Camaro ZL1 crashes the sedan party at Daytona 500

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field rolls to the green flag for the start of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, it will be Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry family sedans versus... the Chevy Camaro ZL1 track beast. Doesn’t seem like a fair fight.

The Camaro ZL1 is the new Chevrolet race car of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It makes its competition debut at the Daytona 500 February 18 with the start of the 2018 season.

For the first time in NASCAR Cup Series history, Chevy will officially enter its Camaro muscle car in America’s premier racing league.

While the Camaro-Fusion-Camry competitors will still be largely the same under the skin according to NASCAR’s strict vehicle rules, the jarring contrast in car models marks a break from recent manufacturer marketing. And it echoes NASCAR’s 1960s glory days when automakers fielded hot rods like the Plymouth Superbird and Ford Talladega to give superstar drivers like Richard Petty and David Pearson a leg up in the championship fight.

The Camaro ZL1 production car is an earth-pawing athlete following in the tire tracks of this NASCAR prototype.

“We are looking forward to bringing the Camaro ZL1 to the race track,” GM Vice President for Motorsports Jim Campbell said at Daytona last month. “We race Camaro in the Xfinity Series, Pirelli World Challenge GTS category, NHRA Stock, Super Stock Sportsman classes and up through Funny Car. This is another logical extension for us with racing.”

On paper, America’s greatest race should be no contest. The Camaro ZL1 production car is an earth-pawing, Nurburgring-tested athlete with the same supercharged 650-horsepower engine that fires the Chevy Corvette Z06. In showroom trim, the Camry and Fusion are 4- or 6-cylinder powered, four-door grocery-haulers with half the Camaro’s horsepower.

Based on the 650-hp, supercharged Camaro ZL1 production mode, left, the new Camaro ZL1 NASCAR Cup car bucks the trend of family car NASCAR racers like the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry.

In the 21st century, however, NASCAR has enforced strict aerodynamic and engine rules to make entries from its three marquee manufacturers the same in order to promote tight racing, keep costs down and put a spotlight on individual drivers. Distinct car models have given way to strict body templates with similar V-8 engines under the hood.

“Things had become so homologized in NASCAR that in 2007 Toyota decided to go racing with the least likely race car of them all, the Camry,” wrote Chris Smith at “(It is) the culmination of the trend in removing any sort of ‘stock’ from stock car racing.”

NASCAR Cup racers bear little resemblance to their production avatars, save for glued-on headlights and badge stickers. As a result, manufacturers have fielded family sedans like the Fusion and Camry and Chevy Impala in order to market their brands to NASCAR’s family-friendly viewing demographic — a fan base that has also attracted household names like Tide, Cheerios and FedEx as sponsors.

NASCAR makes a race car body template the Chevy's Camaro design must conform to. While the front end closely resembled the Camaro production car, the rear view shows how dramatically the NASCAR template differs in height and design.

“Fusion was launched into the sport because of great aerodynamics and as a way to introduce the new brand name to a very large segment of America,” a Ford spokesperson says of the midsize car’s replacement of the Taurus sedan in 2006. “A big part of the plan has always been to market Fusion to the NASCAR audience demographics.”

Toyota’s 850-horsepower, V-8-powered Cup car has been badged as a Camry. The Japanese brand entered NASCAR in 2007.

“NASCAR has been a great platform for Toyota’s brand,” a spokesperson said ahead of Daytona. “It has introduced our company to a loyal and diverse audience that may not have known what our brand represented before we came into the sport.”

The NASCAR Camaro will pack a V-8 under its hood just like the ZL1 on dealer floors. It marks the first time a Camaro has been on a NASCAR Cup grid since 1971 when Tiny Lund fielded a private entry — but the first time that Chevy has entered the muscle car as a factory effort.

“The biggest challenge translating Camaro to the NASCAR Cup design template was maintaining the strong character of the production car while working with our race teams to create a great aero platform for them to build fastest race cars possible,” says Chevy NASCAR program manager Pat Suhy.

Camaro’s debut has led to speculation that Ford might counter with its own V-8 powered muscle car, the Mustang. Ford confirms it has gotten a lot of interest in that possibility, but is tight-lipped on future plans.

“This is racing, and we are always working on actions to improve performance and that includes engine, body, aero, everything on the car. We will make an announcement on any future body actions when we are ready,” says Ford Motorsports chief Mark Rushbrook.

Toyota teased the return of its new Supra this week, which will give the Japanese brand its own muscle car for NASCAR consideration.

After fielding the Chevy Impala family sedan until 2012, GM bucked the family car trend for NASCAR Cup cars by entering its V-8 powered rear-wheel drive Chevy SS. Trouble was, the SS — a four-door muscle car — sold just 4,000 cars in the U.S. market. The under-performing SS was discontinued for 2018, and the Camaro — with annual sales just under 70,000 vehicles — took its place.

“(The SS) was the most authentic entry in NASCAR from track to showroom,” said GM Motorsports boss Campbell. “We wanted to keep that principle intact as we went forward, and Camaro was the right place for us to do it.”

The move has been met with cheers from the NASCAR faithful.

“This is as it should be,” said 910 AM talk radio host and Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley on his program Thursday.

“Let’s get individual designs back to cars people care about and maybe we’ll get Ford versus Chevy fistfights in the stands instead of NASCAR drivers throwing helmets in the pits,” wrote CarThrottle’s Smith.

Indeed, with NASCAR facing a marketing retrenchment this year after the retirement of a trio of popular drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth — the Camaro entry is a needed shot in the arm for the sport.

“I think a lot of people were hoping that that they would bring Camaro into the Cup series,” Earnhardt told The Detroit News last year at the race car’s introduction. “This may lock up a lot of Chevrolet fans.”

Chevy couldn’t have scripted the Camaro’s introduction any better this week when Earnhardt’s replacement at Hendrick Motorsport — Alex Bowman, wearing Junior’s familiar No. 88 — took pole position for Sunday’s race in the new ZL1.

Right next to it will be a Camry family sedan.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.