Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: The Championship is a Big Story – But Not THAT Big

Hello, race fans and welcome to my critique, entry No. 42 in a long series in which we look into the quality of NASCAR’s TV broadcasts. This week: Phoenix. Of course, before we get into the nitty gritty of the weekend’s racing, there are a couple things I want to mention.

First of all, two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to give a short review of NASCAR Performance last week. I did write the critique, but finished it a little too late for it to be included in last week’s critique (I did mention this in the comments section from last week). So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the episode of NASCAR Performance from Texas, originally aired on Nov. 7.

As many of you know, NASCAR Performance is a weekly show shot at whatever track that the Cup Series is at. On the show, host Larry McReynolds, along with crew chiefs Chad Knaus, Robert “Bootie” Barker and Doug Richert (a recent addition to the show), discuss the technical aspects of the racecars. The time the show is taped differs from week to week.

In Texas last weekend, it appears that the segment was taped during the Truck Series race on Friday night (Nov. 6). As a result, there was essentially no audience. For tapings that are not during a race, a small crowd will assemble for the taping.

On this week’s airing, the show started with Larry allowing the three crew chiefs to talk about their days at the track, with SPEED showing some footage from Talladega as an aid (Knaus is Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Richert is Robby Gordon’s crew chief and Barker is technically an employee of MWR, but is on loan to Germain Racing as Max Papis’s crew chief).

I think this segment is OK, but they’re on a slippery slope. I know these crew chiefs work for active teams in the Cup Series, but there’s always the specter of professionalism to worry about in television. I think all three crew chiefs handle themselves fine, but it’s always at the back of my head.

This folds into a discussion of the CoT’s crushability, as displayed in Ryan Newman’s crash. Knaus made a great point about the A-pillar on a CoT being more likely to crush in a rollover crash than on the old car because the piece is longer. Honestly, this was an issue in Edwards’s crash back in April, but it was on the passenger side of the car back then.

After a quick commercial break, McReynolds led the panel on a discussion of shocks and how they work in racecars. This discussion centered upon the compression and rebound of a shock. Hendrick Motorsports actually has a shock dyno in their transporter that they can use to test the compression and rebound of their shocks. While the dyno was on screen, Knaus was describing essentially what the dyno does and how he (and other Hendrick crew members) can interpret the data.

The third segment centered around a discussion of Texas Motor Speedway and what the teams have to plan for. After the final commercial break, McReynolds brought up a few talking points. One of those topics was fuel mileage potentially playing a role on Sunday (which it most definitely did), while another was the close points race. Each of the crew chiefs was given an opportunity to respond to these talking points. After those points were addressed, the show ended rather abruptly, to be honest.

My general feelings after watching this show is that the crew chiefs feel that they are a little strapped for time, especially during the shock segment. As a result, they probably cannot convey all the information that they want to. I had the same problem when I was trying to become a teacher. Based on the available information that the panel can talk about, this could potentially be a one hour show every week. However, I don’t think SPEED has the time to make this a one-hour show. It’s generally a good watch otherwise.

In the comments section last week, I liked this comment from don mei. Don writes:

“No one who has a financial interest in any NASCAR team should be in ANY broadcasting capacity before, during or after an event.”

I would tend to agree with this on the reasoning that you’re compromised from day one. You technically have a rooting interest in the outcome, and that is not right. Broadcasters are supposed to be impartial. However, we’ve had this problem in the past with family members in the booth calling races their offspring are racing in.

Ned Jarrett comes to mind here. However, he kept his emotions bottled up for the most part, with a couple of exceptions that you and me may remember vividly. Benny Parsons also called some races in which his brother Phil participated in, but I don’t really recall Benny treating Phil all that much differently as a result.

This is an issue not just in motorsport telecasts, but in other sports as well. Bob Griese took the opposite view when it came to doing Michigan football games for ABC in which his son Brian was playing in. He went out of his way to basically come off as impartial. This strategy, albeit not wrong according to S&P (Standards and Practices), actually ticked off Bob’s own mother.

On Friday (Nov. 13), the Truck Series raced in the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway. Live coverage was aired on SPEED with the usual crew of Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip in the booth. Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander reported from the pits, while Krista Voda seemingly viewed the race from atop Rattlesnake Hill. That will make sense in the next paragraph.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix

During the Setup, Krista hosted from a campsite on top of the hill (camping supplies were provided by a local Camping World store). This came off as a little weird to me, to be honest (she also seemed a little cold up there). During pre-race, SPEED included a feature (I guess it may have been more of a montage) of Ron Hornaday‘s championship clinches, which was fairly interesting. Another feature was based around Kyle Busch‘s torching of the field whenever he enters a Truck race.

The race broadcast was your typical broadcast that we’ve come to expect from SPEED. This means that it’s your basic telecasts with (more or less) no frills. I’m fine with that. SPEED telecasts of Truck races have generally been enjoyable to watch this year. I still don’t like the back-to-back commercial breaks, to be honest (for the record, this was between laps 100 and 112 of 150). Ridiculous. I don’t know how many cautions that SPEED thinks are going to occur in a Truck race, to be honest, but they have miscalculated the last two weeks.

The main gripe I have about SPEED’s broadcast from Friday night was the fact that replays were not shown for two wrecks. In my opinion, this is inexcusable. For the record, the two wrecks were the one on lap 121 involving the No. 22 of Tim George Jr., and the one that ended the race involving the No. 81 of Tayler Malsam.

I would argue that not replaying Malsam’s crash is the bigger travesty here, especially since Malsam claims that Brian Scott (No. 16 Albertson’s Toyota) took him out. There was no mention in either circumstance that SPEED did not catch the wrecks on camera, although I don’t think this was the case with the Malsam crash since they cut to it in progress.

Post-race was, for the amount of time that SPEED still had in their time slot at the end of the race, relatively brief. There were the obligatory points checks (especially since Hornaday clinched the championship) and post-race interviews (six of them in all). There was also the check of the unofficial results, both in the scroll and in a full-screen graphic, and post-race analysis from the booth.

Then, after that was done, SPEED left the air 15 minutes early and joined an episode of NASCAR Smarts from Texas in progress. I have no clue why SPEED did that. Why not get a few more interviews in there? Did they just run out of stuff to talk about? I guess since Hornaday clinched the title, there wasn’t all that much that could be done to play up the season finale from Homestead.

On Saturday (Nov. 14), the Nationwide Series raced in the Able Body Labor 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. On ESPN2, the (somewhat) usual crew of Marty Reid, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were in the booth, while ESPN’s quartet of reporters (Burns, Little, Spake and Welch) roamed the pits. NASCAR Countdown was actually quite spartan, to be honest. Most of the pre-race show centered around analysis in the Infield Studio.

There was a cut to the Craftsman Tech Garage so that Tim Brewer could discuss how Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota flunked opening inspection at Texas (they bolted a box to the frame where a piece of tungsten ballast is placed instead of welding it in). This was penalized by NASCAR deducting 25 driver and owner points.

However, one thing that got glossed over was the fact that NASCAR had repeatedly warned the team about this before fining them. When Mike Harmon‘s No. 58 team had this violation at Daytona in July, they immediately busted them. Not a fan of that.

In addition, there was a brief cutaway to Paul Page in Pomona, Calif. to promote the NHRA Southern California Auto Club Finals, which were also last weekend. This seemed relatively out of place, to be honest, but consistent with the cross-promotion of NHRA events on NASCAR Now this season.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Able Body Labor 200 at Phoenix

The Nationwide race coverage had a heavy emphasis on the championship. Now, I know that it was the second to last race of the season, but Kyle Busch had the thing won. They didn’t need to constantly show those at the moment points graphics showing the difference between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.

I’ll argue that it was somewhat appropriate after Kyle got involved in the incident with Clint Bowyer, but once he got back up front, that should have ceased. As it stands, it took him falling back in the last couple of laps on Saturday to prevent him from clinching the title in Phoenix.

Post-race coverage was quite brief. There were only four interviews (Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Edwards) conducted during post-race. The unofficial results scrolled at the top of the screen during those interviews. There was some post-race analysis, but otherwise, ESPN quickly left the air to get to alternate programming.

On Sunday (Nov. 15), the Cup Series raced in the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500k presented by Pennzoil at Phoenix International Raceway. The usual crew of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree called the race in the booth for ESPN/ABC, while the aforementioned pit reporting corps managed pit road.

NASCAR Countdown was once again centered on the championship, although it made more sense to do so on Sunday than on Saturday. Only four drivers actually got interviewed (Johnson, Martin and the Busch brothers), along with Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. There was a montage of moments in Mark Martin‘s career. This was interesting in that we got to see some real old clips of Mark, from his owner-driver, pre-weight training regimen days.

This doesn’t get shown all that much, so it’s kind of notable to mention that Mark washed out of Winston Cup after only a couple of years and went back to short tracks. Other clips shown were of his first Cup victory (Rockingham, Oct. 1989), Martin’s victory at Richmond in Feb. 1990 and his win at Phoenix in April led to congratulations by everyone, including former car owner Jack Roush.

But one notable thing that they didn’t mention was that Martin was penalized 46 points after that Richmond victory, his car flunked post-race tech (those points were more than enough to swing the championship to Earnhardt that year).

There was also a Taste of the Race feature where Brad learned about how to prepare rattlesnake for human consumption. Definitely unusual, to be honest. Brad seemed to like it, though. One story that was not covered during the pre-race was the coming together (again) of Hamlin and Keselowski during the Able Body Labor 200 on Saturday. I don’t know why this is so, but this was not a good omission.

My thoughts of ESPN’s race telecast is as follows. I’m still not a fan of ESPN’s edict for Dr. Punch to tone it down that was apparently given after the 2007 season. At work, I have plenty of time to sit in what amounts to solitude and think things through. After thinking this through, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dr. Punch is not completely blameless in the mess that has become the broadcast booth.

I think he is still trying to figure out where he can go within ESPN’s edict, and still not violate it. As a result, he’s becomes very conservative in the booth and it’s hurting the broadcast as a result. My suggestion is for ESPN to loosen the reins on Dr. Punch and allow him to show that he wants to be there, which he definitely does, believe me.

As you would expect, there was plenty of talk about the championship and points scenarios during the race, enough to make your head spin. My advice is to only show that stuff every once in a while, not every 25 seconds or so. As a result, the coverage was stilted towards Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon. To be fair, ESPN did take time to show the great runs by Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Burton, which was good. Martin Truex Jr. seemed to be invisible after the first segment, despite the fact that he finished fifth.

In all honesty, I wonder if the TV partners know how to deal with races that have less than seven cautions these days. It’s almost like they expect a lot of cautions. Admittedly, the drivers haven’t exactly been helping matters in the past few years, but I’m thinking that the TV crews have to prepare for the race assuming that it’s going to go caution-free. In that case, maybe they won’t feel as hamstrung by long green-flag runs as they seem to be.

Since the race ended fairly quick, there was an unusual amount of extra time for post-race coverage. In the slightly more than one half hour of post-race coverage, ESPN managed to include 11 interviews and a points check. Some of those interviews were better than others, though. Shannon Spake made the mistake of asking Gordon about his championship chances when the results of the race effectively eliminated him, invoking some angry comments on the Internet.

Now, Gordon is still technically eligible for the title, but Johnson would have to be incapacitated in some way so that he would be unable to start the race on Sunday for Gordon to even have a chance. Otherwise, he will be eliminated as soon as the race starts in Homestead. If that very unlikely scenario occurred, Gordon would have to finish no worse than fourth (if he leads the most laps), third (if he leads a lap) or second (if he fails to lead a lap) to win. The chances of this happening are slightly less than nil at this point.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the last race weekend of the season. For many of you, it may be “good riddance.” For me, it’s quite bittersweet. I like writing these critiques and I like watching races on television. The offseason has always come off as boring to me.

Homestead-Miami Speedway hosts Ford Championship Weekend this weekend, in which all three of NASCAR’s top divisions will host their season finales. Unfortunately, the championship battles are all but over at this point. The Truck Series starts out the action Thursday night with their final practice session of the season at 6:30 p.m. ET on SPEED. Qualifying will air at 5 p.m. ET Friday, then pre-race (NCWTS Setup) will air at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Ford 200 follows at 8 p.m. ET. All track sessions listed here are live.

The Nationwide Series opens up shop at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday. First practice will be aired live on SPEED at 1 p.m. ET on Friday. Nationwide Happy Hour will air at 6:30 p.m. ET. Nationwide Series qualifying will air on Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. ET. Race coverage will start with NASCAR Countdown on ESPN2 at 4 p.m. ET. Coverage of the Ford 300 will start at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Finally, the Cup Series rolls into Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford 400. Coverage starts with the first practice session Friday morning at 11:30 a.m. ET on SPEED. Pole qualifying will air on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. ET. On Saturday, the first practice will be televised on SPEED at 1:30 p.m. ET. Happy Hour coverage is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

However, be warned. There is a college football game (North Carolina vs. Boston College) that starts at noon on ESPN2 and there is always the threat of an overrun. A potential truncating of Happy Hour could be in the cards. On Sunday, actual race coverage starts with a 45-minute edition of NASCAR Countdown on ABC at 2:30 p.m. ET. Ford 400 coverage starts at 3:15 p.m. ET with the green flag tentatively scheduled to fly at 3:31 p.m. ET.

In addition, SPEED is running a three-hour edition of NASCAR RaceDay on Sunday morning starting at 11:30 a.m. ET. I’m going to critique this as well for two reasons. One, because I really haven’t done a full critique of the show for the site. The other reason is the classic “What the deuce are they going to do with three hours to kill” reason.

You’ll see my thoughts on the three races and NASCAR RaceDay in next week’s critique, the final full run through of the season. In addition, I’ll comment on a user comment or two, and I’ll come up with some kind of a closing statement to put a cap on this season. That’s what you guys have to look forward to for next week.

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. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page here. And if you would like to contact ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:


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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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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