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.

Stage 1 winner AJ Allmendinger blows engine at Sonoma

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AJ Allmendinger lost the engine on his No. 47 Chevrolet on Lap 33 of Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, not long after winning Stage 1.

Allmendinger was running in 13th when the engine blew, a result of a bad shift. It is his first DNF at Sonoma.

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver, a favorite to contend in road course races, had started the race in fifth and made it as high as second before drifting back.

Once the race leaders pitted with four and three laps left in the stage, Allmendinger took the lead.

Allmendinger has started in the top five in the last five Sonoma races and not finished better than 14th.

Jamie McMurray also experienced a mechanical issue that caused his engine to shut off and lose oil pressure. He was pushed to the garage.

 

 

NASCAR community pays tribute to World of Outlaws driver killed in crash

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The NASCAR community paid tribute to World of Outlaws driver Jason Johnson, who died after a sprint car crash Saturday night at Beaver Dam (Wisconsin) Raceway.

Johnson crashed after a restart racing for the lead. Witnesses said that Johnson’s car flipped and went through billboards outside Turn 3, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Johnson won the 2016 Knoxville Nationals. He finished sixth in the points last year in the World of Outlaws.

 

Today’s Cup race at Sonoma: Start time, lineup and more

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There has been a different winner in each of the last nine Cup races at Sonoma Raceway, site of today’s Cup race. Those nine winners have been Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick.

Will there be a 10th different winner at the road course?

Here is all the information for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley will give the command to start engines at 3:01 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:13 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 110 laps (218.9 miles) around the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 25. Stage 2 ends on Lap 50.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 10:30 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:20 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEMBroadway Under The Stars in Sonoma Valley, Transcendence’s Meggie Cansler will perform the anthem at 2:55 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race beginning at 3 p.m. Coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 2 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 80 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Kevin Harvick led the final 22 laps to win last year’s race. Clint Bowyer placed second. Brad Keselowski finished third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for full qualification results.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Sonoma

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. He probably had the best car at Sonoma last year; his team closes the deal this season.

Dustin Long

Kevin Harvick. No one can stop him on an oval or a road course.

Daniel McFadin

William Byron pulls off a shocking win in his first Cup race at Sonoma.

Dan Beaver

Jamie McMurray seesaws through the field, but gets track position in the closing laps.