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Pony cars coming to NASCAR

Updated: June 15, 2009, 2:01 PM EDT

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - NASCAR is bringing sexy back — and in the case of race cars, it's long overdue.

If the Car of Tomorrow comes to fruition in the Nationwide Series in 2010, the vehicle list will include "pony cars" from the manufacturers that choose to use the series to market those models to the public.

That includes the iconic Mustang — the quintessential pony car.

On Saturday when a NASCAR official spoke of the new NNS COTs, he beamed. It had been a long time since someone from the sanctioning body's side of the sport was genuinely enthusiastic about the styling of a car.

And when he mentioned "Mustang," my ears perked. A Mustang? A true American sports car for NASCAR competition? And a Challenger, too?

I must be dreaming.

"Ten-fold better than a Cup car," the official said of the designs, which must be submitted for approval by June 26 according to the NASCAR Rule Book.

The new cars are expected to be closer to stock than any vehicle that the sanctioning body has run in the top two series since the dreaded term "aero-matching" rolled off spin-doctor tongues in 2000.

Despite opposition to a common template platform from both General Motors and Ford, NASCAR turned the Sprint Cup division into a high-dollar IROC Series where all the cars were similar — and the fans turned away. Field managers warned league principals that loss of brand identification would be detrimental not only to the manufacturers, but to the sport itself.

Manufacturers reportedly poured more than a half-billion dollars into the sport last year through factory and technical support to the teams, track support, vehicle programs and advertising. Yet NASCAR turned its back on Detroit with each generation of its race car as it morphed further away from what was on the showroom floor.

Yes, the new Sprint Cup car has proved to be safer. After the initial blow of scrapping entire fleets of the old car, the new model will be more cost efficient. The level of competition with the new car — at tracks other than intermediate and two-mile venues — has picked up considerably.

But the majority of core NASCAR fans have never embraced this car. The evidence of their displeasure can be measured in the dramatic drop in attendance, souvenir sales and television ratings, all of which started long before the economy tanked.

Now NASCAR is feeling a similar pain in its pocketbook. And the sanctioning body is responding by offering an olive branch in the form of a sleeker, sexy race car to entice the fans back to the stands. A car that hopefully will revive the "Win on Sunday, buy on Monday" mentality of fans so automakers and sponsors can continue to enjoy a return on investment in the sport.

Rather than admitting their mistake in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR will begin filtering elements of the Nationwide cars back to the Cup model. The cockpit is expected to remain the same to maintain the integrity of the safer vehicle but the car will take on a sportier appearance.

Currently, only Ford and Dodge will compete with models that differ from Cup. Despite Chevrolet rolling out the new Camaro to dealers, there doesn't seem to be an urgency to promote that brand or the Malibu in NASCAR other than for pace cars at this time. Toyota has discontinued its two-door Solara, so expect the Camry nameplate in NNS.

The days when racers bought cars from the showroom floor, made a few modifications and were ready to race are over. But developing a car that appeals to both fans and manufacturers is a step in the right direction.

NASCAR - - FOX Sports on MSN
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