Chevrolet, Ford Spent Offseason Working To Catch Up To Dominant Toyota

Kyle Busch, who has 183 career wins across NASCAR's top-three national series, is still trying for his first Daytona 500 victory. USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR teams that drove Chevrolets switched from the SS to the Camaro this year in hopes of catching up to Toyota's Camry.(Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)

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The exciting closing laps of last season’s NASCAR Cup championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway were about much more than Martin Truex Jr. masterfully holding off a charging Kyle Busch to win the title.

Truex and Busch both drove the season’s dominant vehicle — the Toyota Camry. Although Busch was disappointed in finishing second to Truex for NASCAR’s top prize, the fact that Toyotas swept across the finish line first and second simply underlined what was a year of domination for the Camry.

As teams prepare to open the door to a new season this week in Daytona Beach, Fla., they are shadowed by 2017 numbers that made Truex’s championship look like a lock:

  • Toyota won 16 races. Chevrolet and Ford won 10 each.
  • Toyota’s laps-led total of 5,757 was more than Chevrolet’s (2,377) and Ford’s (2,447) combined.
  • Truex and Busch led 40% of the laps run across the 36-race season.
  • Toyota won eight of the 10 playoff races.

In a sport in which small differences in vehicle aerodynamic shapes can translate to significant boosts in speed, Toyota Racing Development and its teams began the year with a sleek body and made it better as the months wore on. By August, Ford driver Brad Keselowski was complaining about Toyota’s supposed advantage, generating laughter from Toyota representatives and suggestions from the Camry camp that its competitors needed to work harder and talk less.

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USA TODAY Sports sat down with 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. to discuss his emotions after winning the title. USA TODAY Sports

The new year brings change, although there is little reason to suggest that Toyota will give up its position of strength. Chevrolet enters the year with a new car — the Camaro — and high hopes that the vehicle’s sleek design and race-ready front end will equal significant improvement over 2017.

At a casual glance, Ford faces the steeper climb. Its Fusion was generally trailing in speed much of last year, and this season is likely to be its final hurrah as garage talk has the Mustang arriving as Ford’s Cup vehicle for 2019.

NASCAR rules on body design will have a new enforcement element — the Hawk-Eye camera/projection system. The Optical Scanning Station replaces the laser platform and is expected to ferret out the smallest imperfections in car bodies.

“If the new Hawk-Eye system is put in place and implemented for 2018 fully — not partially, fully — it would certainly level the playing field for Ford by enforcing the rules,” Keselowski said.

“It is inherent to the designs of the cars that some things weren’t able to be policed before that were designed into other cars that, with this system, it will eliminate it.”

That statement underlines Keselowski’s view that Toyota had advantages beyond the basic design of the Camry race car last year, a claim that, again, results in Toyota drivers — in particular Kyle Busch — suggesting that other teams show up for work earlier and leave later.

Erik Jones, who moved from one Toyota team (Furniture Row Racing) to another (Joe Gibbs Racing) in the offseason, said he expects the other manufacturers to be improved but that work on making the Camry better also has continued.

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“Obviously, you’ve seen Chevrolet roll out a new product for this year,” Jones said. “We’ll have to see what that’s going to do. I think that’s going to put them in a position to catch up some. I’m sure they did their homework. You see, honestly, a lot of similarities between some of the stuff they’ve done with their car and ours.

“But I think us having a year under our belt with the new Camry is really going to make it that much better. It’s given us another offseason to develop on it.”

Ford driver Kevin Harvick said the Fusion improved during the season last year and added he looks for more gains in what should be the model’s final season.

“We may come out of the box great, but you don’t know until you get to the racetrack,” he said. “We worked through those issues last year. It took us a bit, but we might have to work at them again.”

Chevrolet driver Chris Buescher said expects gains despite the newness of the Camaro.

“It’s a body that looks way closer to what we were competing against last season and, at the same time, maintains its own identity and carries much of the characteristics of the actual production Camaro,” he said. “I think they accomplished everything they set out to do. Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning everything.”

Chevrolet official Pat Suey said he expects the Camaro to be competitive.

“It’s a better aero platform than we had before,” he said. “The teams have busted their humps building and testing and going to the wind tunnel. I’d like to think we’re not going to struggle that badly early (because of the new-car break-in period), but we’ll see.”

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The Daytona 500, the premier race in NASCAR, has been
The Daytona 500, the premier race in NASCAR, has been held annually since 1959. The 60th running of "The Great American Race" is Feb. 18, 2018.  Lynne Sladky, AP>FullscreenPre-Daytona 500: Bill France Sr., center, and others gather at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1947 for meetings that resulted in the formation of NASCAR.
Pre-Daytona 500: Bill France Sr., center, and others gather at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1947 for meetings that resulted in the formation of NASCAR.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenPre-Daytona 500: An aerial view of the North Turn and grandstand as cars race on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1950.
Pre-Daytona 500: An aerial view of the North Turn and grandstand as cars race on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1950.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenPre-Daytona 500: One year before the first Daytona 500, Glen Wood (22) leads Banjo Matthews (M-4) in a 1958 Modified Sportsman race in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Pre-Daytona 500: One year before the first Daytona 500, Glen Wood (22) leads Banjo Matthews (M-4) in a 1958 Modified Sportsman race in Daytona Beach, Fla.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenLee Petty (42), driving an Oldsmobile, and Johnny Beauchamp (73), driving a Thunderbird, were neck and neck on the last lap of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, but Petty nosed out Beauchamp at the finish line.
Lee Petty (42), driving an Oldsmobile, and Johnny Beauchamp (73), driving a Thunderbird, were neck and neck on the last lap of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, but Petty nosed out Beauchamp at the finish line.  AP>FullscreenJunior Johnson leads Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty during the 1962 Daytona 500. Roberts won the 1962 race two years after Johnson won his lone title in 1960.
Junior Johnson leads Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty during the 1962 Daytona 500. Roberts won the 1962 race two years after Johnson won his lone title in 1960.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenRichard Petty poses with the championship trophy after earning the first of seven Daytona 500 wins in 1964.
Richard Petty poses with the championship trophy after earning the first of seven Daytona 500 wins in 1964.  Jim Kerlin, AP>FullscreenFred Lorenzen (28) outdueled Junior Johnson (27) to win the 1965 Daytona 500.
Fred Lorenzen (28) outdueled Junior Johnson (27) to win the 1965 Daytona 500.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenFormer Miss USA Diana Batts, of Washington, D.C., gives a big kiss to Mario Andretti after he won the 1967 Daytona 500. Andretti remains the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978).
Former Miss USA Diana Batts, of Washington, D.C., gives a big kiss to Mario Andretti after he won the 1967 Daytona 500. Andretti remains the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978).  AP>FullscreenRichard Petty holds the record for most Daytona 500 wins with seven. Here he drives to victory during the 1971 race.
Richard Petty holds the record for most Daytona 500 wins with seven. Here he drives to victory during the 1971 race.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenA.J. Foyt gets a big kiss from Union 76 Racestopper Cheryl Johnson after winning the 1972 Daytona 500. Foyt is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (which he won four times), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A.J. Foyt gets a big kiss from Union 76 Racestopper Cheryl Johnson after winning the 1972 Daytona 500. Foyt is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (which he won four times), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  AP>FullscreenFormer taxi cab driver Benny Parsons raises the championship trophy after winning the 1975 Daytona 500.
Former taxi cab driver Benny Parsons raises the championship trophy after winning the 1975 Daytona 500.  AP>FullscreenDavid Pearson was able to coax his wrecked car across the finish line to win the 1976 Daytona 500.
David Pearson was able to coax his wrecked car across the finish line to win the 1976 Daytona 500.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenIn one of the most famous crashes in NASCAR history, David Pearson and Richard Petty wreck while racing for the lead on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500.
In one of the most famous crashes in NASCAR history, David Pearson and Richard Petty wreck while racing for the lead on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenCale Yarborough, right, kicks and pushes Bobby Allison, center, who is catching his leg as Donnie Allison, left,  tries to pull his brother free from the fight which started after Yarborough collided with Donnie on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500.
Cale Yarborough, right, kicks and pushes Bobby Allison, center, who is catching his leg as Donnie Allison, left, tries to pull his brother free from the fight which started after Yarborough collided with Donnie on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500.  Ric Feld, AP>FullscreenRichard Petty, (middle, with STP cap and sunglasses), poses with his family after winning his sixth Daytona 500 title in 1979. Petty won for the seventh and final time in 1981.
Richard Petty, (middle, with STP cap and sunglasses), poses with his family after winning his sixth Daytona 500 title in 1979. Petty won for the seventh and final time in 1981.  Daytona Racing Archives>FullscreenCale Yarborough takes the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 for the final time in 1984. Yarborough also won in 1983, '77, and '68.
Cale Yarborough takes the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 for the final time in 1984. Yarborough also won in 1983, '77, and '68.  Pete Bauer, AP>FullscreenBill Elliott won the second of his two Daytona 500 titles in 1987. He won his first Great American Race two years earlier in 1985.
Bill Elliott won the second of his two Daytona 500 titles in 1987. He won his first Great American Race two years earlier in 1985.  Kathy Willens, AP>FullscreenBobby Allison, right, celebrates his victory in the 1988 Daytona 500 by pouring a Miller beer over the head of his son Davey Allison, who he beat in an emotional finish. Davey Allison won the 1992 race, while Bobby Allison also won in 1982 and 1978.
Bobby Allison, right, celebrates his victory in the 1988 Daytona 500 by pouring a Miller beer over the head of his son Davey Allison, who he beat in an emotional finish. Davey Allison won the 1992 race, while Bobby Allison also won in 1982 and 1978.  Dozier Mobley, Getty Images>FullscreenDarrell Waltrip celebrates his lone Daytona 500 title by performing the "Ickey Shuffle," a dance created by NFL player Ickey Woods, after winning the 1989 Great American Race.
Darrell Waltrip celebrates his lone Daytona 500 title by performing the "Ickey Shuffle," a dance created by NFL player Ickey Woods, after winning the 1989 Great American Race.  RacingOne ISC Archives via Getty Images>FullscreenDale Jarrett lets out a yell as he climbs out of his car after winning the 35th annual Daytona 500 in 1993. Jarrett would add two more Daytona 500 titles, in 1996 and 2000.
Dale Jarrett lets out a yell as he climbs out of his car after winning the 35th annual Daytona 500 in 1993. Jarrett would add two more Daytona 500 titles, in 1996 and 2000.  Terry Renna, AP>FullscreenJeff Gordon (24), Terry Labonte (5) and  Ricky Craven (25) led Hendrick Motorsports to a 1-2-3 finish at the 1997 Daytona 500. Gordon would win the Daytona 500 twice more: in 1999 and 2005.
Jeff Gordon (24), Terry Labonte (5) and Ricky Craven (25) led Hendrick Motorsports to a 1-2-3 finish at the 1997 Daytona 500. Gordon would win the Daytona 500 twice more: in 1999 and 2005.  Phil Coale, AP>FullscreenCrew members line up along pit road to congratulate Dale Earnhardt as the NASCAR legend finally wins his first Daytona 500 in 1998, 20 years after his first Daytona 500 start in 1979.
Crew members line up along pit road to congratulate Dale Earnhardt as the NASCAR legend finally wins his first Daytona 500 in 1998, 20 years after his first Daytona 500 start in 1979.  Roger Simms, Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP>FullscreenDale Earnhardt (3) hits the wall after getting hit by Ken Schrader (36) during the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt died as a result of the crash that stands as one of the most horrific moments in NASCAR history.
Dale Earnhardt (3) hits the wall after getting hit by Ken Schrader (36) during the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt died as a result of the crash that stands as one of the most horrific moments in NASCAR history.  Bob Sweeten, AP>FullscreenShortly after winning the 2001 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip talks about the death of friend and competitor Dale Earnhardt, who died after crashing on the last lap. Waltrip would  have a chance to better celebrate after winning the 2003 Daytona 500.
Shortly after winning the 2001 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip talks about the death of friend and competitor Dale Earnhardt, who died after crashing on the last lap. Waltrip would have a chance to better celebrate after winning the 2003 Daytona 500.  Terry Renna, AP>FullscreenTwo-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin gets a reprimand from a track official  after he tried to pull a bent piece of sheet metal away from his tire during a red-flag stop in the 2002 race. Marlin's gaffe will forever be part of NASCAR's lore, with some saying his illegal attempt to fix his car under the red flag cost him a victory.
Two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin gets a reprimand from a track official after he tried to pull a bent piece of sheet metal away from his tire during a red-flag stop in the 2002 race. Marlin's gaffe will forever be part of NASCAR's lore, with some saying his illegal attempt to fix his car under the red flag cost him a victory.  Dow Graham, AP>FullscreenWard Burton, center, is showered with confetti in victory lane after winning the 2002 Daytona 500 after Sterling Marlin's penalty.
Ward Burton, center, is showered with confetti in victory lane after winning the 2002 Daytona 500 after Sterling Marlin's penalty.  Matthew Ratajczak, The Stuart News via AP>FullscreenCrew members converge on Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, at the start-finish line after he won the 2004 Daytona 500, three years after his father died as a result of a last-lap crash in the 2001 event.
Crew members converge on Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, at the start-finish line after he won the 2004 Daytona 500, three years after his father died as a result of a last-lap crash in the 2001 event.  Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images>FullscreenRyan Newman won his only race of 2008 at the Daytona 500, bringing Penske Racing its first win at The Great American Race.
Ryan Newman won his only race of 2008 at the Daytona 500, bringing Penske Racing its first win at The Great American Race.  Jamie Squire, Getty Images>FullscreenWorkers repair damage to the track as a result of a pothole in Turn 2 on lap 122 during the 2010 Daytona 500. The race was red-flagged for almost two hours before Jamie McMurray eventually won.
Workers repair damage to the track as a result of a pothole in Turn 2 on lap 122 during the 2010 Daytona 500. The race was red-flagged for almost two hours before Jamie McMurray eventually won.  Jerry Markland, Getty Images for NASCAR>FullscreenTrevor Bayne, at 20-years, one-day old, became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, in 2011.
Trevor Bayne, at 20-years, one-day old, became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, in 2011.  Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenSafety crews work to put out a fire from a jet-fueled track dryer that was hit by Juan Pablo Montoya's car (not pictured) under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500.
Safety crews work to put out a fire from a jet-fueled track dryer that was hit by Juan Pablo Montoya's car (not pictured) under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500.  Andrew Weber, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenSafety workers clean up the track with Tide laundry detergent after a jet-fueled track dryer burst into flames when it was struck by Juan Pablo Montoya's car under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500.
Safety workers clean up the track with Tide laundry detergent after a jet-fueled track dryer burst into flames when it was struck by Juan Pablo Montoya's car under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500.  John Harrelson, Getty Images for NASCAR>FullscreenMatt Kenseth earned the second of two Daytona 500 wins in 2012. He won his first in 2009.
Matt Kenseth earned the second of two Daytona 500 wins in 2012. He won his first in 2009.  Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenJimmie Johnson crosses the finish line to win the 2013
Jimmie Johnson crosses the finish line to win the 2013 Daytona 500.  Kevin Liles, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenDale Earnhardt Jr took the 2014 Daytona 500 on the
Dale Earnhardt Jr took the 2014 Daytona 500 on the 10th anniversary of his first win there.  Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenJoey Logano wins the 2015 Daytona 500.
Joey Logano won the 2015 race, his first Daytona 500 victory.  Andrew Weber, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenIn the closest finish in history, Denny Hamlin (11)
In the closest finish in history, Denny Hamlin (11) beats Martin Truex Jr. (78) to win the 2016 Daytona 500 by .011 second.  Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports>FullscreenKurt Busch celebrates with New England Patriots star
Kurt Busch celebrates with New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski after winning the 2017 Daytona 500, the first race of the rebranded Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports>Fullscreen

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