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Kligerman: NASCAR is Uncool, Which Makes It So Cool

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“I met you. You are not cool.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”

NASCAR also is not cool.

How do I know this? No sport would be making the monumental news as we saw Monday, if everything was as cool as the backside of Pluto.

These are the signs of something feeling seemingly uncool.

And to be honest  —  I love that.

Many of you will start hitting your screens at this point, sending your misspelled death threats and attempting to throw me out of this sport. The fact is if NASCAR was actually “cool,” none of the 2017 enhancements would have happened (which would delight many of the longtime fans).

Over the last three years alone, we have seen changes in how NASCAR crowns a champion, how the cars are driven, set up and built … and now, how NASCAR conducts the simple matter of a race.

We are no different than the young man leaving middle school who is more interested in some fantasy role-playing game than girls. He enters high school realizing he has very few friends. So he decides to smoke cigarettes, wear a hoodie and buys overpriced sneakers.

Most of the “cool” kids will see through that, so he will remain where he started – uncool.

And that’s good.

The thing is, when you think back to your high school days, the most uncool people go on to do simply the coolest things.

NASCAR can be uncool, but revolutionizing its approach to racing could be the coolest thing yet.

As Hoffman’s character also said in Cameron Crowe’s cult classic about the price of fame and success in 1970s rock and roll: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

Which is exactly where NASCAR is as a sport. We are sharing the asocial actions together, witnessing some truly cool times.

Who’s cooler? Kim Kardashian? Or the anonymous man, three whiskeys deep at Pianos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, playing acoustic sets on Wednesdays with a voice made of gravel and tobacco tar?

Sure, the man is not as “cool” as a reality TV show star on Instagram.

But give him two hours, as you sip on your cocktail or Pabst Blue Ribbon of choice. He will weave you through the ups and downs of a lost soul searching for what Kim Kardashian has. He will lament his past chances and the gig that made him a star for a week.

It’s his mysterious, dark and depressing reality that makes him so uncool.

His set will end, and you’ll walk up and say it was incredible. He’ll toss a glance, say, “Thanks” than go back to his phone to check a text. He’ll fish around his pocket for his Metrocard, look back at you and remind you that you can now find him on iTtunes. Although there have been millions before him in the same position, even he sees a need to change with the times.

He can remain uncool even while striving for a relevance that keeps him earnestly and genuinely appealing.

With Kim Kardashian, her life is supposed to be the coolest, but you know everything about it. We all can figure out what it’s like to be uber-rich, as you can just look at one of the million shows dedicated to their lifestyles. There really isn’t a big difference between partying with Kanye West and your best friends, aside from a possibly nicer setting.

Over time her reign as the coolest thing on the Internet will fade like the gloss on Kanye’s Lamborghini.

But the man at Pianos still will be playing on Wednesdays. And still entertaining.

It’s much the same with NASCAR.

For many years before and after the new millennium, we raced our way into the position of the fastest-growing sport in the land of the free. Many thought when they saw pop-culture stars at a race, that they would all become fans, and NASCAR would be cool.

It didn’t happen, and in my view, we are better for it.

We are not the coolest kids on the block.

We don’t find our stars on Page Six, or splashed in Internet scandals. Our races don’t draw the courtside celebrity appearances often seen at games that strive for the validation of a culture built around reality TV tastemakers such as Kardashian.

But who cares?

We have stars such as Jimmie Johnson, who is as real as any guy you might find sipping a Corona on a summer night in a tropical bar.

He also wields a beard so perfect, scientists will study it to help create lifelike robots. His athleticism, determination and simple grit have made him   a legend.

Or on the younger scale, we have stars who seem to represent the very definition of individuality. Such as Ryan Blaney, whose flowing locks my sister describes as “hot.” He is a Star Wars geek with a growing penchant for New York City who, if asked, could drive his car to Mars.

Or Chris Buescher, who represents the next generation of farmer. Doing your farming (whatever that might entail) while making sure it’s all on Snapchat and Instagram. He found a way to become a rising star by sleeping on a man’s couch.

Even Daniel Suarez, who calmly has carried the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. Through that, he has found a way to win and become a champion. Now he has a chance at becoming a star that could be a bonafide hero in his home country.

We may have lost the chance at being cool, like the man singing at Pianos.

But the fact is our uncoolness is producing enhancements that 20 years ago would have been described as lunacy. Our stars are more real and interesting than any of the supposed “cool” ones out there.

No matter which way the sport heads, I think it’s going to be an unsterilized, chaotic, glorious, hell of a time.

That’s what makes it so damn cool.

Join me.

For we are not cool.

Staff picks for Coca-Cola 600

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. Feels as if the previously used Kyle Busch Rule applies in reverse: I’ll pick Truex until he doesn’t win on a 1.5-mile track.

Dustin Long

Kevin Harvick. He becomes a three-time winner of this event and scores his first victory of the season and first for Stewart-Haas Racing since the Daytona 500.

Daniel McFadin

Erik Jones becomes the second first-time winner this season, following in the footsteps of Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth in getting his first win at Charlotte.

Jerry Bonkowski

Charlotte Motor Speedway is Jimmie Johnson‘s track. In 31 career starts, he has eight wins — including four in the Coca-Cola 600 — plus 15 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes. He won there last fall, and he doubles up Sunday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Winning Coke 600 in final attempt ‘would mean a lot’

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CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. “couldn’t have told you what year it was.”

It was 2011 and it was the Coca-Cola 600.

In his fourth year with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt led two laps in the race. On his way to lead a third – the last lap – his No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas in Turn 3. He finished seventh as Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane.

He’s had better finishes before and since, but that was closest Earnhardt has ever come to winning a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“(That race) doesn’t really weigh on me that much,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. “It was tough to get over for a few weeks, but I believe (former crew chief) Steve Letarte might still talk about it today, but a lot of things, a lot of water under the bridge since then.”

Earnhardt said two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway winning tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 is the one box he’d like to check off the most during his retirement tour, which has 25 races remaining in it. Earnhardt will visit nine track he hasn’t won at.

“The 600 would be awesome,” Earnhardt said. “Any of them that we haven’t won at would be great. Any win this year, right, would be good. But if I had to pick Charlotte would be … winning the 600 would mean a lot.”

While the tracks in Daytona and Talladega carry a lot of weight in Earnhardt’s history, it’s the 1.5-mile track in his own backyard where he first got a taste of what the sport he would one day be the face of.

Dale Earnhardt poses in Victory Lane with his two sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Kerry Earnhardt, right, after winning the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, 1992. (Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

“I grew up here and went to all the races here when I was a little kid,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eury’s and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.

“And we had these plastic cars, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, and we would roll them down the hill of the road course and spend the whole weekend there watching Dad race the Xfinity race and the Cup race.”

The 14-time most popular driver watched his father win at Charlotte five times, including three times in the longest race in NASCAR.

But in 33 of his own Cup starts here, Earnhardt hasn’t driven into Victory Lane.

Even Earnhardt can’t quite believe it.

“I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a point race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones, but the way we ran out of the gate as a rookie, we ran pretty good.”

Earnhardt made his Cup debut in the Coke 600 on May 30, 1999, starting eighth and finishing 16th. A year later, he claimed his first career pole in the race. Earnhardt led 175 laps before finishing fourth.

“I thought that this would be a good track for us, but since the repave (in 2006), for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me,” Earnhardt said. “We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”

Earnhardt has six top fives at Charlotte, the most recent coming in the 2015 Coke 600. In his 33 starts, he has an average finish of 19th, which is his third worst among active tracks.

Earnhardt’s bumpy retirement tour hasn’t smoothed out during the season’s two-week layover in Charlotte. Last week, Earnhardt’s final start in the All-Star Race ended with him 18th in a field of 20 cars. He start 19th in tonight’s race.

“We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie (Johnson’s) set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said.

If the No. 88 team should lean on anyone, its Johnson’s team, which has won at Charlotte eight times.

“(Crew chiefs) Greg (Ives) and Chad (Knaus) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me,” Earnhardt said. “One of the things about Jimmie that I’ve always thought was pretty cool was he was always open to looking at other drivers traces and adjusting how he drives.

“If he sees a guy go through the corner and does something different with the gas or the brake he will try it.  And he encourages me or any other teammate to do the same thing.  He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate.  I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him.  He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”

If Johnson’s help turns into the desired win for Earnhardt, it will be only his second top 10 finish of the year. His first came with a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, a sister track to Charlotte.

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How an encounter at NASCAR Hall of Fame changed Ryan Newman’s view of the military (video)

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Ryan Newman‘s appreciation for the military and its purpose was strengthened by a chance encounter with a service member at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In an interview with NASCAR America, the Richard Childress Racing driver spoke about the meeting, which resulted in a friendship.

“He came up to me and introduced himself and looked me square in the eye and says ‘You’re who we fight for,” Newman said. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘You. You and your family, that’s who we fight for. That’s why we go do what we do. Because you represent America. You represent the freedoms that we try to keep and have for our kids. You’re who we fight for.'”

“It hit me and it hit me hard,” Newman said.

Newman and the rest of the drivers in tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 will feature names of fallen soldiers on the top of their windshields.

Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet will honor Lance Corporal Daniel Freeman Swaim of the United States Marine Corps.

Swaim is the cousin of Cruz Gonzales, the gas man on Newman’s team. Swaim served in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. On Nov. 10, 2005, he passed away from wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Steel Curtain in Iraq.

Tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Kyle Busch seeks to follow his All-Star win with the first points win of the season tonight for Joe Gibbs Racing. Martin Truex Jr. won at Kansas earlier this month, the last points race before tonight, and will look to repeat his dominance in this event last year.

Before they and others take the green flag, Charlotte Motor Speedway will honor military members on this Memorial Day weekend.

Here are the particulars for today’s Xfinity race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Channing Tatum, co-star of the upcoming movie “Logan Lucky,” will give the command for drivers to start engines at 6:10 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 6:18 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 400 laps (600 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 100. Stage 2 ends on Lap 200. Stage 3 ends on Lap 300.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. The drivers meeting is at 4 p.m. Driver introductions are at 5:20 p.m.

AMAZING GRACE: Charlotte Fire Department Pipe Band will perform this song at 6 p.m.

21-GUN SALUTE: Fort Bragg Firing Party will perform this at 6:02. It will be followed by the playing of “Taps” by a bugler from Fort Bragg.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: The 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus will perform the Anthem at 6:03 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 6 p.m. Its coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at gorpn.com. PRN’s coverage begins at 5 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 83 degrees at race time with a 38 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Martin Truex Jr. led a record 392 of 400 laps to win last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Kevin Harvick was second and Jimmie Johnson third. Johnson won at Charlotte last fall in the Chase. Matt Kenseth was second and Kasey Kahne third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup