ThatsRacin

New car meant new trouble for Chevy in 2018. Why there’s still a reason for optimism

Chase Elliott celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the second of two qualifying races for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chase Elliott celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the second of two qualifying races for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) AP

The 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season couldn’t have started much better for Chevrolet: a Daytona 500 win by Austin Dillon, showing off the manufacturer’s brand new Camaro ZL1 on the sport’s biggest stage.

Too bad that was Chevy’s season-long peak.

Just over a month and a half out from the start of the 2019 NASCAR season — yes, the offseason gets shorter and shorter seemingly every year — it’s fair to wonder what 2019 holds in store for Chevy, one of racing’s most celebrated manufacturers. While titles and glory were once a staple to the Chevy brand... well, that’s mostly what’s left for the current model.

After a relatively lackluster 2017, where no Chevy drivers even advanced to the Cup Series championship race at Homestead, there was fresh buzz born out of the Camaro ZL1’s debut. Which, to get back to a few paragraphs ago, was validated by Dillon’s thrilling Daytona 500 victory.

But then the bad news: Chevy didn’t win another Cup event for 21 more races, until Chase Elliott finally broke through for his first career win at Watkins Glen. Then it took another eight races for Elliott to snag another. And while he capped his individual season with three wins, and nearly advanced to the championship race, even Elliott’s success does not mean Chevy as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) can tout the same.

Because across the board, they can’t.

Alongside Elliott’s stellar (but slow-developing) 2018 season, Chevy drivers also experienced the following:

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished the year winless for the first time in 17 years. Seventeen.

Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement in the No. 88, had 3 Top 5s in 36 races, and finished outside the Top 15 in five of his final seven races.

Rookie Bubba Wallace finished the year 28th, and went on a stretch of 27 straight races finishing outside the Top 10.

All that, along with just four wins in 36 tries?

Not great.

But all that said, there is still a reason for optimism for any Chevy fans in 2019 — and his name is Chase Elliott.

Elliott is not only one of NASCAR’s top young stars, but after his breakout 2018 season, he’s poised to enter this upcoming year as one of the sport’s top stars period. Hendrick Motorsports struggled as a whole this year, especially given the team’s typical success, but Elliott was the lone bright spot from an otherwise difficult transition year.

Elliott appears to have supplanted Johnson as Hendrick’s de facto No. 1, which should bring substantial improvement in year two of the Camaro ZL1 experiment. Given the small growth that Bowman and rookie William Byron also experienced as last season wore on, it’s fair to assume that Hendrick as a whole will take a step closer to reaching its potential, which will only help Elliott further.

Chevy still isn’t close to the depth it used to sport, and compared to the success Ford and Toyota have experienced the past two years, the drop-off is magnified even further.

That’s not to say there’s no reason for hope in 2019, because there is.

Sadly for Chevy fans, it’s just more about the driver — Chase Elliott — than the machine he’s driving.



Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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