New Nationwide car a template for Cup?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's not quite the 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird and the Ford Torino Talladega like your daddy grew up watching, but NASCAR is moving back in that direction with the new Nationwide Series car that will debut Friday at Daytona International Speedway (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Let's hope the Sprint Cup series isn't far behind.
Many believe this is the first step toward the premier series returning to the day when cars on the track resembled the ones on the showroom floor, which fans and manufacturers seem to want. The governing body worked closely with manufacturers to enhance brand identity in the new Nationwide product and is doing the same in looking at a potential new Cup car over the next three years.
It can't come quick enough for some, including competitors who never quite embraced the boxy-looking Cup car.
"This is a huge step from that regard," said Nationwide points leader Brad Keselowski as he anticipated Wednesday's shakedown of the new car at Daytona. "It's a huge step to the acknowledgement that the cars need to look good to keep part of our fan base interested."
Remember all the comments when NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow in 2006? Most weren't happy about how the car handled. They were outspoken, as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart not-so-delicately put it, about how ugly it was. Don Miller, the former president of Penske Racing, went so far as to say it was "butt ugly."
Some argue the Cup car doesn't look a great deal better today with the spoiler that replaced the wing earlier this year.
But the spoiler was a step in the right direction, and the new front end being designed for next year will be another.
To make the full leap, NASCAR can simply take the Nationwide blueprint and move it to Cup. You definitely won't hear drivers or fans calling the new Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Camry ugly.
"It's like the Mustang you wish you had on the road," said Ford driver Carl Edwards, second in Nationwide points. "I've had more people excited about that car than any of the other changes we've done with the bodies or the spoilers or the wings.
"It's really neat looking."
No, it's hot.
They all are.
The square look of the COT has been replaced by the sleeker, more defined lines seen on the street car. The splitter-dominated front end on the Cup car has been replaced by one that looks like the production model even though the splitter remains underneath.
"I've been telling everybody about when you watched races back in the day they would just bring cars right off the street and race, so they looked exactly like what you could go and buy," Ford's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. "That's what we're getting back to."
This is getting back to NASCAR's roots more than any "have at it boys" command. Fans back in the day got as much fun out of seeing machines like the ones they drove to the track as they did seeing Richard Petty and David Pearson bumping and banging.
Keselowski didn't realize how much stock he put into the look of the car until he began bringing fans to the garage to show off his.
"When it came time to pick between my Nationwide and Cup car, I showed off my Nationwide car," he said. "It became pretty obvious to me that the look of the car is just as valuable as the competition."
He can't wait to show off the new car -- on and off the track.
"It's cool to pull up behind one and see it," Keselowski said. "I love walking up to my race car right before I get into it and just look at it. I like that feel. I like that look."
So do the manufacturers and car owners, many of whom are car dealers.
"This is a big step for NASCAR and certainly for Nationwide -- the fact that we can represent the brand with a vehicle that many people are driving and will drive on the highway," Penske Racing owner Roger Penske said. "Hopefully, we'll see that following through on the Cup side."
It has to happen. Too many people have grumbled since the COT was introduced for it not to.
That's not to say the Nationwide cars don't need something to distinguish themselves from Cup. Perhaps it can be done with the engine or a minor tweak to the body.
But there's no doubt the Nationwide car in some form should be the future of Cup. Jamie Allison, the director of Ford North America Motorsports, already said the Mustang may move to Cup. Ralph Gilles, Dodge president and CEO, is excited about the potential for the Challenger.
"The fans will be the ones that drive this in many ways," Gilles says. "We'll see the reaction we get. We'll measure the buzz. The Sprint Cup side has to observe that and see what works best for them.
"Ultimately, there has to be something that kind of influences this kind of direction because it is important for the manufacturer to finally get a little bit more amplified representation, so to speak."
NASCAR seemingly lost sight of that when implementing the COT, apparently thinking the drivers were the only stars at the track. What they've discovered with the new Nationwide car is it can have all the safety features of the Cup car and showroom looks as well.
Gilles said it best.
"This gives the cars a chance to become stars once again," he said. "I think back in the day when we had Super Bees and great cars like that, you collected the little model cars and it was just as much fun rooting for your driver as it was rooting for the car."
That hasn't been the case, as declining diecast sales may indicate.
Ford and Dodge took advantage of this opportunity to introduce their muscle cars -- Mustang and Challenger. Chevrolet and Toyota have stuck with the Impala and Camry, respectively, being used in the Cup series, but all four brands are without question using a car that appears to be more closely related to the car driven by the fans in the stands.
"All the manufactures are looking at what they need to do to make money and sell cars," said Shane Martin, Chevrolet's program director for the Nationwide Series. "It's what we have to do. I commend NASCAR. They worked with us on all the policies and our identity.
"Our car really looks like an Impala."
Selfishly speaking, it would be better if it looked like the Camaro, Chevrolet's hot muscle car, but officials wanted to continue pushing the Impala, believing it was best suited to what the manufacturer was trying to accomplish on and off the track.
According to Martin, parts of the Impala as well as the Silverado used in the Camping World Truck Series are identical to ones used on showroom models. That doesn't mean you can drive one from the dealership to the track like they did in the early days of the sport, but the gap isn't quite as wide as it was.
"Anytime we can involve the manufacturers more and give them more of an identity on the racetrack, it's going to be better for the manufacturers, it's going to be better for the race fans and, in the end, it's better for everyone," two-time Nationwide champion and current Cup points leader Kevin Harvick said.
Harvick said he likes that the new Nationwide car may close the gap in dominance by the Joe Gibbs Racing cars that have won eight of 16 events this season and 14 of 35 events last season.
"They [JGR] have been pretty dominant over the last three years," Harvick said. "They are still going to win races and be just as competitive as they are now, but I feel like we have been playing catch-up, and this is our chance to take advantage of the opportunity."
But the most important thing is the new cars -- which won't be fully implemented in Nationwide until next season -- look hot.
Hopefully, one day we'll be saying the same thing about the Cup cars.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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