DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Roughly 30 minutes after Chevrolet unveiled the Camaro ZL 1 that will pace Sunday’s Daytona 500 and announced four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon as its driver, Chevy brass and team owners gathered in the Daytona International Speedway media center to field questions from reporters.
Owners Richard Childress, Chip Ganassi and Rick Hendrick joined Jim Campbell, Chevy’s U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports, at the press session. One of the first topics to arise was the prospect of Jimmie Johnson winning a record-breaking eighth championship at NASCAR’s highest level.
Johnson won his seventh title last year to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships in the history of the series.
“I think Jimmie’s in the prime of his career,” said Hendrick, who fields the No. 48 Chevrolet Johnson drives. “The way he goes after things… works out. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus), their time together. He’s been in the tough situations, in the tough moments.
“I think, to me, getting to seven was the challenge. If you could get to seven, then you’ve tied it. It’s hard to explain. I think we took some of the pressure off just getting to seven, because now he can just race. If eight happens, great. I think he’s got as good a shot as anybody out there. He knows how to race when it gets into the Playoffs.”
Childress has enjoyed a 48-year tenure with Chevrolet and was the car owner for six of Earnhardt’s seven championships. But what excites him today is the wealth of young talent assembled in today’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“This driver group we’re in today, you know, a lot of them are in their 40s,” Childress said. “We’re seeing some of them step aside. I think the sport today, with the young talent, with Chase Elliott, (Kyle) Larson, (Austin and Ty) Dillon, (Erik) Jones—all this group of young talent—I don’t think, in my time, I’ve seen this much great young talent coming along in our sport in 50 years probably.
Ganassi was quick to second Childress’ opinion.
“With the young talent coming along, I think you have a group of guys coming along that are going to put their signature on this sport,” said Ganassi, who fields Monster Energy cars for Larson and Jamie McMurray. “I think, obviously, the sport’s gone through some changes. We’re looking at a new (race and playoff) format.
“Some of us older guys, when they talk about changing the format, we look at each other, ask questions. These young drivers, they go, ‘OK.’ It’s kind of no big deal to those guys. I think that says a lot about how they approach it, how they look forward to it. So I think it’s pretty bright when you have an attitude like that.”
Interestingly, the V8 engine in the Camaro ZL 1 generates as much or more horsepower (650) than the restricted power plants in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars that will roll off pit road behind the formidable pace car.
“We were kidding with Jeff,” Campbell said. “Actually, he was kidding with us. He may just stay out there and take an extra lap.”