ESPN used its TV stations, radio affiliates and Web site to promote the game so much that it felt like we’d be letting the entire world down if we missed this game. It turned out to be a game between two teams that lost their bowl games by a combined 41 points. Still, thanks to the endless promotion, most sports fans tuned in that day to see what would happen. The cable giant can will NASCAR into the mainstream in a similar way, arm-twisting until many sports fans say “uncle” and start watching the races. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. The average mainstream sports fan could use a little NASCAR education. Most people are so eager to slap the “redneck” label on NASCAR that they don’t realize how much the demographics of the sport have changed. The last six NASCAR Nextel Cup champions have been from such non-Southern places as California (twice), Nevada, Wisconsin and Indiana (twice). Furthermore, the past three Daytona 500 winners are from California. Six of last year’s Chase for the Cup participants are from states outside the Southeast. Some say NASCAR’s popularity has plateaued because attendance and TV ratings dropped last year. That’s true – the numbers did fall. But NASCAR argues that the ratings dropped only slightly from its record-setting year in 2005 and cites figures that its races were either the No.1- or No. 2-rated sporting event on 23 of 36 race weekends last season. Poor attendance at California Speedway notwithstanding, NASCAR says its races made up 17 of the top 20 most-attended sporting events in the country last year. And aside from ESPN’s re-entry into the sport, world-class drivers from other forms of auto racing are ditching their rides for a chance at NASCAR’s fame and fortune. Most notably, former Formula One driver and Indianapolis500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya is now a full-time member of the Nextel Cup Series – bringing with him a large Hispanic fan base. Should NASCAR expand into Denver, Seattle or even New York City, that would only create more new fans. NASCAR also claims to have the most Fortune 500 company involvement of any sport, meaning it benefits those massive corporations to sell the sport themselves – after all, more viewers means more eyes on their product-sponsored race cars. Unfortunately for the small-minded group that can’t tolerate anything NASCAR, the sport is not only still growing – it may be just getting started. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Like many others, I knew NASCAR was big – but I didn’t really get it. That all changed suddenly when I went to my first race. I was hooked, and that’s all it took to start turning this stick-and-ball sports fan into a motorsports gearhead. My own example is why I believe NASCAR is still growing. Peaked? Hardly. Not when there’s millions of people like myself who didn’t grow up exposed to racing – but learned to appreciate it once they got the chance. Having ESPN and its incredible hype machine promote the sport is only going to help target those who love football, baseball and basketball but haven’t really seen enough of NASCAR to understand it. Think about ESPN’s aggressive – and yes, occasionally annoying – marketing for a big game on sister network ABC. We were absolutely bombarded for this year’s Ohio State-Michigan college football game, made to believe that it was the biggest and most important game of all-time. Had you asked me to watch a NASCAR race four years ago, I would have told you I’d rather sit through an educational film about refrigerator maintenance or a History Channel special about military food in World War I. Anything but watching four hours of guys I’ve never heard of make left turns around tracks I’ve never seen or cared about.