Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Takes Center Stage For FOX

Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday (also known as Talking NASCAR TV).  I’m back for my ninth year of TV commentary, suggestions, complaints and more.  It should be a fairly interesting year, although there will be several changes in the personalities that you’ll see.  This week already showed off plenty of them.

First off, reporter and NASCAR Hub contributor Danielle Trotta has left FOX Sports for parts unknown.

The move came as a surprise to a lot of people.  Trotta was still on NASCAR RaceHub when the season began for that show back on Jan. 23.  She ultimately stayed until last week and announced her departure in the above tweet.

Admittedly, I thought that such a move could have happened ever since FOX Sports brought Shannon Spake into the fold last year.  Something had to give knowing that Spake brought similar studio credentials to the fold (remember that she was one of the revolving hosts of NASCAR Now on ESPN 2 and did well with it despite the DVR Theater timeslot), plus much more sideline reporting experience.  It appears that Spake will take over Trotta’s NASCAR duties.  That includes co-hosting NASCAR RaceHub with Adam Alexander and hosting NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition.  So far, I have no complaints with her work.  I knew going in that she would be good.

In ARCA land, they’ve got two TV pieces of news.  First off, Ray Dunlap is out at FOX Sports.  They chose not to renew his contract.  He’s currently a free agent, but there’s a chance he might pop up somewhere else this season.  The move also causes some changes on the Camping World Truck Series front since Dunlap did features as part of NCWTS Setup.

Secondly, ARCA announced on Friday that there will be 10 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards races on MAVTV this year, starting with Nashville in April.  This deal replaces last year’s deal with the Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned American Sports Network.  No on-air staff was announced for those races, so there is a possibility that Dunlap could land there.

Advance Auto Parts Clash

New season, old problems.  The rains returned and pushed the actual race to Sunday afternoon.  The highlight of this broadcast was the inclusion of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the broadcast booth.

Ultimately, Earnhardt Jr. as a commentator is similar to Earnhardt Jr. as an interview subject.  While I’ve never had the pleasure of interviewing him (he’s in extremely high demand for his time and I’d never be able to get the amount of time that I’d like with him), he always strikes me as very analytical.  During the race on Sunday, he definitely took notes on what he saw and will look to take that knowledge and apply it to his own program.

Jimmie Johnson’s incidents really struck a chord there.  It looked very similar to what happened to him in last year’s Daytona 500.  He admitted on-air that his team will be practicing more as a result of what he saw.  We’ll see if the No. 88 team sticks to that on Wednesday.

Back to Saturday night: the rains started during the pre-race show, but after driver intros.  During that time, there was a nice one-on-one interview that Kenny Wallace conducted with Kevin Harvick.  Here, the discussion was centered upon the Harvicks (Kevin and wife Delana) trying to give Keelan a regular life, his new contract with Stewart-Haas Racing (five years) and the change to Ford.  I found it quite interesting.  I don’t believe that anyone had mentioned that Harvick’s contract extension was five years as of yet, so that technically broke news.  Otherwise, Harvick is happy about the expanded freedom at SHR, while at the same time stating that the team felt restricted with Chevrolet.  We’ll have to see how that plays out this year.

After an hour of pre-race fill time, the broadcast switched off to the condensed version of the 1993 Daytona 500.  The old-school race was interrupted by a booth discussion of race memorabilia collecting (of which Earnhardt Jr. is clearly the grandmaster).  Before Dale Jarrett was even in Victory Lane, the race had been postponed.

Sunday morning saw a very brief pre-race show.  It was advertised as a half-hour show, but it was closer to 15 minutes in practice.  Viewers got only a brief interview with Denny Hamlin and some pre-race discussion before the green came out.  For those viewers in Canada, TSN5 only came on-air at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.  By that time, the engines were already fired and the 17 entrants were on the second pace lap.

The race itself was relatively similar to last year’s Daytona 500.  It was rather difficult to pass and a couple of drivers seemed to be much better than everyone else (in this case, Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, who led all but nine laps between them).  Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were able to point this out.

It appears that handling is back at Daytona these days.  The cars get really unstable at certain points on track, especially turn 4.  Current IMSA regular and former Rookie of the Year Andy Lally also pointed something else out that could have played a role.

Here’s something that really wasn’t noted.  The caution laps at the end of the first segment counted on Sunday.  I suppose that’s to prepare everyone for the “race stages” once the season starts that are completely unnecessary.  However, that’s important here because it changed the flow of the race.  Normally, no one can run the full 125 miles in the second segment, meaning that drivers have to pit under green.  Luckily for them, the cautions would have prevented that from being an issue anyway.

Post-race coverage was actually quite comprehensive.  We got winner Joey LoganoKyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and more.  I was watching the race on Sunday with my dad’s girlfriend down in New Jersey.  She’s not a NASCAR fan by any means, but she watched the last 15 laps and post-race with me.  She could clearly tell that Busch was an angry man after the race. Yes, Busch was required to do the interview by virtue of finishing second on Sunday.  If he could have skipped it, he would have.

Overall, Sunday’s race was a nice preview of the rest of Speedweeks.  It appears that passing may be at a premium.  The only difference for the Cup Series appears to be that the race will be slightly slower due to the plate change.

I liked having Earnhardt Jr. in the booth.  While he isn’t necessarily the most talkative man up there, he puts a lot of thought into what he says in order to maximize his impact.  It is the same strategy that you see in one-on-one interviews.  As a result, Earnhardt Jr. is an engaging man on television.  I like it and I love his love for racing.

Having said that, things might be a little bit different once things get back to normal on Thursday night.  Sunday had the feel of a special presentation for FOX Sports.  Thursday night will be more indicative of what you might see for the rest of the season.

Lucas Oil Complete Engine Treatment 200

FOX Sports’ ARCA booth changes were in the spotlight on Saturday when the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards made their season debut at Daytona.  This was another action-packed race with quite a bit of bent sheetmetal.

To replace Dunlap in the booth, FOX Sports tapped Kevin Lee for the job.  For those of you who watch INDYCAR races on NBCSN, you may be familiar with him since he’s served as a pit reporter there for the past few years.  As for play-by-play chops, you would have to go a little deeper.  Lee has worked play-by-play on Indy Lights race broadcasts in the past.  I thought that he did decently there, but that this would be a different feel since he’s used to calling races with low numbers of cars on the grid.

Pre-race coverage was light, but that’s typical of ARCA races on FOX Sports.  Viewers got interviews with pole sitter Tom Hessert and Austin Theriault, and a driver profile of Dalton Sargeant before the race began.  In his profile, Sargeant talked about his move to Cunningham Motorsports and about how he continues to gain experience.  Basic stuff more or less.

If there was one takeaway that I took from Lee’s first ARCA race in the booth, it is that it seemed like he wasn’t all that enthusiastic.  It seems like he found the on-track incidents to be a foregone conclusion.  The best non-racing comparison I could come up with here is from the early-1990’s cartoon Tiny Toon Adventures.  On that show, the main cast from ACME Looniversity have rivals from a school called Perfecto Prep.  The clip is glitchy, but I think it gets my point across.


In this example, Lee is represented by the Perfecto cheerleaders.  I’m not saying this to accuse Lee of not caring about his job, but I felt that he really wasn’t much emotion into his commentary.  However, knowing that it was his first time out, he may have wanted to ease himself into the role.  Having the veteran analyst Phil Parsons at his side definitely helps.

Due to multiple red flags and sprinkles, the race ran over its two-hour timeslot.  By the time the race was called a little after 6:30 p.m., the broadcast went straight to NASCAR RaceDay.  The only real post-race coverage was the Victory Lane interview with race winner Theriault.  This was aired via tape delay roughly 15 minutes into NASCAR RaceDay.

I do not like such a move.  Does a race that ultimately lasted 78 minutes need a two-hour pre-race show?  Hecks to the no.

A couple of years ago, FOX Sports 1 did this when John Wes Townley won his first ARCA race at Daytona.  It angered me then, and it angers me now (back then, I wrote that Townley “got served”).  This is supposed to be the showcase race for the series and they’re getting thrown out like yesterday’s trash.

As for Lee, he described his ARCA booth as such to the fictional Orange Cone.

He later indicated that he will be calling six of the 10 ARCA races on FOX Sports 1 this year since he will still be working INDYCAR races on NBCSN.  No word on who will replace him in the booth for the remaining four races.  I have generally liked Lee’s work on INDYCAR broadcasts, so I’m just going to use Saturday’s performance as a benchmark.  His next ARCA race won’t be until Talladega in May, so he’ll have some time to practice.

That’s all for this week.  Next weekend will see NASCAR’s big three series start their seasons at Daytona International Speedway.  It should be a fun time, but I’m still concerned about the new damage repair rules depleting the field to the point where barely anyone finishes at least one of those races.  The TV listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab above.

I will provide critiques of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races for Daytona in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  For the Critic’s Annex, it might be held to Friday this week.  The reasoning is that FOX Sports 1 is premiering a new film, Refuse to Lose, after the Can-Am Duels on Thursday night.  The film (title based on the Rainbow Warriors’ mid-1990’s motto) is about Jeff Gordon’s first win in the Daytona 500 from back in 1997.  This show will be paired with a 30-minute version of the 1997 Daytona 500 with pop-up facts, similar to what FOX Sports 1 has aired from the 1979 and 1993 Daytona 500’s in the past.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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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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You have to wonder what in the world the media will ever talk about when Dale Jr retires. I’ve already had my fill of Dale Jr and we are still a week away from the 500.


A Freaking Men!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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