NASCAR NATION IN A BETTER MOOD … SO FAR

Hollywood could not have scripted a better beginning to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. An all-American kid (Trevor Bayne) wins the Great American Race for one of the pioneer race teams of the sport. For an encore, one of NASCAR’s active legends (Jeff Gordon) and arguably second most popular driver behind that red-headed fellow wins for the first time in what seems like a million years at Phoenix. Follow that up with a win at Sin City by the driver (Carl Edwards) best equipped to dethrone a sixth title run by Jimmie Johnson, and you have all the makings of the best season NASCAR has had in years.

It’s the polar opposite of the 2009, which could easily be described as NASCAR’s “Season of Discontentment.” Between a souring economy, a rain-shortened Daytona, a disastrous start for the sport’s “Mr. Popularity” in that race (remember the Junior-Vickers incident?), a crappy race run in crappy weather at Fontana, and it just seemed from the outset that the opening of that year set the stage for one of the sport’s most boring seasons, capped off with an unprecedented fourth championship run for one of its least-compelling (if not least appreciated) drivers.

There’s no question the tide is turning the right way. Ratings are up, attendance is up, and the mood among the fans is just generally better as one tracks the talk in NASCAR Nation. Can the feeling last?

In a way, it’s too bad the good momentum is broken up with a week off, but at least the faithful have Bristol to look forward to. The venue is one of NASCAR’s most beloved, even if the racing there hasn’t been quite as good as it has been in the recent past. A counter to that may very well be the number of top drivers who find themselves with holes to dig out of with the new points system, and the importance of winning races to secure one of two wild card spots in the Chase, thus lending a further sense of urgency to this early season race. Perhaps there is a method to the madness after all.

What will be interesting to watch is how the season progresses. There’s a bevy of the so-called “cookie cutter” tracks on the horizon, the ones the hardcore fans despise. It will also be interesting to see how the season progresses for high profile drivers such as Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. A season of struggle for “Five Time” would actually be good for those bored with the champ stinking up the races, while a return to relevance for Junebug would be a welcome storyline for those legions of fans we call “The Nation.” Strong runs by Smoke and Shrub would add flair to the season and a driver to cheer for those who can’t get into Junior, Johnson or Edwards for whatever reason.

While a lot has happened in just three races, there’s unquestionably a lot that could happen in the next 33 races to undo all the good achieved in NASCAR’s opening weeks. Fortunately, it does seem as though you can learn a lot from a four-week snapshot of the season, and the picture, thus far, is looking pretty decent. Let’s hope the law of inertia — that those things in motion tend to stay in motion — apply to the 2011 season. The fans could sure use a dose of “feel good.”