NASCAR fans have more than one reason to smile this week.
And not just because of the big party going on in Las Vegas.
In NASCAR, things are moving in the right direction. And it’s largely because of the men and women who are loyal — and in some cases, hugely disgruntled — race fans.
Wednesday’s announcement that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will race at Eldora Speedway is the tip of a massive iceberg that represents significant changes in the sport’s direction.
Likewise, today’s introduction of the Chevrolet SS, the final of the so-called Generation Six cars that will race in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, is another sea change for NASCAR.
And those changes are for the better.
First, and most importantly, they signify that NASCAR actually is listening, and listening closely, to fans.
Let’s start with the new Sprint Cup cars.
The 2013 Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry will actually look a lot like their production counterparts, not some half-assed cross between an IROC car and a dirt late model. Yeah, they are still race cars, but you can tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Toyota.
More importantly, they should race a lot better, especially on the high-speed intermediate tracks that make up so much of the NASCAR schedule.
Will they be perfect out of the box? No.
But they will be very good to start out with, and light years ahead of the “Car of Tomorrow,” when it debuted in 2007. The G6 cars are far more advanced than the COT was in a similar phase of development. I expect better racing and better reviews from the drivers for the new cars.
And the combination of cars that look better, race better and bring individual brand identity back into the Sprint Cup Series will be a huge home run.
As for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, I’m thrilled with the direction it’s taking, too.
While racing on dirt at Eldora is obviously a big story, the larger one is that the Truck Series is headed back to its roots, with more short-track racing in the future and a truly separate identity. The Truck Series has always had some of the best racing in all of NASCAR, and I expect that to continue in the future.
The thought of the trucks racing at Greenville-Pickens or maybe Myrtle Beach or South Boston in 2014 and beyond should delight short-track fans.
NASCAR deserves credit for the new and much-improved Cup cars and for a return to roots racing for the Truck Series.
So do race fans.
That might seem like a peculiar sentiment, but it’s true: When attendance and television ratings dropped, it was a clear sign race fans didn’t like the product they were seeing on track as much as they once did.
Those empty seats in a very real sense forced NASCAR to raise its game and come up with something better than what the fans were seeing — or weren’t seeing, by not watching.
To me, it’s encouraging that the end result is dramatically better looking cars that should race better as well. We won’t know for sure how this will all play out until next year, but for now it looks like things are absolutely going in the right direction.
I sure hope so.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.