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NASCAR drivers cheer ‘Generation 6’ cars

Dale Earnhardt Jr. crosses the finish line at Daytona Beach during Wednesday’s practice. (Associated Press)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. crosses the finish line at Daytona Beach during Wednesday’s practice. (Associated Press)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow is a thing of the past.

Designed primarily to improve driver safety following the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, the car has been kicked to the curb, left in the rearview mirror and turned into scrap metal.

The redesigned replacements – at least so far – are a huge hit with drivers, owners, auto manufacturers and fans.

The new cars, dubbed “Generation 6,” look considerably closer to the ones sold on showroom floors. It’s NASCAR’s way of putting the “stock” back in stock-car racing and possibly making the cars stars once again.

“It matters because it’s the image we portray,” defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “I wear a fire suit with a helmet and a full seat around me. You can’t see me. What you are seeing is this car going around the race track and the sponsors and the car construction, styling, etc. So that is what you see as a fan or as an ambassador of the sport. Absolutely it matters.”

Cars used to be as iconic as drivers in NASCAR.

In the mid-1950s, race cars were nearly indistinguishable from production vehicles. Sure, they had some rudimentary safety equipment and numbers on the doors, but they often still had license plates and working headlights.

Against other real production cars, the first Chrysler 300 was dominant. That set the stage for the next five decades of racing.

Fireball Roberts and his No. 22 black and gold Pontiac Catalina were mainstays in Victory Lane in the early ’60s. Richard Petty’s blue Dodge Charger was a series staple.

The Charger became so important to Petty that NASCAR extended the car’s eligibility through the 1977 season, an unprecedented move for the sanctioning body. Few have forgotten Bill Elliott’s sleek Ford Thunderbird or Earnhardt’s stylish Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS in the late 1980s.

“People want that kind of connection with the car they’re driving,” NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi said.

The CoT debuted in 2007 after extensive research and develop- ment. The driver’s seat moved more toward the center of the car, which was longer and wider.

The result was a boxy car that was indistinguishable from make to make. NASCAR needed just one template to check every car during inspections. Maybe more troubling was that it was considerably less racy than its predecessor.

Drivers hated it, fans ripped it and NASCAR officials dismissed the backlash while continuously pointing to the car’s safety record.

“It was something that’s never happened in history, where manufacturers were basically treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and under a pile a crap by the organizing bodies,” said Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. “Now it’s an opportunity for the manufacturers to become front and center.”