As we inch closer to the season-opening Daytona 500, expectations and excitement are running high for not only NASCAR and its teams but for fans as well.
NASCAR has a lot riding on 2013.
More sponsorship opportunities, changes in the next TV deal, the next generation of race cars, the relaunch of NASCAR.com and elimination of the Top-35 rule are all being eyed as positives and significant improvements for the sport and its future direction.
Here's a look at those five key topics, how they break down and their ultimate and hoped-for impact.
Mobil 1 is among numerous sponsors back for 2013 in either similar or expanded roles compared to 2012.
Even though some cars remain without sponsorship for several races—most notable are 13 of this season's 36 Sprint Cup races remain unsponsored for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet, as well as several unsponsored races for the entire Stewart Haas lineup of Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick—the sponsorship picture as a whole appears stronger than it has been in the last five years.
The economy continues to get better, more companies are hiring and people are starting to spend more—including sponsors who are either new to the sport or current benefactors who are looking to expand their role and dollar amount, too.
Don't get me wrong—the sport still has a ways to go until all cars are fully sponsored. But things certainly look better heading into this season than they have going into the last several seasons, for sure.
Fox Sports is locked into its part of the NASCAR TV package until 2022.
Even though two years remain (through the 2014 season) on its current $4.8 billion TV package, NASCAR will begin negotiating its next big Sprint Cup Series broadcast deal with current and potentially new TV partners later this year.
Not wanting to wait or be outbid by another network, Fox Sports/Speed Channel last October extended its 13-race share of the schedule through 2022 at a reported price tag of $2.4 billion—or an increase of $80 million more per season.
That leaves 23 races still to be divvied up for the next eight-year deal from 2015 until 2022. And given Fox's upping its payments in the new deal, there will likely be an increase in the price of the next eight-year TV package for 2015-2022.
Currently, TNT Sports broadcasts the 14th through 19th races of the Sprint Cup season, and ESPN/ABC televise the remaining 17 races.
Both TNT and ESPN/ABC are expected to seek extensions of their current deals and possibly add more races to their schedules.
At the same time, other networks including NBC and CBS are also rumored to be considering submitting bids.
With Fox/Speed paying $2.4 billion for just over one-third of a season going forward in 2015 through 2022, it's likely that the other 23 Cup races in the next contract could bring NASCAR as much as $7 billion in rights fees.
If that's not a sign of NASCAR returning to popularity, I don't know what is.
NASCAR fans will notice a significant difference on the race track this season with the advent of the new "Generation 6" ("Gen 6" for short) race car, which will make its official debut in the Daytona 500 in a few weeks.
The Gen 6 is a state-of-the-art race car that not only has the most modern safety features built into it, it also addresses one of the biggest complaints—most notably from fans—of the original "Car of Tomorrow."
Namely, its look.
Whereas the COT was essentially the same body style offset only by decals to differentiate between car manufacturers (Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and, until the end of 2012, Dodge), the new Gen 6 is completely revamped.
But most importantly, each car looks far more like the same stock version you'd see on the street or in dealer showrooms.
In other words, a Ford Fusion Sprint Cup car will look like its showroom brother. Ditto for Chevrolet's SS (formerly the Impala) and Toyota's Camry. Dodge will not be part of Sprint Cup racing in 2013 but may return as early as next season if it can attract several teams under its umbrella.
Whether the switch to the old adage about stock cars of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" happens and gets more fans interested again in the sport—or brings in new fans—remains to be seen.
But at least it's a start in the right direction.
NASCAR not only has reacquired its own website after contracting out its operation for the last nine years, it has spent a significant amount of time and money in upgrading the new NASCAR.com.
Much like the Gen 6 car, NASCAR has a lot riding on NASCAR.com. It has significantly expanded its use of video, greatly expanded fan engagement and built much of that outreach through perhaps the largest application of social media of any professional sports league today.
And like the Gen 6 car, NASCAR.com is state of the art and appears positioned to become one of the leading overall sports websites in the world.
Since its relaunch on Jan. 3, it has provided a great example of what is and what's still to come, but it won't hit its full stride until the season begins in a few weeks.
That's when it likely will take off in popularity.
Drivers like Sam Hornish Jr. will be staring at the scoreboard more often this year during qualifying to see where they're at due to elimination of the Top 35 rule.
While it remains to be seen how well it will be received by fans, elimination of the longtime and so-called Top-35 rule should be yet another attention-getter in the sport this season.
Fans have called for the elimination of the rule since it was first implemented in 2005.
Up until this season, the top 35 teams ranked in owner points, not driver points, have been given an automatic berth in a race. In theory, teams in the top 35 didn't even have to qualify if they didn't want to, but most usually did to try to gain an advantage over competitors for the start and early part of a race.
The new rule will take effect starting with the second race of the season at Phoenix (the season-opening Daytona 500 has its own unique qualifying system based upon qualifying and two subsequent heat races to fill the 43-car field).
With the new rule, the top 36 cars based on speed in qualifying will make the race. Six other spots will be determined by owner points, and the final spot will be reserved for a past champion who doesn't necessarily run regularly any longer, like Bill Elliott or Terry Labonte.
If there is no past champion—otherwise known as the "past champion's provisional"—then a seventh driver would qualify based on owner points.
If qualifying is rained out, the starting grid will be determined by the fastest lap speeds during practice sessions.
Elimination of the Top-35 rule is yet another example of how NASCAR is attempting to listen more to what fans want. The way I see it, it's a win-win for everyone.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski