Truex Jr, Blaney, Elliott, Almirola to test, Johnson re-energized

Can the new Chevy Camaro beat the Toyotas?
Can the new Chevy Camaro beat the Toyotas?

Four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams will officially bring in the sport’s New Year during a two-day closed Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway this week.

Newly crowned Monster Energy Series champion Martin Truex Jr. (Toyota) joins Ryan Blaney (Ford), Chase Elliott (Chevrolet) and Aric Almirola (Ford) on the 1.5-mile Fort Worth high banks Tuesday and Wednesday.

For Elliott, this marks the debut of the No. 9 on the sides of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which formerly carried the No. 24. And for Almirola, this will be his first formal outing in the No. 10 Ford since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason after a six-year tenure with Richard Petty Motorsports.

The test session also marks the on-track debut of the Camaro ZL1, the new model Chevrolet will replace the Chevy SS in the 2018 Monster Energy Series.

“The new Camaro ZL1 is a great looking race car with a lot of heritage behind it, which will make it a big hit with fans," Chevrolet’s seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said at the car’s August unveiling. “And as someone who’s enjoyed the ZL1 on the street, I’m really looking forward to getting this new race car on the track."

The next preseason test is for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series test at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Jan. 17, its goal to help teams get accustomed to the new optional engine approved for use in 2018.

The Monster Energy Series will have an organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — with one car from each organization allowed laps at the 1.5-mile facility that will host its first ever Playoff race on Sept. 16.

NASCAR’s Daytona Speedweeks begins officially Feb. 11 with Daytona 500 pole qualifying followed by the Advance Auto Parts Clash. The 60th running of the “Great American Race," the Daytona 500, is Feb. 18.

Johnson mentally prepared to win record 8th title

Knaus says Johnson is excited about 2018
Knaus says Johnson is excited about 2018

The voice of Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus brimmed with some excitement Monday, stemming from the promise of both a new racing season and a rejuvenating approach adopted by his driver, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Even the headiest New Year’s resolutions tend to fade by the time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins its annual prep for the season-opening Daytona 500 next month. Knaus, for one, is betting Johnson’s self-improvement measures carry far into the season.

“He’s completely re-dedicated himself to this — and I’m not saying that he wasn’t dedicated last year, because the man was," Knaus said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think that anybody that goes out there and drives a race car for 40 weeks in a row basically has got to be dedicated to his craft. There’s just no ifs, ands or buts about that. But he’s got a new emphasis put on it. He wants to go out there and do well. He’s excited obviously. Last year we were able to get that contract extension with him and push that further forward, so there’s a lot of positives from that standpoint in his eyes. …

“You know Jimmie, man, he’s tenacious. And if he can get what he feels what he wants underneath him, I don’t think he can be beaten out there, so it’s good stuff forward."

Johnson won three times last season, but the No. 48 Chevrolet team endured a sharp drop-off in performance over the latter half of the year. The organization underwent several changes ahead of the 2018 campaign, including new car chief Jesse Saunders taking the place of veteran Ron Malec with the No. 48, and a restructuring of the Hendrick race shops to better integrate their four-car effort. And Johnson indicated after the season-ending awards banquet that he’d be spending more time at the shop and dialing back some of his recreational travel in the offseason.

The group has also been hard at work sorting out the 2018 Camaro ZL1, Chevrolet’s new model for NASCAR’s premier series. Though Knaus said plenty of variables still remain before the car undergoes real-world testing, he indicated that initial tests in the wind tunnel and other simulations were encouraging.

Those changes are all part of what Knaus called “a different environment" at Hendrick Motorsports, with new faces Alex Bowman and William Byron joining the full-time driver roster alongside Johnson and the returning Chase Elliott.

“We’re in a pretty good spot, frankly. We did not have the season that we wanted last year. It’s not the season we wanted for our fans, it’s not the season we wanted for Lowe’s, for anybody at Hendrick Motorsports and especially for Jimmie and I. It’s something that we’ve worked hard on during the offseason to try to just turn around. I don’t want to say we’ve put it in the past and we’ve forgotten 2017 because I think if you don’t learn from what you’ve experienced in life, you can never improve upon it, but we are definitely eyes forward to 2018."

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