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Toyota Camry hitting the track before it hits the street

DETROIT -- Toyota unveiled the redesigned 2018 Camry at the North American International Auto Show, simultaneously revealing the version of the car that will race in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Toyota's considerable investment in a NASCAR program was finally rewarded when Kyle Busch won the Cup Series championship in 2015. Now the auto manufacturing giant is strengthening the ties between America's most popular form of motorsport and its most popular American-made vehicle.

Built in Georgetown, Kentucky, the Camry is a perennial bestseller that most recently underwent a total redesign for the 2011 model year.

Although a production version of the 2018 Camry won't be in showrooms until August, race fans will get to preview its sleeker lines every week at the racetrack in the form of styling cues incorporated into Toyota's latest NASCAR contender.

The new body panels for the NASCAR Camry were designed in California with input from Toyota Racing Development and Calty Design Research. The prototype car was constructed in great secrecy by Joe Gibbs Racing and passed the key NASCAR compliance test on the first attempt.

All of the Toyota entries that compete in the Cup Series in 2017 will feature the new bodywork, which mimics the front and rear fascia of the 2018 Camry XSE, the sportiest model in the lineup.

"With the Gen 6 program, we took a huge step of bringing the production car to look like the race car and vice versa," said Ed Laukes, vice president of marketing, media, incentives & motorsports for Toyota Motor Sales, USA. "This car that is going to debut at Daytona now has really taken it to the point where the whole upper end of the front, when you look at it compared to the production car, it's literally almost identical. The street vehicle and the Cup car are going to look very, very similar with regard to most of the lines.

"Obviously we have to take into account the air duct openings and those types of things depending on the racetrack, but the styling and everything is very, very aggressive," he added. "This is probably the most aggressively styled Camry in the history of [the model]. It will be a huge moment for the company."

Design work on the new sheet metal for the 2017 NASCAR contender started in early 2015, around the time the bodywork Toyota used for the 2015 and '16 racing seasons took to the track. At that time, minor changes were introduced to reflect the look of a midcycle refresh for the production Camry.

The changes for 2017 were much more substantial because the production Camry is an all-new design that shares a platform with the Prius family of hybrids. That gave Calty's designers more latitude in terms of introducing street car styling cues while TRD engineers worked to maximize downforce and minimize drag within NASCAR's strict guidelines.

"The intent is to be able to hit the ground running at Daytona, being further along than we have been with the past two generations," said David Wilson, TRD president and general manager. "Every time a manufacturer has a shot at building a new car, or evolving a new car, you work closer and closer to the corner of that same box, with the lowest drag and the highest downforce. NASCAR gives you two shots at it, and we ended up hitting our number on the first day and we were approved at our first attempt by NASCAR.

"What's pretty cool is that other than a dealer sending a tweet out after a dealer meeting in Las Vegas [in September, showing the front end of the race car] it's largely been kept under wraps," Wilson added. "The shop windows at JGR were fogged over so fans couldn't see that's where we've been building the cars."

Toyota entered Cup Series competition in 2007, but it took nearly a decade before Busch earned the company's first driver championship. Toyota followed up by winning the NASCAR manufacturer championship for the first time in 2016.

"It's been 10 years since we started racing in NASCAR, and we really feel a part of the family," said Toyota president Akio Toyoda at Monday's unveiling. "It is a tremendous honor."

Toyota execs are justifiably proud of the progress the NASCAR program has made, especially since Joe Gibbs Racing expanded to three and ultimately four cars over the past few years. The addition of a second Toyota Cup series entry at Furniture Row Racing for Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones is expected to strengthen the Toyota effort in 2017.

"Development of this car has been happening behind the scenes for a long time," Laukes said. "We're always looking to try to make things better, but you can't get radical because then you'd be outside of the rules."

Matt Kenseth will be the first driver to test the new NASCAR Camry later this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kenseth and Jones are Toyota's designated drivers for the first NASCAR open test of 2017, set for Jan. 30-31 at Phoenix International Raceway.