Kligerman: NASCAR has a niche to scratch, and Kyle Larson is the key

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Earlier this week, we were treated to a man telling us, NASCAR has an “identity problem” for a website that carries the very name of this nation. To keep us on our toes, he made sure to misspell three of the NASCAR drivers’ names that he thought weren’t compelling enough, and therefore are creating this problem.

I mean, nothing shows effort, thought, and understanding like a good misspelling or three. So Mr. Dawn Rindsorrrnurngfierhgud (I hope that is how you spell your name because I can’t be bothered to use Google right now), you’re wrong.

See, NASCAR certainly has problems. It is no mystery that empty stands and declining TV ratings aren’t a mark of good health. But it would be misinformed to say, as a direct result, it has lost its identity.

NASCAR does not have an identity problem, it has a niche problem.

And this is where I think you just were using the wrong word. You even mention that the whole entertainment world is fighting an embarrassment of options. Anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection can be considered an “entertainer,” which means that consumers only will continue to fragment and fracture into small niches of interest.

How do I know this? Because it’s been happening for more than a decade. For example, let’s take a look at network TV shows.

On May 6th, 2004, the TV show “Friends” would conclude in front of an audience of 65.9 million people on NBC, ranking fourth on the all-time list of most-watched scripted entertainment broadcasts in U.S. history. It also holds the distinction of the only scripted TV show to crack the top 10 in viewers past 1999.

And in a rare stretch of coincidence, one year after the show about the endearing group of 20-something friends in NYC concluded, NASCAR would have what is considered to be its most-watched season in 2005.

Since then, the network TV world has been picked, ripped and cable-bundled to a loosely recognizable version of its 2004-self. From the advent of cable channels flooding people’s homes to the revelation of a DVR that suddenly allowed people to choose when to watch their favorite programs. Now you have the on-demand and binge-TV of the Netflix, Amazon Primes, and Hulus of the world.

The result in 2016 was the most-watched scripted network TV show was “The Big Bang Theory” at 19.9 million viewers — a far cry from the record-setting late ‘90s and early 2000’s.

Oh, and even the live TV juggernaut of the NFL lost 9 percent of its viewership in 2016.

We are living in a quickly changing media landscape, and we will be forced to accept “new normals.” No longer are many things, if anything, going to garner the interest of a massive section of the public. There just are too many choices.

I know someone who thinks of Busch Beer as a metaphor for an outsized personality will struggle with what I am about to say. But the dominant age demographic in the United States, Millennials, are adopting to this new world of endless choice with open arms.

Because of this, NASCAR needs to avoid anything that connects it to something else.

It should not care if a football fan knows the name of its latest new star. Or if baseball fan Jenny from down the block puts Ryan Blaney posters on her wall.

It actually should love it if they don’t. Because it is not football. It is not baseball. It is racing.

The only fans to whom NASCAR should appeal, cater and pander?

Racing fans. Because that is the niche, and it should aim to be the biggest, most beloved and well-known form within the racing niche.

But how does NASCAR grow in this niche?

By going to where racing fans already are. Like the dirt-track scene. There are thought to be more than 700 active dirt tracks in the country. Each Saturday night, they have crowds ranging from the low hundreds to thousands.

Now for many reasons, the Cup Series can’t go to many of these tracks itself. But the drivers that end up becoming stars in the Cup Series can — and they can bring the fans from those tracks back to NASCAR.

The poster child for catering to this niche? Kyle Larson.

A Millennial who fought and clawed his way into victory lanes across the dry dirt of the Wild West, wheeling 800-plus horsepower monsters sideways — inches from concrete and metal walls — in front of thousands of adoring dirt fans.

He took those skills and rose to the top rung of the American racing world, bringing many adoring fans in the process. And now when he simply could spend his weekday evenings drinking Captain and Diet Cokes, he makes sure his multimillion-dollar contract allows him to continue to race at these dusty speed bowls.

Why? For the fans.

Which is why he recently pleaded for the rest of his fellow NASCAR stars to do the same. Because the fans of these dirt tracks, short tracks and obscure forms of racing are whom NASCAR needs.

NASCAR does not need to be shouting into a vast and ever-expanding void of the entertainment world, trying to impress anyone and everyone, looking for purpose or identity.

That would be an entirely fruitless endeavor.

It needs to be targeting and appealing to the niche of racing fans who are not yet paying attention to NASCAR.

And a young, talented, drive-anything-anywhere driver such as Kyle Larson is just the man for the job.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Indianapolis

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. Only one winner in Brickyard 400 (Jeff Gordon, 27th in 2001) has started in a lower position — but if anyone can rebound after qualifying 25th on a track that’s difficult for passing, it’s the Chip Ganassi Racing driver this season.

Dustin Long

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even before Daytona earlier this month I had this vision of Earnhardt scoring his win to make the playoffs at this track. We’ll see if I can see the future.

Daniel McFadin

Jamie McMurray reminds everyone what he’s capable of by earning his second victory in the Brickyard 400.

Jerry Bonkowski

Sentimentally, I’d like to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win this one. But from a realistic standpoint, I’m going with Kevin Harvick to earn his second career Brickyard win.

With Matt Kenseth available, Hendrick Motorsports already was set on Alex Bowman long ago

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INDIANAPOLIS – Hendrick Motorsports announced Alex Bowman as the driver of its No. 88 Chevrolet last week, but the choice effectively was made long ago.

“We had Alex in the back of mind for whatever opportunity we had,” team owner Rick Hendrick said during a news conference Sunday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It wasn’t much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy.”

Hendrick confirmed Bowman signed a multiyear contract last October that runs through 2019 and hardly considered any other options – including impending free agent — Matt Kenseth to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We were very, very careful not to guarantee (Bowman) anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions. The sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to get the next (ride).”

When Kenseth revealed two weeks ago that he wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt was confident his friend would find a ride for 2018.

But with Hendrick having solidified its lineup for next season with Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Bowman and perhaps Kasey Kahne (Hendrick plans to run four Chevrolets next year but left open the possibility that William Byron could drive the No. 5 – “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”), the options for Kenseth remaining in Cup seem limited.

“I love Matt Kenseth,” Hendrick said. “He is a tremendous talent. He and I have actually talked about this in the past. Sometimes things just don’t line up at the right time.”

Everything has seemed to line up well for Bowman, who drove the No. 88 in 10 races last year while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion. He also has tested for the team in its driving simulator and wheelforce transducer car (which gathers critical setup data).

“A lot of guys have the talent, they just need that one critical break, if they stay committed and keep pushing, eventually that opportunity might come along,” Earnhardt said. “(Bowman) gets that opportunity because of his commitment to his career and the gamble on himself he made a long time ago.

“He works hard and has been a key investment for Chevrolet, incredibly helpful for the company and race team. It’s very tedious work. He’s been a team player knowing if he put forth this effort, he possibly could get this opportunity.”

Hendrick said he knew little about Bowman before Earnhardt personally vouched for him. Bowman validated the recommendation by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway last November and leading 194 laps.

“The word for Alex is he deserved it,” Hendrick said. “He deserves a shot. He stepped into the most pressure point. I don’t think there’d be a situation on pit road of having the pressure of sitting in Dale Earnhardt’s car and to perform like he did and then the contributions he’s made to our company to help our guys.”

Rick Hendrick: ‘The plan is to run 4 cars’ next year

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INDIANAPOLIS – Car owner Rick Hendrick says “the plan” is to run four Cup cars next year even as questions have been raised about the company cutting back to three cars.

Questions have been raised with because the need of sponsorship for the No. 5 team next season. Both Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance are not returning after this season. Those companies are scheduled to sponsor the car in 22 races this year.

Hendrick said Sunday that “the plan is to run four cars” next year.

The comment was well-received. Jim Campbell, who oversees Chevrolet’s motorsports program, liked a tweet that had Hendrick’s comment about remaining four cars.

Hendrick also was asked Sunday about the status of the No. 5 car driven by Kasey Kahne but said only “that’s for another day” during a press conference with Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Nationwide’s Jim McCoy.

Kahne has a contract through next season yet questions have been raised if he’ll be back. If not, an option could be for William Byron, who won Saturday’s Xfintiy race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to move from JR Motorsports into that spot. The 19-year-old Byron, a rookie in the Xfinity Series, has won three of the last five races.

Asked about Byron moving into a Cup car next year, Hendrick said: “We’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”

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Jimmie Johnson to start in the rear after gear change

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson‘s bid for a record-tying fifth Brickyard 400 will have to begin at the back of the 40-car field.

Johnson qualified fourth Saturday but stated on Twitter that he’ll have to go to the rear of the field because they had to change the rear gear.

Although track position is pivotal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because passing is difficult, optimists can view Johnson’s woes as a good sign. He has scored two of his three wins this season – Texas and Dover – after starting in the rear.

Also starting at the rear today is Cole Whitt (rear gear change) and Joey Gase (engine change). Whitt qualified 34th. Gase qualified 38th.

Today’s race is on NBC. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET with Countdown to Green.

 

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