By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thematically, the message was abundantly clear, as Chevrolet unveiled the production version of its new high-performance SS model to a throng of fans and media Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.
"NASCAR and the car manufacturers for years have been talking about the need to visually put the 'stock' back in stock car racing," said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America. "This is the year that that finally happens for our sport and our brand."
Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon did the official unveiling, driving a gleaming silver SS to a prominent position in the Daytona Fan Zone. Fresh from opening practice for the Daytona 500, Gordon stepped out of the car clad in his fire suit.
"This thing goes so fast, I think I need to be in my uniform," quipped Gordon, who then turned serious as he spoke to Reuss. "It's a four-door sedan, but it's got the heart of a Corvette. I love what you guys are doing, by bringing that luxury and performance together."
The new Chevrolet SS is a rear-wheel-drive, fuel-injected sedan based on the Commodore built by Australia-based Holden, a GM subsidiary. In fact, Reuss served as chairman managing director of Holden from February 2008 through September 2009.
When he returned to GM in the United States, unifying the brand identity between the Cup car and a street car was at the top of Reuss' to-do list. He met with NASCAR president Mike Helton and NASCAR principals Lesa France Kennedy and Jim France. The agenda? A new car.
"This is the first thing I did when I came back from Australia was to sit down with Mike and Lesa and Jim," Reuss told the NASCAR Wire Service after the unveiling. "The car that we had had little to do with an Impala. The car before that had little to do with a Monte Carlo. It goes back a ways, right?
"We didn't do this right for a long time, and that's really kind of the way I look at it."
Helton acknowledged that prodding from the manufacturers accelerated the development of the new Gen-6 race cars, which were set to make their competitive debuts in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona.
"This was a great collaborative effort," Helton said. "We can't thank Chevrolet enough for having led the charge on that -- backed us in a corner and said, 'Here's what you guys need to think about doing,' causing us maybe to react a little bit ahead of our own schedule.
"But it worked, and it worked well, and we're very grateful for their participation, and we're excited to see what happens in 2013."
PATRICK PACES PRACTICE
More than an hour into the second practice session for the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick steered her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet onto the race track for a mock qualifying run.
On her second lap around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, Patrick posted an average speed of 196.220 mph, the quickest lap of the day. In fact, Patrick was the only driver to exceed 196 mph in either of the two practices.
She was third fastest in the first practice, with Joey Logano topping the chart at 195.410 mph. Patrick ran 195.359 mph in first session.
Patrick was fast during Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona, but the car she's driving in the Daytona 500 isn't the same one she tested more than a month ago. Wind tunnel testing indicated the new car would perform even better, and the proof came Saturday.
"It may blow better numbers in the wind tunnel, but that doesn't necessarily translate to track speed," Patrick said after her lap in the first session. "That was a very good, clean cold car run that we feel very good about."
After the second practice, she felt even better. Rick Hendrick, who supplies chassis and engines to all the Stewart-Haas Racing teams, said he'd be delighted to see Patrick on the pole after Sunday's qualifying session.
"I would love to see her on the pole -- a) because she sparks a lot of new fans, and b) it's got my motor in it," Hendrick said after the unveiling of the new Chevrolet SS street car between practices. "She's magical.
"You look at the Super Bowl, and she's all over the Super Bowl (in TV ads). She's a good little driver, and she does a lot for our sport. It would really be special if she could be on the front row."
LOWE'S TO STAY WITH HENDRICK
At the Chevy unveiling, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick was quick to scotch rumors that Lowe's, sponsor of five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, might not renew its sponsorship.
"Lowe's will be back," Hendrick said emphatically. "I don't know where that came from, but they'll be back. Wishful thinking, maybe, by some of the other folks, but they'll be back.
Lowe's and Hendrick haven't signed a deal yet, but the car owner is confident he has a commitment from the home improvement retailer.
"We've got a verbal," Hendrick said. "We'll button it up, but it's early."