Oh yes, Darlington. On Labor Day weekend, this is where NASCAR fans go to sweat gallons of fluid and take in some interesting racing. Viewers had three very different races on the schedule on the egg-shaped oval.
Cook Out Southern 500
The centerpiece of Throwback Weekend was 500 miles at Darlington Raceway. I don’t think anybody realized that this race was done in under four hours. As compared to last year’s race, this one was quite a bit more competitive. There were more lead changes and more passes on-track, even if it didn’t really look that way on NBCSN.
Let’s put it this way. The playoff focus came early and often on Sunday night. Most of the focus all evening was given to those 16 drivers. If you weren’t in that group and wanted to get in on it, you had to rain on their parade. Early on, Jimmie Johnson was able to put himself up into the top five, replicating his pace from The Real Heroes 400 back in May. Later in the race, it was Erik Jones who was strutting his stuff. Ultimately, he was the only non-playoff contender in the top 13 at the finish.
If you weren’t in the playoffs, you could do almost anything and not really get noticed. John Hunter Nemechek crashed out on lap 246. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that it was a pretty big hit and that it was apparently self-inflicted. There was no replay shown.
Christopher Bell went to the garage for some reason and lost 19 laps. I had no clue that he had gone behind the wall until I glanced at the Virtual Media Center standings that NASCAR has made available to the working media and noticed that he was that far back. I don’t really recall seeing his No. 95 on the broadcast all night. Basically, if you wanted to know about your favorite driver, he had better be in the playoffs. If not, you probably weren’t going to get that information.
The information from the pits was better than that, though. Tires are always going to be an issue. We got good shots of some of the issues that Clint Bowyer had. However, Kevin Harvick had tire problems for much of the race. We never really heard about them. We just saw him choose to split the stages up into thirds. I never realized that he was cording his right-rear tire all night long. Found that out when I was getting quotes for Monday’s Newsletter. I feel like that under normal circumstances, NBCSN would have caught that, or pressed Rodney Childers until he gave a more sufficient explanation.
The coverage of the incident was covered comprehensively. However, in that insanity, NBCSN actually did not show the pass for the win live. We only saw that three laps after the fact in a replay.
As in past years, NBCSN had a special booth setup for the race. Like last year, stage two of the race was called by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty (referred to simply as “An Earnhardt, a Jarrett and a Petty”). Given the current setup, this was not ideal. Petty and Jarrett had to jump in a car and drive across Charlotte to get to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where NBC Sports has maintained their broadcast booth since July. They had to go in a separate area from Earnhardt Jr. for their call. I’m not sure where they were (my guess is that they were both in suites while Earnhardt Jr. stayed in his portion of one of the broadcast booths).
There is a substantial difference between the regular broadcast and the so-called throwback booth (it isn’t really). It’s more conversational than anything. All three of them are very cognizant of what’s going on out there and can point out certain things that the regular booth might miss. The booth switches that we’ve seen this year on NBC Sports’ NASCAR broadcasts have highlighted some interesting things. Basically, NBC Sports has a lot of people that are pretty good in the booth right now. FOX Sports is in a bit of a different position despite having a fair amount of talent on hand.
Post-race coverage was fairly brief. Viewers got interviews with the top-two finishers (Harvick and Austin Dillon), along with Elliott and Truex. There was also a check of the points before NBCSN left Darlington.
I hammer this home every year, but my opinion doesn’t change on the matter. Just because it’s the playoffs doesn’t mean that you can ignore those who aren’t in it. I understand that there will be more points checks this time year (interestingly enough, there weren’t that many Sunday night). You still have to treat all the teams with the proper respect. These days, NBC Sports has a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible. That will convince advertisers that it’s worth it to sponsor a team knowing that activation is so much harder right now than ever before.
Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200
There are a few things in my life that are generally uniform. One is that I love auto racing and have for more than 30 years. Another is that I’m addicted to game shows and that I’ve wanted to be on one since I was five. Weather is fascinating to me, and I once considered applying to Vermont’s Lyndon State College (now the Lyndon campus of Northern Vermont University) to study meteorology. It’s a small school and the best-known people that attended there are recognizable figures like Jim Cantore. Sadly, the interest in studying it in college fell off after I got the VHS tape from the school about their program and it mentioned the high levels of calculus required.
The fourth and final constant in my life is that I really don’t like horse racing.
It was just a thing that was around for me growing up, but it really didn’t become a problem until I started covering the local racing scene here in New York for the Troy Record on a freelance basis in 2010. Let’s just say that a lot of people around where I live take the racing season at Saratoga Racecourse (which just finished their 2020 season Monday) seriously. It was really tough to get anything published about Lebanon Valley after they started. I believe that it hurt my writing career because it sapped my visibility. I’m operating under the opinion that it hurt Lebanon Valley Speedway’s visibility as well.
Why do I bring that up? Because the horsies negatively affected Saturday’s broadcast from Darlington.
Saturday’s VFW Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200 aired on NBC. The race was given a two-hour time slot before the coverage of the rescheduled Kentucky Derby was scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. There are few things that are more drawn out in sport than a day at the racecourse to watch horses race. Even with no fans in attendance, it still seemed really busy at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Thousand Words got spooked and flipped onto his back in the paddock, injuring one of his handlers. It was pandemonium. Given that a racehorse weighs three-quarters of a ton, that could have been like an old 1970s Mini flipping over. No thank you.
The scheduled sign-off time from Darlington was 2:30 p.m. That time was reached right at the restart after the red flag (the one where Brett Moffitt oiled the track down, leading to three separate crashes). There was no attempt to delay the move to Louisville by one second. Instead, the race was pushed to NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. in a very awkward matter. The race restarted, then the screen cut to black.
Luckily, being Frontstretch’s sports car racing expert, I already had the slot on my DVR because that was going to be when the TireRack.com Grand Prix returned to TV from being on NBCSports.com. If you made the switch when the screen went black on NBC, you basically didn’t miss anything.
If they were going to start the Kentucky Derby, or the little parade leading to the Derby at that time, maybe such a move would have made sense. As it stands, the Derby didn’t happen until nearly 7 p.m. Heck, I actually saw that while I writing the TireRack.com Grand Prix race recap. NBC hard-cut out of Darlington for four-plus hours of preliminary chatter and a couple of support races. Weak, man. That’s not cool.
Had the pandemic not happened, we probably would still be having this conversation right now, but for a different sport. The same thing would have happened, but the cut would have been for college football instead of horse racing. The race broadcast probably would have interfered with Notre Dame’s home opener or something like that.
It’s sad, really. Take that whole mess away and the focus goes back to where it should be: the excellent racing on-track and that soon to be infamous battle for the win between Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin.
It was every bit of the Kurt Busch–Ricky Craven battle from 2003. The only difference is that they effectively wrecked each other. That allowed Brandon Jones, playing the Dave Blaney role, to win. This was a very enjoyable battle to watch and the dudes at NASCAR put the last 14 laps on YouTube in it’s own video for you to take it in.
TV-wise, NBC had Jarrett in the broadcast booth Saturday in place of Earnhardt Jr. This gave the booth a different feel, but I liked it. Jarrett works well with Rick Allen and Steve Letarte. Overall, I felt like you saw a different Jarrett here. He worked as a booth analyst at ESPN for more than five years and I don’t recall him ever being quite this exuberant up there. It’s refreshing.
Also, NBC had Jeff Burton on the grounds at Darlington in a roving reporter role. On paper, he was basically in Rutledge Wood’s role. A little weird to watch, honestly. Regardless, you could see how happy Burton was just to be back at the track and experiencing the action up close.
Since the race ran long by nearly a half-hour, post-race coverage was not that substantial. Viewers did hear from Jones, Hamlin and Chastain. There was also a check of the points before NBCSN left Darlington for Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Overall, I enjoyed watching this race the most of the three Darlington races. The current rules in the Xfinity Series make for good racing there. While Sunday night’s Cup race was better in almost any objective way than last year’s race, there were long periods of time without much action. You didn’t get that Saturday. Yes, Hamlin had the best car, but he wasn’t running away with anything. Chastain had probably his best race of the year and really showed that he’s one of the best guys in the Xfinity Series right now.
That’s all for this week. The upcoming race weekend at Richmond Raceway starts bright and early. The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series ToyotaCare 250, originally scheduled for April, is now a Thursday night race. Interestingly enough, when the series first started in 1995, they raced at Richmond on a Thursday night as part of the September Cup weekend. It would literally be on the first day of school for me. Back then, it was a 150-lap race known as the Fas Mart SuperTruck Shootout. Now, it’s 250 laps, uncharted territory for the Trucks at Richmond. Also, it’ll decide who will be in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoffs.
The Xfinity Series has a doubleheader at Richmond, so teams will likely be very busy since there’s only about 14 hours between the end of Friday night’s race and the start of Saturday afternoon’s event. Finally, you have the Cup Round of 16 continuing Saturday night.
INDYCAR just confirmed last weekend that they’ll be at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a doubleheader. The first race will air on NBCSN in-between the second Xfinity race and the Cup race from Richmond, while the Sunday event will be on NBC. TV listings are in the TV tab at the top of the page.
We’ll provide critiques on the Cup and Truck races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here on Frontstretch. For the Critic’s Annex this week, we’ll cover the South Carolina Education Lottery 200 from Darlington. Next week’s Annex (Sept. 17) will cover both of the Xfinity races from Richmond. Also, NASCAR posted the last 10 Busch Grand National races (1991-2000) at Myrtle Beach Speedway to their YouTube page. You can see Dale Earnhardt Jr. make his series debut, Rodney Childers get wrecked in his debut as a driver, Jerry Glanville get dissed multiple times, and David Pearson in the booth. Enjoy.
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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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