Ever since the end of the 2008 season, when the economy began to take a significant toll on the sport, NASCAR officials, team owners, employees, media and fans have all asked the same question heading into each subsequent new season:
When are things going to get better?
That query has typically been followed by a secondary line of questioning:
Will we ever see NASCAR get back to the way it used to be?
Numerous layoffs within the industry, teams folding, falling TV ratings and significant attendance drops put NASCAR into a precarious position the last four seasons.
Sponsorship money dried up as one company after another left the sport and took their thick corporate checkbooks with them.
Media coverage of the sport fell greatly.
Countless workers who relied upon the sport for good paying jobs were laid off. With the number of available jobs significantly reduced, many members of the NASCAR family have been forced to take jobs in other industries rather than remain in the sport they love. Still, others continue to look for jobs in an industry that once had an overabundance of jobs, only to have constricted greatly due to the economic downturn.
We went through it at the beginning of the 2009 season, and we all asked ourselves, "How long will the bad times last?"
The same thing happened with the start of the 2010 season and then for 2011 as well.
At the start of the 2012 season, there were finally glimmers of hope that we may finally see noticeable improvement in at-track attendance, TV ratings and an increase in fan popularity and interest.
We indeed saw some of that, but certainly not to the degree that many hoped for. While there were some gains, their collective measure was unfortunately less than anticipated.
And now that the 2012 NASCAR season is over, where does that leave us for 2013? Will it be more of the same?
Maybe I'm being an overly optimistic neophyte with a Pollyannic outlook, but my gut tells me that the 2013 season may very well be the best NASCAR season we've seen since 2008.
I'm not necessarily talking about on-track competition and racing—although I admit I'm very excited about the new, so-called "Generation 6" Car of Tomorrow that will replace the five-year-old original version of the COT.
Rather, in talks I've had with people within the sport, as well as chatter with other fans and just a general gut feeling, I believe that NASCAR will make some of the most significant strides back to where it once was in terms of popularity and interest in the upcoming season.
I'm not saying we'll be back to the kind of levels we saw between 2001 through 2005, when the sport was riding high and enjoying unprecedented success.
But rather than being negatively bearish in my outlook, I'm genuinely positive, bullish and optimistic that NASCAR is poised to take some significant steps forward in 2013.
It may not come all the way back, but something tells me the sport will enjoy the biggest steps forward since things unfortunately turned south in 2008.
Show you the proof? Well, I can't exactly do that, obviously, since the start of the new season is still more than two months away. Results bring about proof, right?
But several things lead me to believe that 2013 will be as close to a banner year for the sport as we've seen in at least five years.
First, there's new Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski. He is the perfect combination of youth (he's 28), with an old-school style of driving that reminds old-time fans of guys like Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, the late Dale Earnhardt and others. Plus, Keselowski is on the cutting edge of and has embraced trends such as the use of social media, particularly Twitter, that can only serve to attract more new fans to find out what's all the buzz about in NASCAR.
Face it, if a guy can pick up more than 100,000 new Twitter followers in just over an hour while sitting in his race car during a red flag delay in this past season's Daytona 500, he can easily become somewhat of a pied piper to bring new and young fans into the sport.
Call it the cool or wow factor, but whatever you name it, Keselowski has it, and it can't help but attract countless new fans, as well as bring back disenchanted fans who have lost interest or left the sport.
Second is the new COT. After NASCAR designed the first COT, circa 2007 and 2008, to intentionally not look like cars you see on the street or in car dealer showrooms, fan complaints, not to mention some likely pressure from auto manufacturers because of the poor economic climate we've endured the last several years, caused the sanctioning body to do a complete 180-degree turnaround.
Now, NASCAR has embraced the look of street cars and has transferred that look to the COT in the Sprint Cup Series, as well as the exciting and sporty-body styles of cars in the Nationwide Series. It's almost as if NASCAR is telling race fans, "You, too, can drive the same exact looking kind of car that superstar (fill in the name) drives!"
Third, while we should still somewhat take it with a grain of salt, there has been encouraging news in recent days and weeks that the economy is continuing to come back. Unemployment finally dipped below eight percent this past week, to the lowest level we've seen since late 2008, when things really started getting bad.
That's obviously good.
House prices are climbing back up exponentially at percentages not seen the previous four years, as well as sales. And while there remains some mixed sentiment among consumers that the slow economic recovery is still not as strong as it could or should be, we are also seeing signs of sponsorship support showing gains in NASCAR.
That's good, too.
Of course, much of the optimism is tempered by whether or not this country falls off the so-called Fiscal Cliff by the end of this year. NASCAR officials are more than just casual observers of that. But let's try to remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached in time and that more positive economic signs continue to come forth in the coming months.
The Fiscal Cliff notwithstanding, there are even more signs that NASCAR will be stronger in 2013 than it has been in close to a half-decade.
The sanctioning body has reportedly spent several million dollars to reacquire the rights to and revitalize NASCAR.com, which makes its debut on Jan. 3. Would NASCAR invest such a great expenditure of capital into something if it didn't think it would both be profitable and attract more fans and readers/viewers not just to the web site but to the sport as a whole?
More mouse clicks have the potential to turn into increased TV ratings and ticket sales, and that's what NASCAR is banking on.
There's also been increasing chatter in the sport that we may soon see a dedicated 24/7 NASCAR-oriented cable TV channel—my guess is by 2016 or so, if it happens—similar to the NFL Network and the MLB Network. And just like for the NFL and Major League Baseball, such an initiative holds the strong likelihood of becoming a significant money maker for NASCAR.
And speaking of TV, earlier this year, Fox Sports made an unprecedented investment in NASCAR, extending its current contract through 2022—complete with a significant increase in rights fees it pays to NASCAR. Sometime in 2013, we'll start to see negotiations begin for the other parts of the current broadcast contract.
Not only is ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting both likely to want to extend their own multi-year links to continue televising NASCAR races—and if they don't, Fox surely wouldn't mind increasing its share of race telecasts even more—talk of other networks like NBC and CBS wanting to get into the party also continue to circulate (per Sporting News).
In addition, we already saw one new Cup team announced last week amid reports that we may soon see more teams also enter the sport. Not only does it take money to build a team, it takes sponsorship dollars to run it. And if these reported new teams have both, again, that's another good sign for the overall health of the sport.
Granted, I'm sure that most of us would love to see NASCAR chairman Brian France pick up a magic wand, wave it around and the sport would instantly return to its glory days of the early-to-mid point of the last decade. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.
I'm not saying that all of NASCAR's problems are going to suddenly disappear. There are still ongoing issues with things such as hotels in some areas which continue to gouge fans for $300 or more per night just to have a bed to sleep in on race weekend.
There are still high-cost factors for parts and equipment that keep team budgets far higher than they should be.
Likewise, there is the high overhead to not only run racetracks, but also to modernize them, repave them if necessary, update facilities and the like. And then there's also multi-million dollar driver salaries that must be paid for, and invariably a good chunk of that directly or indirectly comes out of, you guessed it, "Joe Fan's" wallet.
But all that aside and given all the positive signs on the near horizon, something that was far fewer and further between heading into the last four seasons, I definitely think there's a sense for greater optimism and hope than we've had in quite some time.
It may be just over 70 days until the Daytona 500, but we've waited well over 1,400 days to really start feeling good about the health of the sport and where it's heading. It's about time that we start reaping the rewards for our patience and believe that, indeed, things will someday get better.
And if the signs truly are right, someday may just about be here.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski