Races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway have been panned for what seems like the majority of the time that the NASCAR Cup Series has raced there. It’s a place that’s naturally hard to pass at since the groove isn’t very wide.
In recent years, the track’s staff has made a bunch of moves to try to promote better racing. They’ve tried using sealer on the track. They created a lower section with only two degrees of banking, in addition to the regular seven degrees. Most recently, the track has used PJ1 TrackBite in the first and third lanes in order to convince drivers to run outside of the normal groove in the second lane.
Sunday was different as NASCAR chose not to lay down any PJ1 TrackBite prior to the Cup race. The reasoning here is that the Modified teams hate it and there wasn’t enough time after the Whelen 100 to put it down prior to the Xfinity Series Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200 (note: Ambetter is a health insurance provider that is a division of the Centene Corporation). Afterwards, NASCAR decided that it didn’t want to put it down just for the Cup race.
Was that a bad move? Not really. However, that decision is not what Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 will be remembered for.
Sunday’s race will be best remembered for starting on time, but in misty conditions. Given the technology in NBC Sports’ cameras, you couldn’t really see the mist, but within the first couple of laps, you could see raindrops on the camera lenses. This moisture was not noted by the booth commentators, but Marty Snider did note that it had been raining for a lap and a half before anything happened.
As a result, when the precipitation increased on lap 5, they were caught by surprise. Kyle Busch wiped out of the lead and hit the wall in turn 1, while Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also lost control. It’s like it took a little for the situation to truly set in. You have to be cognizant of your surroundings. Steve Letarte said that being in the booth means that you’re somewhat numb to the conditions, but you do have windows at your disposal. Sometimes, there are shields on the windows to lower glare, but that wasn’t an issue in Loudon Sunday.
During the red flag, there were a couple of notable interviews. One was with Busch, who was quite angry. However, he channeled Sergeant Yates from the “Cartman’s Incredible Gift” episode of South Park and “used that one thing that starts with a ‘R’ that we never use.” The “R” word here is restraint.
You could see Busch bursting with vitriol the whole time during his interview with Snider (I think that was him cussing on pit road after getting out of the car prior to the interview). He did outright state that the race shouldn’t have started in the conditions that they did, but he held back from truly putting everyone on blast.
Later on, Steve O’Donnell entered the booth to explain the situation further. He described the communications between the booth and pace car driver Kip Childress. They had communicated with Childress and asked him if he was seeing drops on his windshield at the entrance to turn 1. He had responded in the affirmative, but they couldn’t make the call to put the yellow out before Busch crashed.
Letarte did ask about exceptions to the Damaged Vehicle Policy (which I still don’t like), and O’Donnell stated that they were looking into it, but he didn’t have an answer at the time. It sounds like they decided against it.
These interviews were not only good content for NBCSN, but did provide a decent amount of information for the viewers. The booth was not afraid to ask O’Donnell the tough questions. Were they satisfied with the answers that they received? I don’t know. They got something out of O’Donnell, at least. It seems like the issue here started before the race went green, though. O’Donnell noted that the series has raced in mist before without issues. There are quite a few examples of this. It just kicked it up a notch quicker than expected, resulting in people wrecking.
That said, the whole situation really stinks. NASCAR probably should have taken extra pace laps and done the whole thumbs up or down with the drivers before starting. Then again, had they done that, it wouldn’t have started because the rain may have started before the green flag would have been thrown.
Later on, you had NASCAR informing the teams during the break between stage two and the final stage that they would race until they thought it was too dark, then give the 10 laps to go signal. It also stipulated no GWCs. This is a rarity in NASCAR. I can only remember this happening about seven or eight times since 1987, but the rule is no different now than it was then. Back then, NASCAR cut the Winston 500 by 10 laps when it ran up against darkness. That race is actually the exception to the rule since it didn’t involve rain (if you’re reading this, then you probably know what caused it).
As a result, viewers watched the final stage of the race without any idea of how long it was going to go. As close to the finish as lap 265, Letarte seemed convinced that it was going to go the full 301 laps. Had it not been cloudy, it probably would have gone the distance. Then, NASCAR made the announcement on lap 283 that it would be 10 laps to go at the line. Cutting the race short probably did rob viewers of an excellent finish. Christopher Bell likely would have gotten to Aric Almirola in those final eight laps. Also, those eight laps would have taken less than five minutes. It’s debatable how much darker it would have gotten in that time. It was stated numerous times on the broadcast that it was nowhere near as dark as it was at Martinsville for the 2015 Goody’s Headache Powder Relief Shot 500.
As you probably remember, NASCAR ran that race to completion. The result was Jeff Gordon’s 93rd and final victory.
To be fair, I have been at a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that got called due to darkness before. In 2017, there was an ACT Invitational race held after the Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday evening. It was scheduled for 50 green-flag laps. It turned into a complete travesty with wreck after wreck after wreck. Someone ploughed into the Fitch barriers and caused a long red flag for cleanup. In the end, they only completed 17 laps before it was called for darkness and Woody Pitkat was declared the winner. You know things are bad when the crowd starts booing the drivers.
Going into the weekend in Loudon, NBC Sports promoted their broadcasts as using the “Racing Team” broadcast booth. Rick Allen took a scheduled weekend off from the track, leaving Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte in the booth together. Earnhardt Jr. served as the play-by-play commentator.
Without Allen in the booth, the broadcast had a different feel. Earnhardt Jr. is definitely not trained as a play-by-play commentator (he’s an analyst by nature), but I thought he did OK. Earnhardt Jr. is going to notice different things than Allen would. Also, having three booth voices instead of four means that things are less crowded. Everyone can actually be in the same room for a change.
I didn’t find the broadcast to be more inclusive than normal, at least not on Sunday. What I did find is that NBCSN did a good job to bring a lot of racing for position to viewers. As a result, one of the big takeaways from the race is that New Hampshire Motor Speedway really doesn’t need the PJ1 TrackBite (or at least less of it) to put on a good race. The booth did note that some of the viscous fluid could still be there from last year.
Since the race was overtime by nearly two hours by the time it ended, post-race coverage was relatively brief. Viewers got interviews with Almirola and Bell, along with a check of the substantially shaken up point standings before leaving Loudon for the Premier Lacrosse League All Star Game from San Jose.
The race was frustrating because of issues that had nothing to do with NBCSN. Had they scheduled an earlier start, it might have been pushed back to when they actually started due to rain earlier in the day. Rain is never a good thing at the track, although it’s definitely better than lightning. I sat through two lightning delays at Lime Rock last weekend, and that’s no fun in a media center the size of a decently-sized living room with no bathroom (the bathroom is in a separate building at the bottom of a hill).
Earnhardt Jr., Burton and Letarte do work well together as a threesome. They also stayed on-topic very well. There weren’t too many tangents during the broadcast (although we did learn that Burton played in a lacrosse league after he retired from driving). There was a good amount of action to be had, and the booth was clearly there for that. Can’t do much about the weather, though. It’s been rather putrid in the Northeast for the past couple of weeks.
That’s all for this week. We are now into the Olympic break, a two-week hiatus of major motorsports since NBC Sports has rights to NASCAR, INDYCAR and IMSA at this time of year. It’s not a good move since everyone needs eyeballs. By the time the break is over, you’ll have preseason football to deal with.
Having said that, there is still action to be had this weekend. The ARCA Menards Series will be at Iowa Speedway for the Shore Lunch 150, the only event that will be held at the seven-eighths of a mile track this year. Formula E will be in London for a doubleheader weekend. The Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship will be at Washougal in Southern Washington, not too far away from Portland, Ore. There’s also plenty of dirt racing to be had, topped off by the World of Outlaws NoS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway for the Champion Racing Oil Summer Nationals. TV listings can be found here.
Admittedly, I should write a little about Formula E for next week because I really haven’t evaluated how CBS Sports has done with its coverage this year yet. However, I don’t believe that Frontstretch has a way to get Formula E pictures for the site. The current plan is to combine a look at Saturday night’s ARCA race on MAVTV and NBC Sports Gold with Formula E coverage, but that could change. For the Annex, I’ll cover Saturday’s Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200, which took place during the lightning-shortened Northeast Grand Prix.
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.
As always, if you choose to contact a network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.
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.