NASCAR getting ready for its final laps

Commentary

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship is down to just three races, with three spots in the final four still up for grabs at Texas and Phoenix before the series rolls into Homestead, Florida for the championship race.

That’s after Jimmy Johnson clinched the first spot in the final race with last week’s win at Martinsville.

Johnson owns six Cup championships and would tie the King (Richard Petty) and the “Intimidator” (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) should he capture a seventh title in 2016.

But standing in his way are four other former champions, and three drivers who could not be hungrier to win one.

Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Matt Kenseth have all enjoyed the sweet taste of victory lane in Homestead;  Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have been close, but not as close as Carl Edwards, who tied with Tony Stewart for the points championship in 2011, only to lose on a tiebreaker (most wins.)

As the Cup series heads down the home stretch it begs the question: who’s watching? The sport of NASCAR is reporting declining attendance, as evidenced by the large number of empty seats.  What has happened?

There are a number of guesses:  perhaps it’s generational:  demographics show there are more baby boomers leaving the sport and fewer millennial fans in general.  But more than sheer numbers, the younger fans might be following NASCAR through mobile devices rather than actually attending the races.  They may still love the sport; they just don’t show up to the races.

These demographic challenges are being faced by many industries, including companies here in central Pennsylvania. As workers retire, there are not enough young employees to fill those jobs.

NASCAR has faced the challenges in many ways, including adding more technology for fans to use. Follow a race sometime on Twitter and it’s a whole different experience.  The series also reaches out to fans through other social media like Facebook and Instagram, among others.

Decades ago, NASCAR was on the cutting edge in fan engagement by broadcasting team radio transmissions throughout the race as well as in-car cameras capturing many angles of passes and crashes.  NASCAR broadcasters even took to speaking to drivers in their cars before the green flag fell or during caution segments.

Now they need to take that technology to the next level to engage a generation that is more attached to their phones than they are to any athlete or car on earth.  And it wouldn’t hurt to have more millennials in the field.

The average age of the final 8 drivers chasing the championship is 36.5, not exactly long-in-the-teeth; the youngest driver still in the hunt is 26-year old Joey Logano.

These are issues the series and the tracks will need to address after the 2016 champion is crowned, but they won’t have much time to do it.  NASCAR takes only a few weeks off before revving up again for 2017.

Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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