Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: NBC Deals With Track Issues, While Knoxville Brings Kevin Swindell to the Booth

By today’s standards, last weekend was a rarity. You had a split weekend with the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series teams racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while the Camping World Truck Series was at Knoxville Raceway. The Cup race wasn’t all that unusual for Atlanta, just shorter, which I didn’t really welcome. The Truck race … oh boy. Stuff got a little ridiculous there.

Before we start, NBC Sports announced Friday that they will be airing a new special on Chase Elliott simply entitled CHASE. Hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the show will look into Elliott’s life and career.

See also
Chase Elliott to Be Featured in Doc on Peacock

The show is scheduled to premier on Peacock sometime in August. I currently plan on critiquing this show, likely in the Frontstretch Newsletter.

Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart

As you’re all aware of by now, Sunday was the final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on the current track surface. It was original from when the track was changed to the current configuration in 1997, 24 years ago.

Needless to say, this was a big story Sunday. Given Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s status with iRacing, he got the best sim racers in NASCAR (Timmy Hill, Garrett Smithley and William Byron) together to try out what will be the new Atlanta Motor Speedway in iRacing to see how it would race.

The takeaways here is that the G-Forces will be increased from where they are now. It will be a harder race for the drivers, guaranteed. Byron compared it to concrete Bristol (as opposed to dirt Bristol). Based on the clip, I’m not really sure how competitive it’s going to be. It seemed like they could run side-by-side, but point-blank passing someone might be difficult.

That said, after Sunday’s race, it is very clear that they have to repave. The track, to reference an infamous 1977 Sports Illustrated article on enforcers in the NBA, came apart in sections late in stage two, forcing a 19-minute race red flag to fix it. SMI has spent millions keeping the surface raceable for the last few years. I just wish they kept the current setup with the repave and did the surface aging thing that they’re planning to do to the new surface.

Speaking of the repairs, you might have noticed that it looked wet around the areas that were fixed. Some fans might have thought that water was coming up through the track. Not so. It had to do with the substance used for the repairs. Clay Greenfield, Camping World Truck Series owner/driver and paving specialist, explains.

In preparation for the repave, NBC Sports showed a series of classic clips from Atlanta, showing off the great racing and great finishes. Atlanta has been an excellent track over the years, but not so much recently. Recent Atlanta races have been dominated by certain drivers, like Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and so on. Sunday’s event was no exception with only 10 lead changes. It might be the track hurt the most by NASCAR instituting the high-downforce rules package, as it’s killed most of the speed there and almost all of the tire management.

Sunday’s race was somewhat typical for Atlanta. You had a number of drivers having tire issues, like Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and others. This wasn’t so much the blown tire variety, but the unwinding tire kind. Ever since Goodyear went to dual zone tires, outright blowouts are rare unless someone runs over debris.

There was a lot of discussion about the digital dashboards being unable to show lap times Sunday, which was rather weird. This wasn’t an individual team issue, but a near-field wide issue. Never seen that before, but it did throw some drivers for a loop.

The on-track racing was still relatively decent Sunday, but viewers only saw so much of it. The action near the restarts was fierce, but was still decent outside of it. The focus was rather tight for much of the race, especially late. The last 30 or so was centered on the Busch brothers and their battling.

I’m not shocked that Kyle Busch was rather upset with Ross Chastain after Chastain effectively blocked a move for the lead late. While it’s not really normal for teammates to set picks like that at intermediate tracks, it’s not out of the question for drivers to set their own picks. I think back to the All-Star Race a few years ago when Denny Hamlin slid up the track and blocked a move. That allowed him to pull out a two-second lead and win easily. This stuff is part of the game, but still frustrating.

The red flag did cut into the post-race coverage a little bit. That said, there were still nine post-race interviews, a points check and some analysis before NBC Sports left Atlanta.

Overall, this wasn’t exactly the best farewell for this track surface. It clearly showed that it was past its prime. It’s like Daytona when they had the infamous pothole in 2010. Yes, a buttload of rain the day before the Daytona 500 was at least partially responsible for that situation, but the surface was 31-32 years old. It was inevitable, but it had to happen at the worst time. The race had some decent racing, but we only saw some of it. I’m sure there was some more to be had, but the focus was a little tight at times. At the bare minimum, Sunday’s race will be best remembered for these inanimate objects.

Corn Belt 179

Yeah, this was supposed to be a 150-lap race. Then, everyone started wrecking like it was going out of style. We ended up with 29 extra laps, Derek Kraus being treated as if he were Public Enemy No. 1 despite not starting the Big One, and a lot of torn up trucks. Woof. Austin Hill might be the only person that came out of Knoxville looking good.

Given that FOX Sports 1’s on-air team for Camping World Truck Series broadcasts is not the most knowledgeable about racing on dirt, they brought in an expert for the weekend. Unlike Bristol in March, where Logano was in the hot seat (then won the Cup race Sunday), Kevin Swindell was brought into the booth to bring his knowledge.

For viewers that are only NASCAR fans, it’s been a while since Swindell has been involved. At one point, he was a development driver for Roush Fenway Racing. He has one career Cup start (2013, for Swan Racing in New Hampshire) and 30 starts in what is now the Xfinity Series, with three top-10 finishes. Sadly, his most memorable moment in NASCAR is probably the time he got wiped out under yellow at Dover by Alex Kennedy in 2011.

These days, Swindell’s driving career is over due to spinal injuries suffered in a crash at Knoxville in 2015 that have left him paralyzed from the waist down. In place of driving, he runs his own race team, Swindell SpeedLab. They run Midgets for events like the Chili Bowl, in addition to sprint cars. His own father, Sammy, is one of his drivers.

As part of pre-race coverage, Shannon Spake sat down with Swindell and his wife, Jordan, to talk about his 2015 crash and what life has been like for him since the crash. To make a long story short, he had to completely change his priorities. Even after the crash, he wanted to fit hand controls into a replacement chassis and still try to race five months later at the Chili Bowl. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Probably the biggest takeaway is that the Swindells (and especially Jordan) have a very tough demeanor. They don’t really show a lot of emotion. They just take what they get and try to make the best of it. I’ve never met Kevin or Jordan in the past, but I have done a couple of post-race interviews in the past with Sammy at Lebanon Valley Speedway when the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars or All Star Circuit of Champions has come to town. Sammy is a relatively quiet man that doesn’t really change all that much in good or bad times. Kevin and Jordan appear to be similar.

Booth-wise, FOX Sports declined to send Swindell, Vince Welch and Michael Waltrip to Knoxville for the race. Instead, they called the event from FOX Sports’ studios on Route 24 in the Charlotte area. I’ve noted countless times in the past that the broadcasters lose a lot not being on-site. There’s a lot that happened Friday night, and I believe that the booth missed a bunch because they weren’t there.

How was Swindell in the booth? Quite informative. He has a lot of experience racing dirt in general, and a bunch of experience at Knoxville Raceway. Then again, much of that experience is in 410 sprints. At best, the Trucks were about 20-25 mph slower than sprint cars for an average at Knoxville, which is in line with what I thought they could do.

In regards to his demeanor in the booth, it was more or less in line with my previous thoughts in regards to the feature about him. Swindell was calculated in the booth, but never really raised his voice. You knew what he was saying, but he was very calm about it.

A secondary piece was about the Friesens (Stewart and Jessica), how they met and how they race together, be it sprint cars or modifieds. Watching this, I’m thinking that it was originally supposed to run back in March at Bristol, but the rain set in and forced Jessica to miss the show.

Basically, they met at various tracks in Upstate New York and “made puppy dog eyes” at each other, eventually falling in love. They married and race against each other quite a bit. When unable to race, Jessica served as Stewart’s crew chief on Jessica’s sprint car, as seen here.

Unfortunately, the Friesens didn’t have a great night Friday. Both were involved in wrecks and ended up in the 20s, multiple laps down. Saturday night was much better, as they went 1-2 in the Modified feature at Fonda Speedway with Jessica winning.

Racing-wise, the first half of Friday night’s race wasn’t bad. You had a decent amount of racing, it was possible to go side-by-side, and there was less in the way of shenanigans. Then, the top line went away and everyone hunted for the inside. When that happened, the stupidity started. I feel like the hate that often comes NASCAR’s way in regards to caution laps didn’t really happen here like it did at Eldora, but I’m sure some of the fans in attendance weren’t pleased.

Not having the booth there hurt because we couldn’t figure out what caused some of the incidents. For instance, the wreck on lap 92 involving Jack Wood and Parker Price-Miller. I have no idea what happened there, because they only caught the aftermath live and there were no replays. Being there, the booth might have outright seen the crash in real time. Also, given Price-Miller’s damage, I’m a little confused about the damage clock rules. Price-Miller lost something like 17 laps after this crash, yet continued on. Were there different repair rules in effect Friday night? If so, they weren’t explained at all.

Watching this race got me frustrated because of the stupidity. The Big One is just one example of that. Donny Schatz may be well-known for his exploits in sprint cars, but he’s responsible for that mess happening in turn 1.

He jacked up Jake Griffin like no one’s business. Apparently, he thought he could get to Wilmot, Wisc. for Saturday night’s Badger 40 (where he finished third) a little faster if he drove through Griffin. So unnecessary. I wish someone would have taken a stand against such stupidity.

Since the race ran long by more than a half hour, post-race coverage was limited. Viewers got interviews with the top two finishers (Hill and Chandler Smith) and winning crew chief Scott Zipadelli, along with a quick check of the points before leaving Knoxville. John Hunter Nemechek clinched the regular season championship Friday night, but I have no clue if they gave him his trophy or not. If they did, it DNQ’d the broadcast.

The field was set through a rather complicated formula that really wasn’t explained well enough. I don’t understand why owner points were used as a tiebreaker to set the grid, or why they started 40 trucks instead of 36. I guess NASCAR thought it was more fair that way.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be at New Hampshire International Speedway for some flat-track racing. Meanwhile, IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Michelin Pilot Challenge will be at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. The FIA World Endurance Championship will be at Monza for six hours of racing as well. TV listings can be found here.

We’ll cover the broadcasts of Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 and Saturday’s Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200 from Loudon in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. The Critic’s Annex will cover Saturday’s Credit Karma Money 250, the potential Xfinity Series swan song for Kyle Busch.

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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Tom B

Is this the same Jessica that dated Tony Stewart several years ago when they were racing Sprint Cars? They never mention that racing connection history!
I’ve never heard Phil be so adamant about a driver (Schatz) causing a wreck.

Jill P

I was really surprised Fox did not send their announcers to Knoxville in person with the way they hyped up this race. I guess we know where their priorities are.

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