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Friday, January 25, 2013
NASCAR on the verge of rebirth

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- What was old is new again.

That's the message everyone should take away from the 2013 NASCAR media tour.

This can be a transformative year for NASCAR, a special season that regains what was lost by making some of the sport's most memorable times a present-day reality.

A new car, the highly praised Gen-6, is really an attempt to return to what made NASCAR great -- a stock car.

A brash, under-30 driver named Brad Keselowski -- a Twitter phenomenon but an old-school guy who says what he thinks, respects the sport and comes from a working-class racing family -- is trying to win a second consecutive championship.

A driver named Earnhardt may actually contend for the championship again.

A woman named Danica Patrick (you may have heard of her) will do what hasn't been done since the inaugural NASCAR season 64 years ago -- run the entire Cup schedule.

A driver 10 years removed from his only Cup title -- Matt Kenseth -- has changed teams to try to revitalize his chances of winning it again.

What was old is new again.

It isn't NASCAR's theme for 2013, but it should be. The official theme is Racing To Innovate.

Not bad, and certainly true in some ways -- laser inspections, compressed-air track drying, and a car that has "Star Wars"-like computer-mapping advancements never used in the past.

Who would have thought NASCAR and innovation would go together?

Crew chiefs would argue that point, saying they've been innovative (some might call it finding ways to beat the system, or cheating) since the first race back in 1949. But innovation in terms of technology was frowned upon and discouraged for most of NASCAR's existence.

Not anymore. Innovation isn't what brought fans to the sport, but it may bring them back, in a roundabout sort of way.

NASCAR officials have discovered a brilliant concept -- using new technology to return the sport to its roots. That may sound like an oxymoron, but in this instance, it's a combination that fits.

In case you haven't noticed, vintage items and retro merchandise are in these days. Seeing something we grew up with, something that made us smile long ago, is the key to our hearts.

Who we are is who we were. That's what NASCAR is banking on this year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Will the new Gen-6 car propel Dale Earnhardt Jr. into championship contention? Junior Nation is hopeful.

The expression is one of my favorite movie lines, uttered by John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins in "Amistad") while arguing a case before the Supreme Court.

The point of the expression is to remember what made us great as a nation. NASCAR hopes to make the same point in 2013 on the racetrack.

"I really believe we're going to see some of the most competitive, intense and exciting racing we've seen in quite some time," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.

You could hear a NASCAR executive make that statement before any season begins, but this time, it could be legit.

No previous new car design has received the almost-universal praise the new Gen-6 has among drivers, manufacturers, race teams and fans.

That alone is a giant step forward from the Gen-5 model, better known as the Car of Tomorrow. The COT was despised by drivers and fans from the first day to the last -- ugly, boxy, racing-challenged.

With the Gen-6, NASCAR has a winner, a car closer to the look of a real car than any Sprint Cup machine NASCAR has placed on the track in more than two decades.

Even NASCAR chairman Brian France admits it hurt the sport to get away from the conventional stock car look.

"I think it did,'' he said Tuesday. "We certainly didn't intend to do that. We were looking to cut costs and increase safety, and we significantly improved that. But it would be fair to say that in doing those things, we weren't as in step with the manufacturers as we are today. Obviously, we got away from some things that historically had worked well for us."

The collaborative effort between NASCAR, its teams and the auto manufacturers was unprecedented in designing this car. The entries for the three manufacturers are dramatically different from each other, just like the good old days.

For example, the 2012 Chevrolet had only six pieces on the car different from the other cars on the track. The new Chevy SS has 31 different pieces from the Fords and Toyotas. And the body of the race car is within an inch here and there of fitting the mold for the SS production car.

Science and technology gave us the ability to do this with the Gen-6 car that we didn't have before. We didn't have that technology to build a car that looks extremely different in appearance, but comes out aerodynamically the same.

-- NASCAR president Mike Helton

All the cars, however, still are within fractions of a percentage of each other, aerodynamically speaking. That wasn't possible in the past, but innovation has enabled NASCAR to go retro.

"Science and technology gave us the ability to do this with the Gen-6 car that we didn't have before," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "We didn't have that technology to build a car that looks extremely different in appearance, but comes out aerodynamically the same."

No one knows for sure how the car will race. Don't expect miracles, especially on the 1.5-mile ovals, but optimism is overflowing over this car. If nothing else, the cars look good on the racetrack.

For the first time in a long time, the Cup cars look like a car you could drive home. More importantly, they look like a car you would want to drive home.

It's a simple concept, but one that NASCAR misplaced along the way.

And it isn't just the cars. It's the drivers who the fans in the stands can relate to on some level, saying, "Hey, with a little luck, I could be that guy." Or that gal, for all the young women who believe they can do what Patrick has done.

Seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt became a folk hero because fans saw themselves in him. He was a man who overcame his station in life, and fans loved him for it. That love passed down to Dale Jr. His legion of fans believe his success last year showed he still can win a title.

Keselowski is the Gen Y version on that common-man ideal. Kansas straight-talker Clint Bowyer might get there as well.

This season is all about using the tools of the present to return to the best memories of the past. NASCAR is on the verge of rebirth in 2013. Innovation, collaboration and a little luck have helped recover what was lost.

What was old is new again.