Chevy's pace laps

Bob Margolis

INDIANAPOLIS – With three new models being introduced into NASCAR competition for the 2006 season, the count is now two down and one to go.

Just weeks after Ford unveiled its new NASCAR model, the Fusion, Chevrolet on Thursday brought out its next NASCAR contender, the redesigned-for-2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. Both the new production car and race car carry the legendary name and heritage of the "SS" line, first introduced by Chevrolet in the 1960s.

The new race car was developed by a partnership made up of Chevrolet engineers and key Chevrolet teams over the past 14 months.

"We worked with our Chevy teams to get their input on how to make a better race car," said Pat Suhy, GM Racing group manager for NASCAR. "We spent a lot of hours in our wind tunnel, our coast-down test facility in Arizona and on race tracks to make this Monte Carlo even better than the current model."

The car made the first of several NASCAR-mandated shakedown runs Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway with Bobby Labonte at the wheel.

"Everything went well," said Labonte, who ran a limited number of laps before bringing the car in. "It's just the first test. It's more of finding a baseline from where to begin."

Chevrolet and GM representatives were reluctant to talk in detail about how the test went, but observers at the track said the car seemed to be suffering from a handling issue that prevented Labonte from running additional laps. The problem was more a mechanical issue rather than an aerodynamic one.

The manufacturer expressed confidence that any problems with the new car would be resolved in time for its competitive debut at Daytona in 2006.

"I believe that in key areas we're able to work with our production counterparts to ensure that the race car is as good as it can be within the boundaries defined by NASCAR," Suhy said.

Despite the usual teething problems associated with a new car, Labonte is optimistic about the new Monte Carlo.

"You always feel that you have an advantage with a new car," he said. "I'm not concerned."

Sources within the garage say that Chevrolet has its work cut out for it, as whatever issue plagued the car during the test would most likely mandate a complete reworking of its front end.

The Monte Carlo made its NASCAR debut in May 1971 in the World 600 at what is now called Lowe's Motor Speedway. It has since become the winningest model in NASCAR history, with 380 race victories as part of Chevy's 20 manufacturer's titles.

The current Monte Carlo has won 10 of the season's first 20 points events, and Chevy drivers Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart sit 1-2 in the standings.

The production version of the 2006 Monte Carlo SS bears a strong resemblance to the current production model, with minor changes to the styling of the front end – changes which purposefully take their cue from the styling on the nose of its NASCAR cousin. The rear spoiler on the production model is also closely modeled after the NASCAR model.

Although NASCAR's common template rules dictate the styling on the Nextel Cup and Busch Series versions, Chevy designers had an opportunity to make a distinctive mark on their NASCAR vehicle – much like Dodge designers did with the close-to-production-looking grille on the new Charger – but chose not to go that route.

Now just one unveiling remains – Toyota, which has scheduled its mandatory on-track NASCAR test of its Camry for sometime next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.