Henrico County was a very warm place this past weekend. Viewers saw a couple of interesting races. However, NASCAR broadcasts were dominated by one big media firestorm: Dale Earnhardt Jr. coverage.
Earnhardt’s retirement announcement, made last Tuesday remained the big story throughout the Richmond weekend. At the time, it was considered to be a bombshell since no news had skittered out about it even though Earnhardt had apparently made up his mind nearly a month earlier. All I (and everyone else) knew was that he hadn’t signed a contract extension.
Naturally, with one story overwhelming everything else, much of pre-race coverage was focused on Earnhardt. Michael Waltrip did a sit-down interview with Earnhardt where he asked about the announcement and his thoughts. Earnhardt is a great person to interview in general, but if you watched the press conference on Tuesday, you learned nothing.
Also of note, a number of drivers recorded thank-you messages to Earnhardt that were aired on pre-race coverage. While that’s nice, I doubt Earnhardt really feels like his career is truly over yet. A similar piece with comments from drivers like Ryan Newman ran as part of NASCAR RaceDay. A recurring theme here is that he seems to be a friend to everyone. He’s the man that everyone wants to hang out with.
There was more rehashing of Earnhardt’s concussions. None of us really know how many of them that he’s had, but he’s admitted publicly to four (the one he hid in 2002, the two in 2012 and the one last year). It appears to be more than that, but I couldn’t give you any idea how many.
Clint Bowyer joked that Earnhardt was “milking this [retirement] thing pretty bad.” But Earnhardt isn’t milking anything. It seems like everyone else is. It almost seemed like, at one point everyone forgot about the race to a certain degree. The first 40 minutes of NASCAR RaceDay was completely dedicated to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Viewers didn’t really get any coverage of the upcoming Richmond race until they started talking about Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 and how wide the groove got there. Justin Allgaier spent some time in the Charlotte studio explaining what’s up. Of note, I thought Allgaier did a pretty good job here. I’ve been critical of his analysis on ARCA broadcasts in the past because he seems to unconsciously dominate things. But Sunday, that wasn’t the case.
Luckily, during the race itself, there wasn’t quite as much of a focus on the news. We had a great race on Sunday with lots of side-by-side action. Four-wide on a short track is not an everyday thing. It only happened a little at Irwindale when they used to have 40-car starting fields for the late model portion of the Toyota All-Star Showdown.
The broadcast booth loved the on-track product Sunday. I just wish more people were there. 90-degree weather and humidity doesn’t exactly help attendance. I don’t know what the actual ticket sales were, but I think that if the temperature were ten degrees cooler, more chaps would have shown up.
There were some gripes from viewers about a couple aspects of the broadcast. One was FOX missing Brad Keselowski’s pass for the lead on lap 239. That pass occurred during one of the Race Breaks, which isn’t a commercial, but a lay out period for the broadcast booth. I don’t particularly think that it is necessary, but they’ve been a staple of FOX NASCAR broadcasts for pretty much the whole time they’ve been covering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
I suppose that we’ve been over this segment before. If anything of note happens, the chaps in the production truck with all the monitors have to pick out the one camera that has the best view, then signal to switch to it. That is no easy feat.
While I have never been in a FOX production truck, I can’t imagine the monitor setup to be all that different from what ESPN brought to the table years ago. Back in 2009, I had the chance to go in the control room. It is a busy place.
Each monitor in the room represents a camera and each one has either a number of word designation. I seem to recall “Gopher” being used. No, that was not for FOX’s “Gopher Cam.” We’re still in a No Digger Zone here. The name didn’t stand for anything, it was just there. Something that someone can enunciate quickly. The director initiates the camera switch.
Mike Joy had to get on the defensive on Twitter Monday to explain this point to a fan.
Sit where our director sits, in front of a 64 screen monitor wall, and pick the absolute best shot for every moment of a 4 hour telecast. https://t.co/USt4MVHIHW
— Mike Joy (@mikejoy500) May 1, 2017
Personally, I’ve never sat in that seat. I’d imagine that it would be quite dizzying with so much action happening at once.
My gripe with the actual race broadcast was not with the camera shot selection, though. My issue was more in the scope of coverage. I like to be able to track what teams are doing during the race and I’ve found FOX to be deficient at that recently, especially if someone isn’t completely on their game.
For example, Ryan Blaney had some problems early on. He started on the outside pole, but quickly dropped back out of the top 15. You didn’t really hear about it until he was 16th.
Also, FOX could do a better job of tracking those who take wavearounds. For instance, Daniel Suarez finished 12th on Sunday despite being three laps down at one point in a race in which 28 finished on the lead lap. It was mentioned that Suarez was in position for a good finish in the final ten laps and I thought, “Wait, what?” You cannot be completely dependent on the FOX Box. Not everyone’s a visual learner. I spent way too much time studying to become a teacher to not know that.
The commitment line issue also played a role Sunday. On this one, I felt FOX did well with the story. At Bristol, NASCAR sprung a rule change on drivers noting that when the orange square is in play, all four wheels must be below the box. Last year, you only needed the right side tires to touch the box.
The rule change caught a number of drivers off guard. Of the ones penalized, I believe only Martin Truex Jr. has a legitimate gripe. Why the heck was pit road opened with that safety truck there? I don’t know, but that’s not right. It’s dangerous. People can hit trucks like that. I’m sure you remember when Michael McDowell hit a safety truck at Richmond a couple of years ago?
As for Kyle Busch, I suppose his reaction is just typical for him these days: frustration. Busch didn’t talk to any of the PR reps from Toyota afterwards and it could be assumed that he left the track as soon as possible. The “balls and strikes” quote does sum up what he thought of it pretty well, though.
The race ran a little long Sunday, but that did not affect post-race coverage. Viewers got a few interviews, along with a check of the point standings and analysis. Of course, this came with more Dale Earnhardt Jr. coverage where he talked about the wreck he had with teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Overall, I loved the enthusiasm this week. Richmond was a legitimately good race to watch and we had a broadcast booth which encapsulated that. Yes, Matt Kenseth kicked some serious butt early, but Sunday was one of the best races I’ve ever watched at this short track. I hope we see more like it in slightly more hospitable weather (say, 80 degrees with a dewpoint around 58).
I’d still like to see more of a focus on inclusivity. Like it or not, the TV broadcasts are one of the main signs of health (or weakness) in the sport. Showing only certain parts of the field makes the sport look weaker as a whole. Also, everyone has fans. Obviously, Earnhardt’s got them in spades. But everyone else down to Reed Sorenson, Timmy Hill and Corey LaJoie do as well.
As for the wreck coverage, it wasn’t revolutionary or anything like that, but believe me, I’ve seen worse. I like to kill time by looking at stuff on YouTube. An example of bad wreck coverage would be the big wreck in the 2008 Best Buy 400 benefiting Student Clubs for Autism Speaks.
They had it made, and they screwed it up. This instance at Dover was from before I started writing this column (at the time, Doug Turnbull was our critic).
That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a rather nerve-wracking time as NASCAR returns to Talladega. Both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY series will be there. Meanwhile, IMSA is back in action at Circuit of the Americas and the World Endurance Championship travels to Spa in Belgium. TV listings can be found in the schedule tab at the top of the page.
I will provide critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex on Thursday in the Newsletter will cover both Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 for the XFINITY Series and the Verizon IndyCar Series Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
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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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