NASCAR notebook: New Camaro is source of optimism for Chevrolet teams

NASCAR: Daytona 500-Practice

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - After a less-than-stellar rollout of last year's NASCAR Cup Series Camaros, Chevrolet teams are optimistic that changes to the car will result in improved performance in 2020.


So far, the results seem to bear that out. Chevrolet driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Daugherty Racing won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports grabbed the other locked-in position on the outside of the front row.


In Thursday night's second Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150-mile qualifying race, Hendrick's William Byron visited Victory Lane for the first time in NASCAR's top series, leading a 1-2-3 sweep by Chevrolets.


"I feel like, last year, Chevy came -- they just missed the ball," said NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who fields the No. 43 Camaros driven by Bubba Wallace. "This year, they corrected a lot of those mistakes. We hope that they corrected it enough that we're going to be competitive wherever we go.


"Right now, I think Chevrolet's probably got the best overall program. ... I think they're totally, totally committed to racing. We want to be right along in there with somebody that's as dedicated to racing as we are."


Saturday's Chevrolet owners press conference in the Daytona International Speedway media center covered a broad range of topics, with the following highlights:


??Rick Hendrick expressed his commitment to making seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson's final full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series as successful as possible. "Jimmie is fired up," Hendrick said. "I think they're going to have a really good year with the new car. ... I've never seen Jimmie so energized. We going to give him everything we've got, leave nothing on the table."


??The new Chevrolet engine block and headers are ready to go. "It's done," said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet's U.S. vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports. "It's rotated when it's ready. Typically, on the engine side, we do that when the pool of current engines is at the point where you can rotate them out."


??Chip Ganassi was predictably close-mouthed about the prospects of re-signing driver Kyle Larson, who is in the final year of his current contract. Larson has expressed interest in listening to offers from other owners. "I think it's always important to keep good people around, whether it's a driver, crew chief, engineer, whatever," said Ganassi, who didn't elaborate. But as that question was asked, Hendrick reached for his wallet and eyed Ganassi with a knowing look.


??Richard Childress is happy with his 2020 NASCAR Cup Series driver lineup, with two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick having moved up to the premier series.


"We feel good about it," Childress said. "We moved Tyler up. He earned the right to move up. Excited about having him. He and Austin (Dillon) are going to make good teammates, work together so far as everything I've seen."


TOYOTA RELYING ON QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY IN NASCAR CUP SERIES


One only needs to take a quick mental inventory of the 19 race trophies and big shiny championship hardware that Joe Gibbs Racing organization earned in 2019 to see the realized potential of Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series.


It remains great motivation in 2020 for Toyota teams that represent a smaller group of drivers than the Cup Series' other two car manufacturers but have certainly proven themselves up for the challenge.


Quality over quantity has served Toyota well.


Not only did Toyota have three drivers in the four-driver championship finale field, it won the manufacturer's title before the last green flag of 2019 even flew.


"I'll start by saying that the hardest thing in pro sports is to stay up there because there's so many obviously great teams, competitors and so for our team, like tomorrow (Daytona 500), we'll be the smallest group out there and so we really need to work together," Gibbs said of Toyota's efforts. "It's a huge deal for us.


"Last year was phenomenal. I have learned that for sure, in pro sports, when you start the next year, last year didn't buy you anything and so we're going to be going after it as hard as we can. It was a thrill last year, but we realize the challenge in front of us."


Not only is Gibbs' driver Kyle Busch the reigning series champion, but teammate Denny Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner -- giving Toyota plenty of good feelings heading into Sunday's race and into the season. Their teammate, Martin Truex Jr., won the 2017 championship. And the fourth JGR teammate, Erik Jones, earned his first Cup victory at Daytona in the 2018 summer race and then won the exhibition Busch Clash race here last weekend.


Leavine Family Racing has a new driver behind the wheel of its No. 95 Toyota -- highly-touted rookie Christopher Bell, who put up an impressive eight NASCAR Xfinity Series wins in 2019 -- he won 15 races in just the last two seasons. And the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Daniel Suarez, will drive a third Toyota team car, the No. 96 Gaunt Bros. Racing Toyota Camry -- although an accident in Thursday's 150-mile Duel qualifying race eliminated him from this year's Daytona 500 field.


The three teams represent different levels of Toyota involvement -- from long-time success of Gibbs to Leavine, who has fielded Toyotas for three years now, and the newcomer, Gaunt.


"We have gradually progressed and last year with Toyota and TRD and Coach Gibbs, we raised our level with Matt (DiBenedetto) driving the car (in 2019) and this year we feel like we've done it again," co-owner Bob Leavine said. "So, you know, expectations I don't like to put out there, but yeah, we do have higher expectations and it's enjoyable."


JOHNSON'S LAST TIME IN THE DAYTONA 500? NOT NECESSARILY


Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be competing in his final full-time NASCAR season in 2020, but the two-time Daytona 500 winner would not go so far as to declare Sunday's Daytona 500 his absolute last.


The popular champion said he's not ready to give up racing altogether, and unlike some of his retired contemporaries, has no immediate plans to move into the television booth.


"It could be down the road," Johnson said. "I feel like I still have things I want to do and accomplish behind the wheel. And when that fades, I would say maybe there's a chance (to do TV). I haven't pursued that or put much time or effort into it. I still have stuff I want to accomplish behind the wheel."


Johnson has mentioned numerous times that he will be open to all racing once he steps aside from this fulltime NASCAR duties--from off-road racing to IMSA sportscars to occasional NASCAR Cup Starts at certain venues. He did rule out the Indianapolis 500 but was open to an IndyCar road course event, perhaps.


"It could be my last 500 (on Sunday), I don't know," Johnson said. "I am officially retiring from 38 weekends a year at the end of the season. I do know that, but the right situation, I would certainly consider it. I know that I can't shut off my competitive nature at the end of the year and call it good."


Johnson finished runner-up in his Duel 150 qualifying race on Thursday and will start Sunday's Daytona 500 sixth in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro.


Daytona International Speedway has made special plans to honor Johnson prior to Sunday's green flag. There has been a kiosk in the infield throughout the weekend showing highlights of Johnson's two Daytona 500 wins in 2006 and 2013.


There will be a video tribute to Johnson prior to the race highlighting his championship career accomplishments and showing various tributes from other drivers. A long introduction will take place during the "driver intros" portion of pre-race and Johnson will lead the field on one of the warm-up laps prior to the race start.


SHORT STROKES


--On Saturday morning, Daytona International Speedway announced the debut of SoccerFest on July 4 weekend in 2021. By process of elimination, that means the summer NASCAR Cup race won't return to its traditional July 4 weekend position on the schedule. The Coke Zero 400 takes on additional prominence on this year's schedule as the cutoff race for the Playoffs.


--In cool. Overcast conditions, 26 of the 40 drivers set to compete in Sunday's Daytona 500 participated in Saturday's final practice session for the Great American Race. Ford drivers dominated the session, securing the top eight positions on the speed chart. Joey Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner, posted the fastest lap at 200.516 mph, with 2007 winner Kevin Harvick close behind at 200.512 mph.


--By Reid Spencer and Holly Cain. Special to Field Level Media.