You can feel the excitement building
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Long lines. Very long lines. Fans standing for hours with everything from tires to fenders to a full-size go-kart, waiting for an opportunity to get it autographed by their favorite driver.
To nobody's surprise, one of the longest lines was for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver for 10 years in a row.
Kurt Busch had a long line, too.
The scene for Thursday night's FanFest at Daytona International Speedway, along with all the positive talk about the new "Gen 6" car during the three-day test, is enough to renew faith in the direction the sport is going after several lean years.
Earnhardt said he can feel it, too.
"Somebody asked me on stage last night what I would change about the sport," Earnhardt said between practice sessions on Friday. "We get asked that question pretty much every year at a time like this. We used to have a lot of answers for that question. It's hard to come up with something I would change, something I would do differently."
That speaks volumes. As messed up and disorganized as the sport seems at times, the vibe entering 2013 is more positive than it's been in a while.
The new car has a lot to do with it. Drivers seem as excited as the fans to have what was known as the COT -- Car of Tomorrow -- in their rearview mirror.
"I'm glad we finally got away from the Car of Tomorrow that wasn't, I don't think, the best of ideas by Gary Nelson," three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said of NASCAR's former managing director of research and development. "It's nice to get back to cars that look like production cars again."
Only one thing could elevate the sport more -- a championship for Earnhardt.
Despite the recent launch of his new potato chip brand, Earnhardt's primary goal as he approaches his 14th full season in NASCAR's premier series is the title his Hall of Fame father won seven times.
Unfinished business, he calls it.
"Yeah, absolutely," Earnhardt said. "With the way we ran last year and getting a sense we were starting to compete at that level, it got real exciting."
Earnhardt led the points for two weeks and ranked second after 25 races. Then came a slow start to the Chase followed by a concussion that sidelined him for two races and that eventually left him 12th in points.
That's all behind him now. Earnhardt hasn't had symptoms in months of the multiple concussions he sustained last season. He said he feels good. Real good.
And for the record, he says there is no comparison between his decision to step aside in the Chase and the decision of his favorite quarterback, the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, not to step aside in the NFC playoffs against Seattle.
"He is in a much different situation, as young as he is," Earnhardt said. "You make different choices as a 22-year-old versus a 38-year-old. A much different situation."
In other words, Earnhardt isn't looking back. He's looking forward.
"I feel ready to go," he said. "I'm glad I did it the way I did. It gave me an opportunity to get better faster and come back right and sharp."
The scene during Thursday night's FanFest, the results of the new car during the test and other signs leave an impression the sport is ready to come back as well.
It's not there yet. Sponsorship remains an issue, particularly for smaller teams.
"The economy is pretty tough out there," team owner James Finch said in explaining why he isn't ready to commit the No. 51 Phoenix Racing car to a full season yet. "You get tired of getting down on your knees [and begging]."
He said this with a smile, not in the "woe-is-me" tone that was prevalent in the garage a few years ago.
Maybe it's the new car, which, judging from this test will make the dreaded tandem racing a thing of the past. Maybe it's simply the anticipation of the new season that begins next month.
But there is something in the air that says the sport is headed in the right direction, something I couldn't say a few years ago leaving the January test at Daytona.
Something Earnhardt couldn't say then, either.
"I feel like the sport is in a good healthy place," he said. "We have a good opportunity to grow. With this car we have a chance to do something great and really make a big impact. All the pieces are there.
"The racing is as exciting as it has been in a long time. You look at some of these old races and look back at some of the events that we had in the '80s and the '90s, the racing is different. It always is changing and it always will, but I think we have improved it. The sport is in a really good place."