Whether through happenstance or through foresight bordering on prescience, NASCAR's development of the Car of Tomorrow was a brilliant move, says four- time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Gordon's view has nothing to do with the way the car drives. In truth, he'd probably prefer a car without bump stops in the front suspension, one that turns more easily through the corners at the high-banked tracks that make up the bulk of the Cup schedule.
With United States automakers struggling to survive, however, Gordon sees the introduction of the new race car as a step toward decreasing the sport's dependence on manufacturers.
In fact, if push comes to shove, Gordon says NASCAR racing could survive with no support from the manufacturers, echoing remarks made by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France at Phoenix in November.
"I really credit NASCAR right now, because right now we have a series that CAN operate without the manufacturers," said Gordon, who has driven the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in all 545 of his Cup appearances. "We don't want to, but they could. This sport could survive without them."
Other than minor cosmetic differences, there is little - other than the nameplate and the engine - to differentiate the models that compete in Cup racing (Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Fusion, Dodge Charger and Toyota Camry) from one another.
In building a safer car and removing any competitive advantage that might be derived from distinctive design elements of one particular brand - a logical extension of the move to common templates in 2003 - NASCAR out of necessity sacrificed some of the individuality of the cars fans see on the track on Sunday afternoons. U.S. automakers already have announced plans to diminish their support of motorsports programs.
If economic necessity were to force manufacturers to withdraw from competition altogether, Gordon says racing would go on.
"I hate to even say that, because I know they don't want to hear that, and I don't want to see it," Gordon said. "I'd never want to see that. Where they do play a crucial role is in our engine program and in the technology and in the parts and pieces. "What NASCAR did, I don't think they were looking to the future.
“I think that they were just thinking competition. But right now, if we relied on the manufacturers more so -- I'm nervous now, but I can speak, I think, for (team owner) Rick (Hendrick), and we'd be very, very nervous, because that would be a huge amount of our income and the stability of the teams."
Driver Tony Stewart, on the other hand, doesn't think carmakers will abandon stock car racing. "I'm not sure tennis or golf sells cars, but when you build cars and people race cars, that's how the sport was built," Stewart said.
Clint Bowyer is another driver who thinks manufacturer participation is crucial to the sport's survival. "If we lose the manufacturers, you won't have to worry about racing," Bowyer said. "We'll be walking."
Reid Spencer/Sporting News