This story appears in the May 2 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Eddie Wood stood in the bustling Martinsville Speedway garage on race morning, watching his crew work on the 21 car made famous by David Pearson, A.J. Foyt and Wood's own dad, Glen. He chattered excitedly as the team slapped a fresh blue Ford logo onto the back bumper. Each of Wood Brothers Racing's 98 NASCAR Sprint Cup winners have come off that carmaker's assembly line: old Lincolns and Mercurys and the Fusion now driven by Daytona champ Trevor Bayne. But Wood wasn't pumped about the car in front of him. A car still down the road had his motor revving.
"We're going to be running a dang Mustang, man," the owner exclaimed. "How cool is that? People talk about NASCAR's heyday, the '70s, as being a fight between David Pearson and Richard Petty. Truth is, the cars were as big a deal to fans. Heck, I've seen fistfights break out at dinner over Ford versus Chevy. That's been missing. But it's coming back."
And it will be powered by old-fashioned American muscle. The four manufacturers running in NASCAR are finalizing 2013 designs they will submit for approval later this year. Toyota is overhauling only the Camry. But Ford is ditching the family-friendly Fusion for the Mustang, and Dodge is leaning toward the Challenger, with nods to its street cousin, the Charger. For now, Chevrolet is planning to stick with the Impala, but there is pressure to go with the Camaro, Mustang's longtime rival.
"This is the start of a revolution," says Jamie Allison, Ford's director of North American Motorsports. "There's buzz about NASCAR among people who haven't been excited about stock car racing in a long time: real car guys, showroom dealers, the drivers themselves, even me and my co-workers. It feels good."
The beefed-up rides will replace NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, introduced in 2007 as a one-size-fits-all body style distinguishable almost solely by makers' decals. Its boxier, sturdier frame was designed to promote safety and better racing, and it did. But its visual sameness was also created in anticipation of a post-Detroit world.
As car companies edged back from the brink, though, they lobbied to bring character back to their rides. "Race cars are supposed to look cool and be cutting-edge," says AJ Allmendinger, who drives a Ford for Petty. "They weren't either for a while." A huge fan response to the 2010 Nationwide debuts of the Mustang and Challenger told the manufacturers they were on the right track. "Fan loyalty to particular brands and the relationship between the cars on the track and the cars on the street were woefully underestimated," says Roger Penske, owner of Dodge's flagship team. It's why the widely despised Fast and Furious-style rear wing is already gone and the CoT's unsightly air scoop, described by Petty as "braces on the car's teeth," has given way to a sleeker nose.
Ethanol fuel has arrived, and fuel injection is on the way.
Car company officials say they are already seeing an uptick in NASCAR-related sales from the new Nationwide models. And while Detroit proceeds with caution in any new venture these days, there is no reason to think the track's biggest stars won't soon be back in brand-distinctive rides. "When I was growing up, you saw those bumper stickers of the Calvin look-alike [from the comic strip] relieving himself on the logos of other carmakers," says Carl Edwards, who races in both series. "We're going to start seeing those again. I love it."