Larson gives glimpse of NASCAR future

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Just last week, former NASCAR Cup champion Kevin Harvick speculated that stock car racing’s failure to draw more fans in recent years was due in part to the fact that the “sport’s most popular driver is not their most successful driver.”

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. reportedly called those comments “hurtful,” NASCAR teams and officials continue to try to solve the dilemma of the sport’s declining attendance, even as Earnhardt prepares to retire at the end of this season.

Sunday’s race may provide a clue to finding a crucial piece of that puzzle: a fantastic finish by a young superstar.

Kyle Larson picked up his third straight win at Michigan Speedway, leading only two laps of the entire afternoon; but those two laps were the only ones that mattered, and they came in a most thrilling fashion.

After a red-flag period to clean up spilled oil during the final caution of the day, Larson found himself on the inside of the second row for the overtime restart. When the green flag flew, Larson threaded the needle between the front-runners, at one point going four-wide to take the lead that held through the checkered flag.

In victory lane, the 25-year-old driver who’s won three Monster Energy Cup races this season, snapped selfies with a mile-wide grin. Larson stands in second place in the Cup series point standings, just behind late-race leader Martin Truex Jr., who watched Larson pull away from him in those overtime laps at Michigan. To add to the compelling story of the weekend, Larson had run at the front of the field at a sprint car race the night before, thanks to special permission from team owner Chip Ganassi.

That’s the kind of excitement that has drawn throngs of fans to the track; and the young Larson should be part of a future resurgence of the sport.

Fans need thrilling action, but they also need to have a connection to the drivers. NASCAR, especially at this time of year, competes with football and baseball, with way too many different events, tracks and even laps to hold a casual follower’s attention for very long.

But bring in dynamic young drivers who are talented, personable and social-media savvy, and racing just might be on the way to reaching the next generation of potential racing fanatics. The key may be getting all of the stakeholders together to create a unified strategy.

NASCAR has been known as one of the sports closest to its followers, offering the most access and interaction between fans and participants among any major sport.

But to have that interaction, they’ll have to get fans back to the track to watch a phenom like Kyle Larson chase the championships.

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

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