NASCAR gears up for the next generation, and SpongeBob is just the magnet at Kansas Speedway

On a muggy Saturday afternoon, two children dragged their parents through the garage area at Kansas Speedway, intent on catching up to a hero they had seen only on television.

They weren't after Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, though. They were after a giant, yellow Nickelodeon character — better known as SpongeBob SquarePants — whose name was attached to the Sprint Cup race featuring Gordon, Johnson and the sport's biggest stars that night.

It was exactly what the children's TV network wanted out of its partnership with NASCAR — and just what NASCAR wanted out of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400.

"You know, you're always looking for a younger demographic," Sprint Cup star Clint Bowyer said, "and what better way to attract that younger demographic? I can't imagine any younger kid not wanting to come to the SpongeBob SquarePants race."

NASCAR has been trying to reach younger demographics for years, particularly as stars such as Gordon close in on retirement. The fan base that brought about the racing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s has started to age, and filling that void has become a priority.

That's why a few years ago NASCAR announced an industry action plan designed to attract younger and more diverse fans. It began with a rebuffed website and mobile apps, inviting more mainstream celebrities to races, and providing concerts and other ancillary entertainment.

That was just the start of the outreach, though.

NASCAR has also opened its garages to children accompanied by parents on race days, allowing them to get closer to the cars and drivers. It lowered age limits on some regional competitions, giving up-and-coming drivers a chance to compete earlier. And it embraced social media, fantasy racing and online simulators such as iRacing that are popular with younger demographics.

The push toward a younger demographic in some ways mirrors the push that NASCAR made toward women in the 1980s and '90s, which ultimately succeeded in growing the brand.

"This is really cool to engage the youth and bring in a new fan to NASCAR, and that is an important aspect for all of us, for all our partners moving forward in the sport," said Michael McDowell, whose No. 95 car had Larry the Lobster from the SpongeBob show painted on his car.

A recent Turnkey Sports poll found that only about 10 percent of NASCAR fans these days are in the coveted 18-to-24 marketing demographic. While that may be a sobering number, polls also have found that 37 percent of NASCAR fans have children under age 18.

In other words, there are plenty of potential fans just waiting to get hooked.

"The SpongeBob SquarePants 400 gives Nickelodeon the opportunity to expand its relationship with NASCAR, while working with a best-in-class track to give fans a unique, engaging and high-quality race experience that the whole family can enjoy," said Pam Kaufman, the chief marketing officer for Nickelodeon Group who has spearheaded the affiliation with NASCAR.

"Nickelodeon has embarked on some great initiatives with NASCAR over the last 10 years," Kaufman said, "sponsoring and participating in marquee racing events that have resonated with motorsports fans across the country."

This may be an opportune time to attract younger fans, too.

There is a new set of drivers poised to take over the leadership of the sport. Eighteen-year-old Erik Jones made his first Sprint Cup start on Saturday night, and Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott are at an age that resonates with a younger fan base.

Then there are the current Sprint Cup stars with children of their own. Images of Greg Biffle toting daughter Emma around the garage area, or Matt Kenseth celebrating with daughters Kaylin and Grace in victory lane, get beamed by television into living rooms every race weekend.

"My daughter is 3 1/2 and she loves watching SpongeBob, and she asked before I left if I could bring him back with me," Biffle said. "It's kind of funny how the kids go in cycles. There are a lot of young kids and a lot of new dads in the garage right."

The sponsorship brought out the child in those dads, too. Many were caught taking selfies with the SpongeBob character traipsing through the garage area Saturday night.

"My 6-year old son thinks I am the coolest dad ever because I got to drive the Ninja Turtle car and now I get to drive the Larry Lobster car," McDowell said, wearing a big grin. "I am definitely winning cool points with my kids."