Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN… Chase… Overload

September brings about the beginning of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. This is something that I have generally not been a fan of in the past for multiple reasons. Most of those reasons are not really pertinent to this article, so I won’t get into it here. However, there is one thought that does relate to the TV telecasts.

New Hampshire’s September Sprint Cup weekend was inherited by the track as a result of the joint purchase of North Wilkesboro Speedway by Burton Smith and former NHMS owner Bob Bahre in 1996. As part of that deal, the two owners shut down the 49-year-old short track and split the track’s two Winston Cup dates. New Hampshire claimed the fall date, the former Tyson Holly Farms 400. Now, that fall weekend is the first weekend of the Chase. But, the Sprint Cup Series was not the only series racing this past weekend. Saturday saw three support races. The last of the three was not televised, unfortunately. But, the first two were.

First up on Saturday was the NASCAR Whelen Modified Series with the New Hampshire 100. This was the series’ second telecast of 2009 on SPEED. Back in June, the modified race was not televised, despite the cameras running during it. By popular demand, SPEED stepped up to the plate.

Contrary to what I said in the closing of last week’s critique, this race was not televised live (at least, not at the beginning). When I wrote that it would be live, I was looking at NASCAR’s own Home Tracks website. At the time, it said that the race would start at 1 p.m. By the time Saturday came around, the start time had been changed to 12:45 p.m. Really, I don’t blame them for moving the race up, knowing that even with the slightly earlier start, it still ran up against the NCWTS Setup.

As a result of the tape delay, approximately 10-12 laps were cut out of the telecast. SPEED went to a commercial break during the fifth caution (thrown for a crash involving Donny Lia, Chris Pasteryak, Eric Goodale, Bobby Santos III and Richard Savary). When they returned, the race had restarted from that caution, run another segment and another spin had taken place involving the No. 46 of Eric Beers. The restart from that caution quickly followed. It’s unclear, but I’m thinking that from that point on, the telecast was live.

As for the play by play, just like at Bristol last night, Mike Joy and Dick Berggren were up in the booth for SPEED and did an admirable job upstairs. Both are very enthusiastic for the series and probably wish that it got more exposure. Of course, the series got more telecasts in the mid-to-late 1990s than it does now, despite triple the number of channels available today.

This race had one “ringer” in it, the No. 7 owned by Kevin Manion and driven by Ryan Newman. My thoughts when Cup drivers moonlight in these support races are always along the lines that they might take attention away from other, more deserving teams. This was not the case on Saturday. Newman had to come from the back because Steve Park qualified the car (Newman was in New York City fulfilling Chase obligations on Thursday when qualifying took place).

Of course, it didn’t help that Park had a “moment” in practice on Thursday as well. He was invisible for most of the day, but made his presence known at the front of the field.

Something that I noticed that wasn’t touched upon was the fact that the modifieds were quite a bit slower at NHMS than I thought they would be. Pole speed, in fact, was over a second slower than the Cup Series. Back in the 1990s, those qualifying results would have been reversed. I’d like to know what kind of restrictor plate (and yes, they run them) the cars were running.

Due to the race running very long (the event had 11 caution flags which covered just over half (51 laps) of the 100-lap distance, the race ended right about when the pre-race for the Camping World Truck Series race (NCWTS Setup) was supposed to start. Originally, SPEED was going to leave the modified race at 2:30 p.m. to start NCWTS Setup and interview race winner Ron Silk during the show (Joy announced these intentions to the viewing audience on air).

However, there was a change on SPEED’s start to allow for a quick interview of Silk in his driver’s seat (before he got the chance to get out) by Bob Dillner. This was good to allow the interview to air inside of the race telecast. However, due to the length of the race, that was the only post-race interview that was included on the telecast.

My thoughts on this race is that while it was chock full of wrecks, the racing was excellent to watch. Probably the best on-track action of the weekend. I’m glad that I was able to see it. NASCAR really needs to come up with something resembling a TV deal for this series (and the Southern modifieds as well). As it stands, the two races aired on SPEED this year were the first televised races for the series in years. The series is still quite popular, but without TV coverage, it is essentially operating in a bubble. It cannot grow without coverage (this is effectively the same problem that USAC currently has).

Right after the marathon that was the New Hampshire 100 ended, SPEED continued with their coverage of the Heluva! Good 200 Truck Series race. The big story in the trucks this past week was the fallout from the contact between Matt Crafton and Ron Hornaday at Gateway. I thought that the coverage of it was a little overblown during the pre-race.

However, if Crafton and Hornaday were going to let bygones be bygones, KHI owner Kevin Harvick didn’t get the message. Harvick blocked Crafton on pit road during practice on at least two occasions, and even intentionally bumped him during the race. The contact damaged the left front of Crafton’s truck, hurting his downforce, while Harvick got away scot free.

I’m not sure if NASCAR looked into this conduct or not, but it was given some lip service from the SPEED commentary crew. Crafton mentioned over the radio that he felt that it was an intentional move by Harvick. I wish SPEED could have summoned a replay of this contact so that we could conclude for ourselves, but I guess they didn’t catch it.

The pre-race, which was cut a little short at the beginning because of the aforementioned modified race running long, was of the usual good quality. The supposed feud took precedence, but there were all the usual features that we’ve come to expect, presented in a professional matter by Krista Voda. There was also a feature on Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 15 Graceway Pharmaceuticals Toyota. Almirola has impressed this season in the trucks after his Sprint Cup ride (the No. 8 for DEI-Ganassi) dissolved due to lack of sponsorship. Team owner Billy Ballew is interested in locking up Almirola for the future.

After missing the previous two races due to Sprint Cup commitments, Michael Waltrip was back in the booth along with Rick Allen and Phil Parsons. Some fans were not all that happy to see Waltrip back in the booth, preferring the more professional, non-self promoting Johnny Benson in the booth. Benson is scheduled to do one more race in the booth this season for SPEED (Memphis, I believe).

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 Heluva! Good 200 at Loudon

Generally, this was a good race to watch, but a lot of focus late in the event was given (rightfully) to the interterm squabbles between Harvick and Hornaday. Honestly, I had never seen such a conflict before in an NASCAR race. Such conduct is usually reserved for Formula 1 or sports car racing.

The post-race coverage was maybe a little light knowing that the race had only three cautions (albeit the second one, for Rob Fuller‘s crash, necessitated a short red flag for wall repairs). There were five post-race interviews, a points check and footage from pit road (Harvick getting out of his No. 2 truck and walking over to the No. 33 to talk to Hornaday, who he believed was holding him up.

Finally, on Sunday came race number one of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Sylvania 300 on ABC (herein referred to as ESPN because all sports on ABC today are referred to as being televised by ESPN on ABC). Now, I mentioned last week that I am not a fan of the TV telecasts of Cup races in and around the Chase ever since the format was created.

The reasoning? It seems that a lot of the time, the Chasers are all that matters. It’s like the cameras see only 12 cars and everything else just happens to be there. It bites. It definitely creates an upper class and an underclass, which was a fear that many people had when the Chase was created for 2004.

Pre-race featured plenty of interviews, all with Chasers, and discussion of the upcoming race, completely from the Chase perspective. Marty Smith made a rare appearance on NASCAR Countdown to discuss the story that he broke on Friday where Reed Sorenson (No. 43 McCafe Dodge) admitted that RPM team executives came to him during the summer and gave him the choice of taking a buyout and leaving the No. 43 or driving the rest of the season for no salary. Smith mentioned that Sorenson is confused by the whole situation, especially since the executives came right out and said that he’s not to blame for this.

Personally, I find this whole situation to be confusing too. Does “no salary” in this case mean that Sorenson is only getting a cut of the purse (which I don’t believe would constitute a salary, per se), or does it mean absolutely nothing (no cut of the purse), and maybe even no per diem for expenses? Now, I think I know why this was done. The No. 44 was said to only have sponsorship through Richmond. At that point, RPM was looking at having to make a decision as to what to do with the Nos. 43 and 44.

I’m guessing that this was a way to allow all four drivers to finish out the season in RPM equipment. As short as this segment was (it almost seemed “thrown in” for good measure), it was the only part of NASCAR Countdown that wasn’t Chase-centered.

Sunday’s telecast more or less reinforced my fears. The telecast was centered upon the 12 Chasers and how their exploits could change the point standings significantly, which I will admit that they did. However, it’s the first race and only 40 points separated Mark Martin in the lead from Newman in 12th entering the race.

With the points that close, of course there’s going to be mass movement. If nothing substantial arises that could kill someone’s Chase hopes, like Kasey Kahne’s blown engine, then I think that the Chase factor in the broadcast should be minimal at best in this race. In other words, think of it as a break from the “All Chase, all the time” from last weekend in Richmond.

The only real non-Chase centered feature is ESPN’s Up to Speed feature. This has been criticized this season for not featuring enough drivers, but ESPN made sure to cover more teams during those segments on Sunday, which makes me very happy. Unfortunately, for many of those teams, that might have been the only exposure that they received all day (even though they might have stayed on the lead lap all day). I, personally wasn’t expecting to see the No. 34 of John Andretti in an Up to Speed on Sunday, but there he was.

However, with some of the teams further down the order, the lack of background information on some of them shows (note: Yes, they get information on all the teams. I need to stress this to everyone notable that is reading this, in case you didn‘t see the fixed section in the Behind the Scenes article. The reporters have more information on some teams than others, though.)

See also
From the Track to Your TV: An Inside Look at How ESPN NASCAR Broadcasts Tick

Speaking of substantial stuff that could kill someone’s Chase hopes, I’m thinking that ESPN didn’t spend enough time on Kahne’s engine failure. As noted on Sunday, that DNF (a 38th-place finish) dropped him 161 points out of the lead. That is the difference between maximum points (victory and leading the most laps) and finishing dead last without leading.

That isn’t even the biggest reason why it should have gotten more airtime. Quite a few members of the engine shop were let go this week because of the RPM-Yates merger that will see the Nos. 9, 19 and 43 using Fords next season. One poster on our live blog suspected sabotage on the part of the engine department. Of course, that would never happen because it would be the end of a engine shop worker’s career if he/she actually did it, but it is newsworthy that the team has had so much strife in the past couple of weeks.

One thing I did notice were a number of cut-ins from commercial breaks to show important goings on. I was happy to see this. The first time it happened was when Kahne lost his engine on lap 66. ESPN was about two commercials into the break when Kahne’s engine went. Later on, ESPN took an ill-advised commercial break with 60 laps to go. The thought process likely was that they thought Martin was going to keep his word and pit on lap 245. Instead, he pitted three laps early and left ESPN out to dry. That happens, unfortunately. For their cut-ins, ESPN simply waited until one commercial ended to cut back.

This is unlike some of the sharp cut-ins from commercial that we have seen in the past, like the cut-ins for the Big Ones in the 2001 and 2002 Daytona 500s, where they cut out in the middle of a commercial to show the wreck. It makes for a more crisp overall product, but the viewers might miss something as a result of that desire to make the telecast look better. Also, I must stress this. This can only be done during national ad breaks. The breaks with local commercials must air fully and are outside of ESPN control since they do not load in the local commercials. The local ABC affiliates do.

Post-race coverage was almost non-existent. Here’s a simple way to know that the post-race will be abbreviated. Before Martin was even done with his on-track celebration, ESPN was running their series of special thanks and credits. If that stuff is running before even one post-race interview takes place, the post-race will be very short. Sunday’s was only about five minutes in length. It featured interviews with race winner Martin, his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and third-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya, who was quite unhappy with Martin’s tactics. There was also a points check before ESPN left the air.

There was no time to really talk about Montoya’s remarks before the broadcast ended. In addition, the race technically ended under caution because the No. 44 of AJ Allmendinger spun on the frontstretch coming to the white flag. No replay was shown of this spin due to the very short post-race, so it was unclear to viewers as to why this happened, although fans in the grandstands would easily have been able to tell.

The post-race was non-existent because the time slot on ABC for the race only ran up to 5:30 p.m. The race ended just a couple minutes before 5:30 p.m. Networks like to get off the air from a live event on time if at all possible, so this move was expected. However, at least on the east coast, there wasn’t anything important for them to get to. Here in the Albany area, my ABC affiliate (WTEN, Albany, N.Y.) showed a syndicated cooking show right after the race ended before going to the news at 6. I’d argue that ABC could have keep the coverage going for a little bit longer to tie up loose ends.

Overall, I feel that ESPN has to bring a more inclusive broadcast to the table during the Chase for next time. The Chase is not the end all, and there are 43 teams out there – not 12. The other teams deserve coverage as well. The cut-ins are fine. They can stay because seemingly, a lot of important stuff these days happens during commercials.

That is it for this week. Next weekend is Dover, a race that has been held in mid-to-late September for most of the past 40 years. The Sprint Cup Series is once again the headliners with Sunday’s AAA 400. That race will be on ABC, with coverage beginning with NASCAR Countdown at 1 p.m. ET. Race coverage will start at 2 with a green flag expected around 2:16 p.m.

The Nationwide Series will be the main support series to the Sprint Cup Series at Dover for the 48th consecutive time. Their race, the Dover 200, will be aired live on ESPN2. Coverage will start with NASCAR Countdown at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday with race coverage starting at 3:30. The green will fly around 3:45. I have no clue why they start this race so late knowing that Dover doesn’t have lights, but they do. What happens if it rains? You’re done.

The Camping World Truck Series will be on the other side of the country on Saturday, racing in the Las Vegas 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Race coverage from Nevada will start with the NCWTS Setup at 9 p.m. ET on SPEED, with the race starting a little after 9:30. I will be critiquing all three of those races for next week’s write-up, along with any other things that pique my interest.

If you have a gripe with me or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio.

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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