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NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. help GM’s Mark Reuss introduce the replacement to the Camaro SS.
David Guralnick, The Detroit News

Beginning next season, race teams driving a Chevrolet will be behind the wheel of the Camaro ZL1 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The Camaro ZLI will make its debut in February during Daytona Speedweeks, which starts the 2018 NASCAR season. The blue coupe on Thursday made a loud debut as driver and Cup champion Jimmie Johnson zoomed up a temporarily closed Jefferson Avenue in front of the General Motors Co.’s headquarters. The new Camaro replaces the Chevrolet SS which Chevy has used in NASCAR since 2013.

Johnson of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 car, helped reveal the new racer carrying the No. 8 which was Louis Chevrolet’s racing number — along with Mark Reuss, head of GM’s global product development, and Jim Campbell, vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports. Representatives from several race teams also attended.

“This car and the return of Camaro is incredibly special for us and … I think the whole Camaro nation,” said Reuss, who added he crossed off a bucket-list item after being driven around by Earnhardt Jr.

Johnson described the Camaro ZL1 as a “monster.”

“I love it. I’ve so enjoyed driving in the car. The torque, the power, the handling it is very fun to drive on the street. I know the consumers are going to love and enjoy that,” he said. “I’m going to race a Camaro, so I’m excited to get on the race track and be in a Camaro next year, a first time in a long, long time for Camaro to be on the race track. It looks amazing and I know it’s going to perform very well.”

GM confirmed in January this year that the sporty, rear-wheel drive and V-8 powered Chevrolet SS would end sales in the U.S. by the end of the year. GM opted to end vehicle production in Australia where the SS is built.

The car had been sold in the U.S. since 2013 but in low volumes. In 2016, GM sold 3,013 SS sedans in the U.S., up 4.1 percent from 2015. Sales through July this year are up 21 percent.

The SS scored 70 Cup Series wins and helping Chevy earn a record 39 NASCAR manufacturing titles.

Reuss said the new NASCAR Camaro ZL1 has been in development for about a year and a half.

The Camaro ZL1’s entry into the Monster Energy series will help expand Camaro’s reach into motorsports and could provide a lift in Camaro sales, Reuss told reporters.

“We’ve got opportunities in the very low end of the Camaro range and maybe some re-mix of some of the V-8 options on it so we don’t force people to buy all the options for the V-8 just to get a V-8,” said Reuss, who will drive the pace car in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway.

Camaro sales are down 2.5 percent so far this year through July. An entry-level Camaro starts at about $27,000, with the ZLI starts at just over $62,000.

Chevy has raced the Camaro SS in the NASCAR Xfinity Series since 2013.

Chevy said its engineers used a number of tools and wind-tunnel testing to help boost aerodynamic performance in the ZL1.

The 2018 Camaro ZL1 boasts a supercharged, 650-horsepower engine that has similarities to the 90-degree V-8 configuration of racing engines. The NASCAR teams will receive the new car in the fall.

The ZLI name debuted in the 1960s on an aluminum racing engine Chevy developed.

In 1969, some Chevy dealers used a special ordering system to have ZL1 engines installed into 69 production Camaros called COPO (Central Office Production Order) cars, which were hits at the dragstrip.

mburden@detroitnews.com

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