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1999 could prove a model season for Chevrolet drivers
David Poole - '99 News

(Jan. 17, 1998) -- Most people who make their living covering Winston Cup racing spent Friday afternoon with one of the season's biggest stories right under their noses.

When the annual media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway concluded at the Hendrick Motorsports complex, most of the attention was focused on Rick Hendrick's emotional public return to racing and on his three teams -- most especially the No. 24 team of reigning champion Jeff Gordon.

But a few yards away, locked tightly in one of the other buildings, sat something that will have a lot to do with how the season plays out.

Hendrick Motorsports is developing the speedway version of the Monte Carlo that will replace the current model, likely beginning with the Coca-Cola 600 May 30 at CMS. Richard Childress Racing is working on the version for shorter tracks.

``It's about 80 feet from here,'' said Eddie Dickerson, who is leading the Monte Carlo project for Hendrick Motorsports. ``We're close to getting it approved by NASCAR. They have seen the car a couple of times now and we'll probably go back to the wind tunnel a little bit. . . . (NASCAR officials) will look at the last of the data and we're probably three weeks away from final approval.''

Chevrolet has big marketing plans for the street version. The first public viewing of the car is likely to come at a major auto show in Chicago on Feb. 11, the same day as the 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.

Everywhere the media tour went last week, Chevrolet drivers professed ignorance about specifics involving the new model. Eventually, they all started to sound like Sergeant Schultz on the old ``Hogan's Heroes'' show -- ``We know nnnnnnnothing!''

A lot of people, of course, know a lot more than they're letting on. They likely will know a lot more after gathering at Daytona to test Tuesday and Wednesday in their current Monte Carlos -- information gets around in a hurry when race teams gather.

``I haven't even seen one,'' Jeff Gordon said when asked about the new Monte Carlo, the car he'll drive in about two-thirds of the races as he tries to make it three straight championships. ``We're excited about the car coming out. But it is definitely a concern because it's coming out when it is. I think we would rather have been working on it over the off-season and bring it out the first of the year.

``We're pretty confident with our current Monte Carlo. We've been really making gains on it over the past year and really feel like we're in pretty good shape. We've kind of got something that we know right now that we're working with. Then we have that unknown coming later in the season.

``We're going to be battling for a championship with two separate race cars, so it ought to be interesting. Who knows? It could be the breath of fresh air we all need at that point in the season or we might be doing really well and not necessarily want to make a change.''

Dale Jarrett drives a Ford Taurus, so he's not likely to get a look at the new Monte Carlo until Chevrolet rolls it out for the racing world. He doesn't have to see the car to draw some conclusions about it, however.

``You've got to figure that if they're comfortable enough to bring it to the race track in the middle of the season, it's going to be pretty darn good,'' Jarrett said. ``They're not going to take any chances on messing up their teams that have a chance for a championship. It will be an interesting time to see how good the car is and how quickly NASCAR reacts to how good it may be.''

Penske South played a key role in developing the Taurus that Ford teams rolled out for last year's Daytona 500, and Rusty Wallace and his Penske South teammate, Jeremy Mayfield, had the most successful Fords early. Jarrett thinks that trend could repeat with the Monte Carlo.

``Organizations like Rick Hendrick's and Richard Childress', they're far enough ahead and have the manpower to make a change like that,'' Jarrett said. ``I question whether all of their teams . . . can put all of the different Monte Carlos together and how that will affect them.''

For all of the teeth-grinding that went on among Ford teams last year, let's remember that by the season's third race at Las Vegas so many Fords were in the top 10 NASCAR had to change the rules. Ford teams certainly will remember that if the new Monte Carlos turn out to be significantly better than the ones Gordon used to win 13 races in 1998.