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.

Cup Series Thursday night racing factoids

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When it comes to 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one driver is getting comfortable in Victory Lane.

Entering tonight’s 310-mile race at Charlotte (7 p.m. ET on FS1), the second Cup race in five days on the oval, the series has seen eight different winners in the last eight visits to a 1.5-mile track.

That streak dates back to June 2019 when Alex Bowman earned his first career Cup Series win in a race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Between that race and Brad Keselowski’s win in the Coca-Cola 600, winners on 1.5-mile tracks included: Kurt Busch (Kentucky), Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), Kevin Harvick (Texas), Kyle Busch (Miami) and Joey Logano (Las Vegas).

The Cup Series hasn’t seen a stretch of parity like that on 1.5-mile tracks since 2011, when the last eight 1.5-mile races were won by a different driver.

Here are some other interesting tidbits heading into tonight’s race.

Jimmie Johnson is entering his 37th and likely final Cup Series points start on the Charlotte oval. His eight points race wins and four All-Star Race wins there lead all drivers.

– Johnson has led 1,936 laps on the Charlotte oval, second most all-time to Bobby Allison (2,338).

– Hendrick Motorsports has 19 points wins at Charlotte by seven different drivers. That number of drivers is tied for the most all-time. Hendrick has seven different winners at Pocono and Talladega. Wood Brothers Racing has seven different winners at Daytona.

– Joe Gibbs Racing has 21 Cup wins since the start of 2019, which is 49% of races. Denny Hamlin has eight of those wins, which leads all drivers. Team Penske is second with nine wins.

– Tonight’s Cup race at Charlotte is scheduled for 208 laps. Only two races at Charlotte were scheduled for less laps and both were qualifying races in 1961 at 67 laps each for the 1961 World 600.

 

Jeff Burton joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

Lunch Talk Live
NBC Sports
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NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton will be on today’s Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico. Today’s show airs at noon ET on NBCSN.

Also on Thursday’s show will be Supercross points leader Eli Tomac.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • Noon – Robbie Earle, Premier League on NBC
  • 12:05 p.m. – Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians manager
  • 12:15 p.m. – Chris Simms, FNIA/PFT/Unbuttoned/Notre Dame
  • 12:30 p.m. – Jeff Burton, NASCAR on NBC
  • 12:40 p.m. – Chris Mullin, Basketball Hall of Famer
  • 12:50 p.m. – Eli Tomac, Supercross current points leader

NASCAR adjusts Xfinity Dash 4 Cash schedule

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NASCAR announced changes to the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash races on Thursday.

Here is the schedule:

June 1 – Bristol Motor Speedway (will determine four eligible drivers for first Dash 4 Cash event)

June 6 – Atlanta Motor Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 1)

June 14 – Homestead-Miami Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 2)

June 20 – Talladega Superspeedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 3)

TBA – Next scheduled Xfinity series race after Talladega (Dash 4 Cash event No. 4)

Each Dash 4 Cash event will have four eligible drivers racing for the $100,000 bonus.

The driver who wins the bonus advances to the next Dash 4 Cash event. The next three-highest finishing Xfinity Series drivers eligible for the series title, qualify for the next Dash 4 Cash race.

Previously, Miami was to have served as the qualifying race and was to be followed by Dash 4 Cash races at Texas, Bristol, Talladega and Dover. All those events were postponed because of the COIVD-19 pandemic.

Cup, Xfinity entry lists for Bristol Motor Speedway

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Almost two months it was originally scheduled, NASCAR will finally hold its first Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend of the year.

The Cup and Xfinity Series continue their marathon of races this weekend. The Cup Series will race on Sunday and the Xfinity Series will compete Monday night.

Here are the entry lists for this weekend’s races.

Cup – Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

Forty cars are entered into the race.

JJ Yeley is entered in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 Chevrolet.

Gray Gaulding is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s 27 Ford.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over his brother Kurt Busch.

Denny Hamlin won last year’s night race over Matt DiBenedetto.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Cheddar’s 300 (7 p.m. ET Monday on FS1)

There are 37 cars entered.

Modified driver Patrick Emerling will make his Xfinity Series debut in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet. Brett Moffitt drove the car in the first six races of the season.

Carson Ware makes his Xfinity Series debut driving SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Myatt Snider is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Christopher Bell won this race last year over Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer. Chase Briscoe, who finished fourth, is the highest finishing returning driver from that race.

Reddick won last year’s night race over Briscoe and John Hunter Nemechek.

Click here for the entry list.