Welcome, NC -- Some hardcore NASCAR fans might say the sport lost a piece of its soul in 2007, when drivers started racing in the "Car of Tomorrow."
Aside from the decals and paint schemes, every car looked almost identical. On the racetrack, Chevrolets looked like Fords, Fords looked like Toyotas and Toyotas had a lot in common with Dodges.
Because the car on the racetrack didn't look like the one fans could buy, one of the most-important bonds NASCAR had with its fans was gone.
But that's changing.
It looks like old-school NASCAR is back, thanks to the sport's sixth generation of race car -- a model that's been dubbed "Gen-6."
Once again, Ford, Toyota and Chevy will each have a car on the track that looks like what fans can park in their driveways. Even better? The new rides are supposed to bring back old school racing -- and old school fans.
"The fans win in this whole deal," Kevin Harvick, who drives Richard Childress Racing's No. 29 Chevy SS, said.
So far, his boss likes what he sees in the cards for 2013.
"Everybody's dealt a new hand this year," Childress said, "and hopefully we can draw a bunch of aces out of it."
A lot of Childress' optimism is due to the fact the sport's stock cars look like "stock" cars again.
"It reminds me back in the old days when a Chevy was a Chevy and a Ford was a Ford," Childress said. "And we didn't have the Toyotas [back then], but Toyotas are Toyotas now."
Even many hardcore fans say NASCAR has driven them away in recent years.
RCR's crew chiefs and drivers say the hope is that more brand identity and better competition brings those fans racing back.
"It's going to bring back some of the old-school race fans that I think that we've been, maybe, neglecting over the last 10 years," No. 27 driver Paul Menard said. "If you own one of these [Chevy SS models] and it's in your garage, it looks just like what's on the race track. I think that brings back a little bit of the 'old school' -- what NASCAR was built on."
Don't be surprised to see track records fall, either.
"The speeds are going to be high," Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, said. "These cars are testing well in excess of 200 mile-an-hour straightaway speeds, so I think the fans are going to be excited to see that."
Childress says he has no doubt the product on the track will be improved.
"I think the racing this year in '13 will be the best ever," he said.
Childress says NASCAR had to make this move to keep more fans and manufacturers from leaving.
And if you're wondering, Harvick says the cars look just as good from the driver's seat as they do from the stands.
"The cars look great," Harvick said, grinning. "When you're running 200 miles an hour you should at least have a cool-looking car, right?"
Fans ought to express some express some gratitude for the boxy, old "Car of Tomorrow," though. It ushered in a new era of safety in the sport that protected everyone's favorite drivers.
You can see more video highlights of the NASCAR Media Tour's stop at RCR in the Local Sports section here on digtriad.com.
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