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“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.”

Indeed.

With Chevrolet leading the way, and fellow manufactures Ford and Toyota gladly following its lead, the auto giants demanded change. By some accounts, Chevy even threatened to leave NASCAR if the on-track cars didn’t become more relevant.

NASCAR listened, and allowed the three manufacturers to develop unique versions of the Gen-6 car. That led to cars that closely resemble the Chevrolet SS, the Ford Fusion and the Toyota Camry.

Grills and body lines are similar. Silhouettes are within millimeters of their showroom counterparts.

“This is stock-car racing,” said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America. “Everything is supposed to be stock or at least as close as you can get to stock. NASCAR knew it. The manufacturers knew. The fans knew it. Everyone could feel things were off. We’re trying to appeal to a whole new generation of people, and when the car’s not relevant, it gets really hard because everyone starts aging. We did this as much for the sport as we did for the brand.”

Still, the ol’ “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra is what auto makers really would like to get back to.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s finally here,” said NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, who owns car dealerships across the country. “I’ve never seen this much energy about the car. We have the drivers as stars, and we used to have the cars as stars. Now I think we’ve got them both again, and I think that’s the neatest part of this deal.”

Feedback has been purely positive after two tests in January and through the first few days of Speedweeks.

Still, complete results won’t really be known until the car makes its debut at superspeedways, short tracks and the all-important 1 1/2 mile ovals.

“The previous car was the ugliest car of all time,” driver Jamie McMurray said. “I thought it was horrible. I think this is the best looking car we’ve ever been in. … It’s cool that we have some brand identity. If you’re a Chevy fan, you have something to pull for. Before, the cars just had different decals on them. They are actually different now, which is cool.”

And NASCAR isn’t done making the race cars more closely mimic those on the streets.

The sanctioning body moved to ethanol-blended fuel in 2011 and then replaced carburetors with fuel-injection systems last year. Electronic power steering and glass dashboards could be next.

“It’s our job to bring racing to fans in a format they can understand, that’s relevant and not based on the past, but on the future,” Reuss said.

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