enforcement changes by NASCAR,” said Suhy. “But again, as you look back I think as far as Kansas or even before that, the 42 with Kyle Larson has had good speed.
“A couple of Hendrick cars have been fast along the way, so I think it’s really a matter of people finding their way not only with the new car but the whole [inspection] system, flat splitter and things like that. It’s a lot of work to put on somebody’s plate.”
The rules, not so much the body of the car, are also what the crew chiefs on hand Thursday pointed to as the primary challenge. Chad Johnston, Larson’s crew chief, said the body given the old enforcement of the rules has a lot more potential than what teams had last year. But the enforcement of the rules this season has changed things more for Chevrolet than others.
By moving to a three-dimensional heat map of a car — the OSS system — NASCAR believes it has a more thorough inspection process and a more level playing field. Officials cracked down on teams having flat splitters last month in Dover, for example. Ford’s Brad Keselowski has suggested the OSS system has been a benefit to his manufacturer, which now has the oldest body style.
“I think a lot of guys came in and all they had to do was adapt to the enforcement of the rules, where we had to adapt to a new body and the enforcement of the rules,” said Johnston. “It’s probably slowed our learning curve compared to them some. I think you saw it last year with Toyota when they had a new body; they started off a little slow. I feel like we’re getting closer.”
Drew Blickensderfer of Richard Petty Motorsports went as far as saying the car is not the issue.
“The issue is just what we expected and what we actually saw when we got on the racetrack,” said Blickensderfer. “I think the overall downforce in a vehicle, if it’s shifted forward or rearward, that’s the thing you have to try to overcome. Once you have the complete downforce, you’re OK. And I think we have that, we just have change our setups and our mindsets of how we’ve done things for a few years.
“This car’s balance is a little different than what we were used to. We had no preconceived notions of what to expect, we just had our history. So we got into the season and it’s a little different balance. I think we’ve crept up on what we’ve needed to get better throughout the year — you can’t just change a car’s aero balance or the way it drives very quickly anymore. You got to kind of work in five, 10 pounds at a time here or there. Early in the season we struggled — we had 22nd-place cars at the mile-and-a-halfs and I think at Charlotte we were a 15th-place car legitimately. You see it with all of us (Chevy teams) — we’re getting a few spots better every single week, and I think before long, hopefully, that leads to where we want to be.”
The summer stretch has been pointed out by a few different drivers and crew chiefs as the sweet spot. With the potential there, by the time summer hits the expectation is that the results will start improving.
“I’m confident we’re going to see gains in this next third of the season or so,” said Suhy. “I think we saw the beginnings of it last weekend at Pocono.”