Talladega brings all kinds of unusual instances. This year, we got drivers in the booth, Darrell Waltrip apparently not being in on a joke and wheelies. By Talladega standards, it was quirky, but not insane.
Before we get into the Alabama adventure, there’s some TV news of note. On Monday, IMSA and NBC Sports jointly announced that IMSA’s properties will be moving to NBC Sports starting with the 2019 season.
The deal is for six years and will see all IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races aired live in some way, shape or form. There will be nine hours of live coverage of the series on NBC, up from five on FOX this season. The sprint races will likely all be on NBCSN. Endurance races will likely be split between NBCSN, a network quotient, potentially CNBC and the NBC Sports App.
In addition, the soon to be Michelin SportsCar Challenge (currently the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda will be moving to NBCSN as well.
We already knew going into the year that 2018 was the last year of IMSA’s TV deal with FOX Sports that dated back to the ALMS/Grand-AM merger. Over the past couple of years, it seems that enthusiasm for sports car racing has decreased at FOX Sports. While exposure on FOX has come and gone over the past couple of years, the usage of FOX Sports 2 for race coverage (Ex: Over two-thirds of March’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts) has clearly rubbed fans (and some media members) the wrong way. Those who invest in the sport aren’t pleased as well. While FOX Sports 2 has grown quite a bit since it launched in 2013 (the channel’s in 50 percent more homes now), it is still in way fewer homes than any of the channels likely to air WeatherTech races in 2019. Also, FOX Sports 2 is still likely to be thrown into extra-cost sports packs in cable systems as well.
IMSA is not the only form of racing to ditch FOX Sports recently. The WEC left FOX Sports at the end of last season and will make their debut on Velocity this weekend. MotoGP left beforehand and went to beIN Sport.
IMSA’s departure means that FOX Sports will be left with the first half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY seasons, the full Camping World Truck Series season, the NHRA and Monster Energy AMA Supercross in 2019. Meanwhile, NBC Sports will have the second half of the Cup and XFINITY seasons, K&N East and West, the Whelen Modified Tour, IMSA and INDYCAR.
It appears that IMSA will benefit from increased exposure as a result of this new deal. Every little bit helps. NBC Sports is very happy to add to their racing portfolio and will promote their acquisition. With FOX Sports, it appeared that IMSA had to promote themselves on FOX Sports 1 or 2.
Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega was quite tame by today’s standards for a restrictor plate. Doesn’t mean that it was a bad race. When I first discovered restrictor plate racing, action like you saw Sunday wasn’t necessarily out of the question. In fact, plate races tended to be some of the cleaner races of the season. It’s just that when things went wrong, they really went wrong.
The primary feature of both NASCAR RaceDay and FOX NASCAR Sunday was a piece where Jamie Little went to a polo match to talk to both Kurt Busch and his wife, Ashley. Here, we get to see Kurt press his luck on a horse, which seems so strange in retrospect. However, things apparently aren’t as different as you’d think. Ashley was able to use her background in polo to understand Kurt’s life in NASCAR.
The takeaway here is that Kurt’s life is a complete 180 from what it was a few short years ago when he was dealing with the fallout from the end of his relationship with Patricia Driscoll. Basically, it was crazyland. Ashley allows Kurt to calm himself down for a change and focus. If anything, that relaxation allows Kurt to think more clearly on the track and be a better driver.
Also, during pre-race, we saw the network television debut of Rodney Sandstorm, the somewhat ridiculous cutoff jort-wearing Jeff Gordon superfan alter ego of defending IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion Jordan Taylor.
Man, these autograph chasers are DETERMINED in Talladega. ? pic.twitter.com/rUFYgJbUDv
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 29, 2018
What’s interesting here is that not everyone was in on the joke. Brad Keselowski was in on it, but his daughter Scarlett was quite confused. Darrell Waltrip really, really wasn’t in on it.
I was totally surprised, I had never meet @jordan10taylor so I thought he was some race fan trying to get on TV, I soon realized it was set up by my partner, @JeffGordonWeb, hilarious!! https://t.co/ytTP14xJ00
— Darrell Waltrip (@AllWaltrip) April 30, 2018
In other words, when Darrell called for security there, he actually was calling for security. Of course, Gordon knew what was going on. He teamed with Taylor to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona last year and Taylor’s already tried the bit on him before.
During the race itself, there was a lot of single-file racing. That happens every now and then, but it seemed more pronounced on Sunday. Admittedly, the introduction of the stages doesn’t help things. Instead of running to the 188-lap distance, teams ran to either the 55 or 78 lap distances. You saw early pit stops and split fields. It really cut down on the on-track action. Would not be surprised if some of those in attendance were less than satisfied with the on-track product because of it.
Prior to the race, the big crash for Jamie McMurray and the resulting reduction in the restrictor plate size (to the smallest one ever run at Talladega) got a fair amount of discussion. The general thought was that it wouldn’t affect the race. It would just make it slower. It was plenty fast regardless, but I’m not sure what the throttle response was like Sunday.
Throttle response is only noted because that was a regular complaint in the past when plate sizes were cut. Arguably, that would be even more of an issue now since the plate goes on the throttle body instead of the non-existent carburetor.
In regards to the split field, FOX’s coverage tended to stay with the top split. As a result, it was a little difficult to get information on those further back. It’s only after the race that I found out information like Alex Bowman having a hole punched in his nose at some point. Also, Brendan Gaughan blew a tire and smacked the wall on the last lap. This was not noted on the broadcast. Gaughan still managed to finish 22nd, but his No. 62 is kaput.
— Beard Motorsports (@BeardOil62) April 30, 2018
Even when everyone was together, FOX would still miss some things. For example, you could only really see Austin Dillon in the Big One when he got in the back of Darrell Wallace Jr., spinning him into the inside wall. His car didn’t even look all bad. Then, this wild and woolly picture made it onto Twitter.
Man what a day sucks our day was ended by a grass monster @Scooper_Cat pic.twitter.com/6xDQGQfDb9
— Austin Dillon (@austindillon3) April 30, 2018
That’ll ruin your day in a hurry. Splitters. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.
A somewhat sneaky-good aspect of the broadcast was FOX’s treatment of Denny Hamlin screwing himself over (again) with speeding penalties. In the lead up to the race, Gordon interviewed Hamlin and asked him directly if he could avoid a penalty on Sunday. He claimed that he would and clearly failed to do so. Hamlin’s got to clean it up. If need be, take a position loss on pit road instead of a costly penalty. That mess ruined his day. Seems hard to imagine that he’s only got four speeding penalties this year. It feels more like a dozen.
Post-race coverage was about average. Viewers got interviews with the top four finishers (Joey Logano, Busch, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick) along with some analysis before FOX left the air.
With the split-field setup for much of the race, FOX needed to work a little harder to provide in-depth coverage than in a normal plate race. They really didn’t step up to the plate. I spent a chunk of the race rather confused as to what was going on outside of the top 10 or 12 guys. That’s not good for an event that’s been plugged as a free-for-all at times. It seems that some fans were turned off by that action. Overnight ratings were down to a 2.8 on Sunday. On our TV Ratings page, we generally use Final Ratings, which are not available as of the writing of this column. They’ll be posted Tuesday in the TV Listings page under the Television tab.
Sparks Energy 300
Saturday was the annual Drivers Only XFINITY Series broadcast. Unlike last year, where the Cup drivers were let loose at Pocono, the vast expanses of Talladega were their territory.
Last year, Happy Hour for the Axalta presents the Pocono 400 ran up against the race broadcast, delaying the Cup driver integration. This year, qualifying for the GEICO 500 ran long (partially due to Aric Almirola’s mechanical issue/spin). As a result, most of the drivers were unable to take their posts for NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition. In Harvick’s case, he couldn’t even get to the booth until after the command since he won the pole and had post-qualifying media commitments.
Due to that setup, the Drivers Only pre-race show is the worst show of the year in regards to actually preparing viewers for the race. They basically didn’t talk about the race at all. It’s frustrating. I know they want to promote the Cup guys in the booth, but there’s still a job to be done. If FOX is going to continue with these Drivers Only broadcasts, they need to work with NASCAR so that these guys are not in the car right up against the broadcast.
Honestly, what was most noticeable to me was a general lack of emotion from the booth. The starkest example of that was the crash on lap 33 on the backstretch.
There’s little reaction here. Logano makes note of the wreck, but Harvick and Clint Bowyer don’t really make much of it. It’s as if it’s Tuesday at the ranch. That was a big wreck, especially for Spencer Boyd. Boyd flew in here with supposed “ARCA Brakes” because he rode him too hard in the first stage. When the heck went down, his pedal basically went to the floor. He literally could not stop his car.
Post-race coverage was relatively short since the race ran long. Ryan Blaney drew the Victory Lane interview and got some good quotes from Spencer Gallagher. Then again, anyone can get great quotes from Gallagher. The man is loquacious.
Gallagher’s post-race plans ultimately entailed going out into the infield and signing autographs for most of the night. Then, he played Super Mario Odyssey until 3 a.m. Not exactly partying like it’s 1999, but still plenty fun. Perhaps some Prince was playing while he was doing that. Those who hung around him Saturday night more than likely greatly enjoyed themselves.
Some say he has three ears, some say he won Talladega and went into the infield to sign autographs. All we know is he’s called Spencer, and he’s probably still out there ? pic.twitter.com/zRfTXz6aJf
— Spencer Gallagher (@23SpeedRacer) April 29, 2018
In addition to Gallagher, viewers got interviews with Spencer’s car owner/father Maury Gallagher, Elliott Sadler (Dash winner) and runner-up Brandon Jones. There was also some wrap-up analysis and a farewell.
Looking back on last year, I noted that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. seemed stilted on pit road. He looked stilted in the Hollywood Hotel as well. Having said that, he did do better than Danica Patrick did last year. Having Keselowski in their instead of Hamlin worked out well also.
The pit reporters were pretty solid on Saturday. Erik Jones was the best of the bunch last year and he was able to same this time. Wallace was the only newcomer down there, but he acquitted himself quite well. He was very poised. He came into the job without any nerves and went about it in a workman’s fashion.
Blaney was a little rough at the start. Someone forgot to tell him that you have to look at the camera when doing standups. That got him a roasting from the booth. Despite that slip-up, he provided some good content from the pits. Even something as simple as figuring out what happened to Jeremy Clements’ car (fuel pressure issues that led to a blown engine) goes a long way. That is something that may or may not have made the broadcast had Saturday been a regular race.
As compared to normal races, the booth had a very conversational feel. They weren’t really so much as calling the race as watching the action and commenting on it. It seemed really quiet as well, not just from the booth, but with everyone else with the exception of Keselowski. Couldn’t hear them all that well. While yes, there are going to be some fans that like that, but I kind of want to be able to hear what’s being said.
It appeared that the single-file racing did take a toll on the booth. It seemed like they had trouble really getting into the race. I don’t recall that being a problem at Pocono last year. Bowyer voiced his sentiments on the issue early in the race. He noted that he doesn’t notice that in the booth, but he understands why some fans don’t like the single-file racing.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend is shaping up to be very busy. NASCAR is holding a tripleheader weekend at Dover International Speedway, a full month earlier than last year. The Camping World Truck Series will race Friday afternoon, while the XFINITY Series races Saturday and Cup Sunday. Meanwhile, IMSA is back in action at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the first visit to the 2.25-mile road course since the ALMS/Grand-AM merger. Finally, the FIA World Endurance Championship begins their 2018-19 Super Series at the Circuit de Spa-Francochamps on Saturday. TV listings are in the Television tab.
We will provide critiques of the Cup, Truck and XFINITY races from Dover in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. For the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter, we’ll cover Friday’s General Tire 200 for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. As you know, the series announced some big news last weekend and we’ll cover that and the coverage.
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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.