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Are Nationwide Series-like pony cars coming to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

BROOKLYN, Mich. — It’s not inconceivable that by 2013 NASCAR’s top division may feature the same sorts of performance cars that currently are being integrated into the Nationwide Series.

Jamie Allison, Ford’s director of North American Motorsports, is already on record that the company would contemplate running the Mustang in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division.

Perhaps the most interesting prospect, however, is that Chevrolet may entertain running the Camaro in the Cup series, a move the automaker declined to make when choosing the nameplate for its Nationwide car. Ford and Dodge run so-called "pony cars" — the Mustang and Challenger, respectively — in Nationwide. Chevrolet fields the Impala SS and Toyota the Camry.

The manufacturers’ confidence in NASCAR’s ability to aero-match different models with different design features and to maintain an efficient, equitable inspection process could help pave the way to more design freedom as the Cup car evolves.

"I’ll never say never," said Pat Suhy, GM Racing’s NASCAR group manager, when asked whether Chevrolet would consider racing the Camaro. "I think a lot of it depends on what we’re talking about in terms of the canvas we’re given to work with.

"The canvas we had for the car today was basically from the cowl forward and from the out(side) forward corner of the headlights kind of into the windshield. The fenders, the lower (valance), the sides, the tail, the deck lid—all that stuff is pretty common (to all Cup models)."

Though that’s hardly a green light for the Camaro, it’s enough to give muscle car fans hope. So is the acknowledgement from Toyota that something other than the Camry could be in the offing — just not now.

Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, USA, said at this point, "We’re selling Camrys," but didn’t rule out the introduction of a high-performance model in the future.

‘There’s change coming’

Though nothing’s official, 2013 is looking like the year for major changes in the Cup car. White said Toyota will introduce a new production car that same year.

"We know that there’s change coming," Suhy said. "We know that there’s been a year talked about to do it. It sounded like there was some commonality among the four manufacturers that said there’s going to be a good year to do this, and my objective and I think everyone’s objective is to go and work on the canvas, how much more of the car can we get to work on.

"But I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a big challenge for us internally to satisfy our leadership, which says, ‘I know it sells cars and trucks, but it still doesn’t look like what we sell.’ "

The Cup cars will get new noses next year, eliminating the need for splitter braces on the front of the car. Dave Bailey, Dodge’s senior manager of motorsports engineering, said the company is treating that move as an isolated step. Nevertheless, Bailey, too, expects bigger changes down the road.

"We’re still waiting for the memo from NASCAR as to when that will be," Bailey said.

Suhy sees the new nose as a step in the continued evolution of the NASCAR race car, starting with the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007 and continuing with the Nationwide cars, which will compete in four races this season, starting July 2 at Daytona, before becoming the full-time Nationwide car next year.

"Now NASCAR has acknowledged that the Cup car needs some work, and so we’re going to put a new lower on the Cup car—directionally correct again, and we’re talking about more identity," Suhy said. "I think this 2011 change in the Cup series is a good start at the continued evolution of the Cup car into something beyond where the Nationwide car went.

"As you know, we investigated doing a Camaro (in the Nationwide Series) and looked at it and said, ‘We need some more freedom behind the windshield to do this, this, this and this, and that’s where I think we kind of hit an impasse with NASCAR. I understand why, but that’s why we’re running an Impala in the Nationwide Series, because we just couldn’t get from here to there to satisfy our internals and make the thing look enough like a Camaro."

NASCAR is listening

That could change with the next major step for the Cup car. Suhy said NASCAR has been extremely receptive to manufacturers’ input in the push for brand identity.

"They haven’t thrown me out of the trailer yet, coming and saying, ‘What do you think about if we did that?’ or ‘Do you think we could push here and poke there?’ I think that’s good," Suhy said. "And I think one of the reasons is—if you look at the process they use—we really did it in 2006 with the new truck, where they had this idea of a common strategy, or a common template, if you will.

"Eighty percent of the truck is the same, and you put noses on them to make a Chevy or other manufacturers, and then you go measure in the wind tunnel. You have to develop some level of confidence that you can measure something in the wind tunnel and say ‘OK, yeah, they’re all within the box,’ because they set drag and downforce targets at a couple of different attitudes. The first thing that NASCAR had to do was develop confidence in that process, so that they could actually measure it in the wind tunnel and have the manufacturers all have a decent chance of winning a race."

Suhy thinks the same can apply in the Cup series.

"I know we can make them look more distinctive and fit in the aero box," he said. "And I think what NASCAR’s got to get more comfortable with is how they can manage this out here at the track."

Running the pony cars in the Cup series would require a rule change. Currently, the Cup series is restricted to sedans, but that’s not a major obstacle. NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton pointed out that, in 1998, the Cup series featured only two-door cars. Clearly, the current rule requiring sedans wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, should NASCAR and the car makers collectively opt to move in a different direction.

Pemberton also said that any move to cars of different design would require aero-matching of all four models at the same time, similar to the process used in approving the new Nationwide cars.

Another unknown is how the new management at General Motors might view a potential change.

"I think a big part of our challenge is to work with NASCAR and to work with our leadership to find the middle ground and hopefully get more toward what our guys would like to see in terms of Chevrolet identity," Suhy said.