Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Dover a Repeat of Past Issues for ABC/ESPN

Hello, race fans. Last weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were each racing in Dover, Del. Neither race was adversely affected by weather, although it was a potential issue on both Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 26-27). Meanwhile, the Truck Series raced at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Las Vegas 350.

However, before I get into my critiques of those races, a little news piece. Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) has announced a fan vote to determine the start time of next year’s Auto Club 500. As you might remember, this year’s race coverage started at 2 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET) with a one-hour pre-race show. The green flag fell around 3:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m. ET).

To vote, go to this link at ACS’s website. There are two choices for the new start time for next year. One is noon local (3 p.m. ET), while the other is 4:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. ET). The voting page gives advantages for each time. Readers are urged to vote for either one or the other, and there is space where they want you to voice your reasoning for your pick. Personally, I chose noon. You can also voice your choices on the start time via the track’s Facebook, MySpace or Twitter pages, or by emailing the track directly at fans@autoclubspeedway.com. Based on the responses on ACS’s Facebook page, it’s fairly close right now.

Due to the split weekend, and how I prefer to group races at the same track together, I’ll start with the Truck Series’ Las Vegas 350 from LVMS.

The pre-race has basically become almost routine for SPEED this season. Review the previous event, interview drivers, attempt to humiliate Ray Dunlap in a feature (all in good fun) with one of the drivers and then there’s a wildcard. This week, that wildcard was the feature on Matt Crafton and his relationship with Kevin Harvick, complete with clips from the one year (2004) Crafton drove the then No. 6 Goodwrench Chevrolet for KHI.

The race coverage was fairly good, once the lights in turn 1 got fixed (this delayed the start by almost 30 minutes). Johnny Benson was back in the booth for his third and final race of the year and I believe that he’s improved with every race. The excitement was high with the on-track action, although I think they might have overdone it with the comparisons to Daytona and Talladega because of the new gear rule. Yes, it created a different race, but it was not pack racing. The draft did play a role at times, but otherwise, it was a normal Las Vegas event.

However, there were a couple of things that I believe need to be mentioned here. SPEED seems to still have a policy of not mentioning teams that start-and-park during the race. Yes, they might mention them as part of the SPEED Spotlight at the beginning of the race, like they did at ORP when a bunch of new teams conjured themselves up out of nowhere to attempt the race. However, there is no acknowledgment when these teams bring in it for the night (or day). This needs to change.

Also, some of the camera shots were a little inconclusive when it came to the Ricky CarmichaelMax Papis crash on Saturday. Neither of the camera views of the crash showed whether Papis actually made any contact with the wall. Papis did finish the race two laps down in 18th, so it didn’t hurt him too much.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 Las Vegas 350

In the end, it was an enjoyable race to watch, although there isn’t a whole lot of on track action due to the general lack of trucks on the track that are running the whole race these days. This isn’t anything that the SPEED crew can do anything about, to be honest.

Earlier on Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series raced in the Dover 200, aired on ESPN2. Of course, this time of year, Nationwide races on Saturdays have to deal with the juggernaut that is college football. NASCAR Countdown was scheduled to start on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. (which, by the way, is way the heck too late to be starting pre-race to a daytime event in Delaware). The Indiana-Michigan football game, which started at noon went long, which resulted in NASCAR Countdown being pushed to ESPN Classic.

Writer’s Note: The cable box I usually watch races on won’t pick up ESPN Classic for some reason (despite the fact that it comes up fine on the other ones in the house), so I’m thankful I was the only one home Saturday afternoon.

The actual pre-race was a typical affair that started with a review of the race two weeks ago at Richmond, then moved into interviews with drivers and pre-race analysis from Bestwick, Wallace and Daugherty in the Infield Studio. Standard fare here, not great but not bad. It was passable, although knowing that there was rain in the vicinity (mentioned by Bestwick during pre-race), I’m surprised that NASCAR didn’t move the race start up.

Probably the most notable thing I saw in the race telecast was a big-time technical problem that arose during the round of green-flag pit stops. Everything went dark for about 30 seconds. Then, the ESPN2 graphic came up on the screen before it gradually faded into a commercial break. ESPN returned from this unannounced break just in time for leader Kyle Busch’s pit stop. Marty Reid apologized for this and referred to it as a “signal interruption.” What actually caused this interruption? I have no clue. It could have been any number of issues.

The combination of a runaway race by Busch that left only a few cars remaining on the lead lap by halfway and a lack of cautions resulted in a race that heavily focused on the frontrunners (specifically, Cup regulars that moonlight in the Nationwide Series). Even the Nationwide-only regulars up front cannot get much airtime. Jason Leffler was invisible on Saturday. It was an outright surprise to me that he finished sixth because I didn’t remember seeing his No. 38 on camera all day.

Even Mike Bliss, who finished second, didn’t get a lot of mentions. It’s also worth mentioning that he drew the eighth interview during the post-race coverage, which doesn’t really make much sense to me.

Due to the lack of cautions, the race ended nearly a half hour before the time slot was through. In that time, ESPN aired eight post-race interviews (seven drivers and the winning crew chief, Doug Randolph). I can understand the crew chief and winning driver being first up for interviews. That makes sense. But, why does someone like Busch get second crack ahead of Bliss?

There was also extensive post-race analysis from the booth and the infield commentators, and a piece from the Craftsman Tech Garage on post-race inspections. Informative, to be honest.

There are definitely aspects of the Nationwide telecasts that could be improved. There needs to be less of a focus on the Cup usurpers in the series, to be honest. It’s kind of sad that it can feel like some of the series’ bigger teams aren’t even there.

Finally, on Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series raced in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Pre-race was once again centered on the Chasers, although I will admit that the Chasers (with a couple of exceptions) were the strongest teams all weekend. A feature, Side by Side, that I think is new, premiered on Sunday. In this feature, a driver (in this case, Juan Pablo Montoya) is interviewed side-by-side with his crew chief (Brian Pattie). It was interesting and I hope ESPN continues this in the future, even with non-Chasers.

See also
The Yellow Stripe: Juan Pablo Montoya Shows 2010 Championship Credentials in 100th Start

There was also a short piece on tailgating with Brad Daugherty and Marcos Ambrose. Couple thoughts on this. Not sure if Daugherty should have been doing this feature since he’s technically Ambrose’s car owner. Screams of favoritism. Also, this was essentially a three-minute commercial for Bush’s Baked Beans, since Jay Bush (the CEO of Bush’s Baked Beans) showed up along with his dog, Duke, and there was plenty of Bush‘s product placement. Thirdly, I could just see that Vegemite sandwich coming a mile away.

Now, I’ll be honest with you. This was not the greatest race on earth to watch. Jimmie Johnson couldn’t be touched once he took the lead on lap 176. It was hard for me to get excited about while doing the Live Blog. However, the commentators in the booth have to get into the race to make it more palatable to viewers. Rarely should a commentator or group of commentators be a significant draw to a sporting event, but I think it’s possible for commentary to hurt TV ratings.

Although, I will admit, on Monday, I got to thinking. What would it be like with commentators of other sports (if they had the proper knowledge of the sport) in the booth? NASCAR has had races with people like the late Jim McKay, Keith Jackson, Paul Page and others in the booth in the past. Could you imagine someone like the excitable Gus Johnson in the booth for a NASCAR race (he might be perfect for Talladega)? I’m not endorsing firings, swaps (like John Daly has been saying for most of the last three seasons) or anything like that. Just thinking out loud.

On Sunday, ESPN once again focused heavily on the Chasers, leaving little air time for everyone else in the field. The refrains being uttered on Twitter often had to do with a lack of field resets during cautions. Yes, we have the scrolls at the top of the screen. That should not be the only way that fans of non-Chasers can keep track of their favorite drivers.

Makes me wonder what it would have been like trying to follow my favorite driver (Johnny Benson) had he continued in the Cup Series full-time after 2003. I think it would have been annoying. Also, visual cues are only so good. Not everyone is a visual learner. Some people prefer to hear things as well. ESPN needs to take this into account.

Also, ESPN needs to take great pains to show the pieces of debris on the track when NASCAR throws these debris cautions. I can remember FOX going to these lengths in the past after a significant fan outcry, so I’m pretty sure that you’re capable of doing the same thing. It probably isn’t that hard, knowing that ESPN always has a bare minimum of 60 cameras on site every week. Although, I will admit that NASCAR’s criteria for debris to cause yellows might be a lot smaller than it once was.

During our Live Blog from Loudon, SD Grady mentioned that NASCAR saw a bolt on the track during green-flag pit stops. They waited until after the stops before throwing the yellow for it. I don’t think that small bolts used to draw debris cautions in NASCAR.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief because the race went over its time slot shortly before completion. There were six interviews (five drivers and Chad Knaus, the winning crew chief). The points check was added into the scroll during these interviews. There was some brief post-race analysis from the booth commentators and some comments before the infield studio before ESPN left the air around 6:10 p.m. ET. Slightly less than 10 minutes was given to post-race.

I think that ESPN can still make a good telecast of a Cup Series race, unlike what some other people believe. In addition, I think it can be done with the current people in their current roles. Nobody needs to be swapped or outright canned. There just needs to be a change in philosophy in how these races are covered. The races do not need to be “scripted.” I could understand scripting NASCAR Now somewhat and maybe NASCAR Countdown, but not the races.

Races are by nature unpredictable and need to be covered as such. I can understand some talking points being thrown around from time to time, but not the entire telecast being based around ideas bandied around in a midday conference call on Tuesdays.

Speaking of ratings, the overnights for Sunday’s race are in and they’re not good. Higher than last week, but not good. 2.7 is the overnight rating, down 7% from last year. Compared to 2001, the ratings are down over 30%. The decline once the NFL regular season got underway is typical, but still very worrying.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is Kansas Speedway’s one Sprint Cup weekend of the year. Three races will held and all are televised, thankfully.

The ARCA Re/Max Series will hold the Kansas Lottery $150 Grand on Thursday evening (Oct. 1). I have no clue why. Probably just so the track can have a fourth day of ticket receipts, although it’s arguable that may hurt the ARCA teams and prospective drivers that like to show off their abilities to Cup and Nationwide owners. The race will air live at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday night. Rick Allen and Phil Parsons will be in the booth.

Around the time the ARCA race ends, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series transporters will move onto the property. On Saturday (Oct. 3), the Nationwide Series races in the Kansas Lottery 300. Coverage will start with NASCAR Countdown on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. CT) and the race will follow at 3:30 p.m. However, beware. There is another college football game, Arkansas State vs. Iowa, that is scheduled to start at noon on Saturday and end at three. Don’t be surprised if NASCAR Countdown gets pushed to ESPN Classic again.

The Sprint Cup Series races on Sunday in the Price Chopper 400 Presented by Kraft Foods. For those of you wondering, Price Chopper is a “supermarket concept” by Associated Supermarkets based around the Kansas City area. It is not to be confused with Price Chopper Supermarkets, based in Scotia, N.Y., which served as an associate sponsor (on the C-pillar) on Scott Speed’s No. 82 Toyota at Watkins Glen.

Coverage will start at 1 p.m. ET (12 p.m. CT) on ABC with a one-hour edition of NASCAR Countdown before the race coverage starts at 2 p.m. ET. The green flag is tentatively scheduled for 2:15 p.m. I will be critiquing all three of these races for next week’s critique. In addition, I will cover anything else of note that might come up in the next week that pertains to the telecasts.

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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