Sunday saw the NASCAR Cup Series tackle the dirt once again. Once again, there were problems.
First off, jeepers. Bristol Motor Speedway just cannot buy a break with its spring race weekend, no matter where you put it. It’s had the race as the fifth race of the season. They’ve pushed it back into mid-to-late April. It seems to rain every year and screw things up. I’d argue that the rain itself is the only reason dirt was ever considered as an option for Bristol. Take the bad weather of recent years away and this is probably a 500-lap race on concrete that draws 75-100,000 people.
Alas, that’s not what we had. We had a dirt race. FOX treats this event as a pretty big deal. For Sunday, it had a stage set up outside of the track where fans could congregate around some of the pre-race content. Prior to the race, Chris Myers, Jamie McMurray and Larry McReynolds were out there discussing topics.
This is a bit of a far cry from the days of The Home Depot sponsoring NASCAR RaceDay with its deck stage and ginormous crowds, but it does bring a little something back to the track experience that has been missing in recent years. Joey Logano spent some time out there during the FOX Sports 1 portion of the show. This was likely far more engaging than a lot of the stuff you’ve seen recently.
If at all possible, FOX Sports should do more of that. My understanding is that the fans were generally quite positive on things like the former SPEED stage at the track. Back in 2009, my friend Rusty and his family ended up on Trackside Live with their Weimaraners. That was quite the experience for them.
Outside of the obvious fact that the dirt was in play, the big story of the week was that Darrell Waltrip was back in the broadcast booth for the first time since 2019. Waltrip, now 75, seemed to be very happy to be back for the day. That said, he’s not really the most experienced dirt guy. If you really wanted a dirt expert as a guest analyst, they could have gotten Tony Stewart. While Waltrip more than likely has some experience racing on dirt, the vast majority of his experience is on pavement, even down to the local levels.
Compared to when he was still full-time in the booth, viewers saw a little different Waltrip than what we’re used to. He still did his Boogity thing and he was very excited to be there, but he was a little slower than what I remember. From what I could tell, you didn’t really have a lot of the issues that I had with him three years ago, like bias toward certain drivers (ex: Kyle Busch). He came off as more relaxed than in past broadcasts and not quite as knowledgeable since so much has changed in the last three years. Then again, with this Next Gen car, no one really is all that knowledgeable about them on TV.
Sadly, this race broadcast will be remembered best (or worst) for the mess that was surrounding the rain that came right at the end of stage two. Apparently, NASCAR believes that the situation with a paved pit road and a dirt track is not conducive to live pit stops. I don’t really believe that this is the right move, and what we saw Sunday night is the result.
If this race were at Eldora or Knoxville (where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will race in June), such a setup would make far more sense. Those places just don’t really work for live stops. Bristol does. If you had live pit stops, you wouldn’t have had this potential scoring mess.
Apparently, NASCAR stated during the drivers’ meeting that scoring stops when the stages end, then it doesn’t restart until the next stage starts. The red flag due to rain didn’t occur until after the teams had already had the chance to pit, thus creating the quagmire.
Joy was left to explain this mess and did so in a fashion that seemed to only bring about more questions. Not good. Preventing forced explanations like these is why I think they should have live pit stops during this race. I don’t necessarily trust the officiating crew to get something like this right. Their language is not air tight enough, and I think everyone likes that it isn’t air tight. Thankfully, this race was able to resume, so it wasn’t decided by this scenario.
During the red flag, FOX did a couple of things. They did a number of interviews with a little more than half the field. They also announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the guest analyst at Talladega Sunday.
Honestly, you would be hard pressed to find an analyst who knows more about racing at Talladega these days than Earnhardt Jr. However, he technically works for the competition. Of note, NBC Sports has granted Earnhardt Jr. permission to be on the broadcast.
I am looking forward to what Earnhardt Jr. can do in the booth with Joy and Bowyer. Compared to some of the other personalities this year, he’s very different. He’s not zany or off the wall like Clint Bowyer, and not analytical like Chad Knaus and Matt Kenseth were. He’s genuine, but approaches commentary with honesty and a desire to share his knowledge. He’ll have a different cadence to get used to after spending his entire racing TV career working alongside Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, but I’m intrigued. There might be some insidery stuff on the broadcast next weekend.
Weather-wise, TV partners always seem to go out of their way to not talk about impending weather. To FOX’s credit, they noted before the race got underway during NASCAR RaceDay that rain could be an issue during the race. Then during the race, you got the whole Vortex Theory stupidity. It doesn’t do jack, no matter what you say. You just don’t want to think about it. It’s nothing more than denial.
Outside of the scoring mess, you also had a mess in track preparation. Bowyer stated on air that “you have to start tacky early on if you want a good track at the right time” in response to Waltrip. Unfortunately, we learned that the Next Gen cars are just not the best on a truly “tacky” track due to how the power is generated. Not only does plugging up the grille make the car run warm, but it also stunts the ability to accelerate, something that wasn’t a thing with the Gen6.
Kevin Harvick was probably the poster child for this as he lost a bunch of power and ended up a lap down before lap 15. I don’t recall this possibility being discussed before the race. However, after this scenario occurred, it was noted by Mike Joy that NASCAR discussed this potential issue during the drivers’ meeting, which is now a Zoom call held on Thursday instead of the pre-race event that it was pre-COVID-19.
With the two red flags Sunday night, the race ended an hour past the end of the scheduled timeslot. As a result, there was only a little post-race coverage. Viewers got interviews with Busch and Tyler Reddick. We also sort of got quotes from Chase Briscoe, but that’s only because he came over to Reddick to explain his actions in a rational fashion. Briscoe’s always struck me from the rare interactions that I’ve had with him as a classy, stand-up kind of guy. This situation does not dispel that notion.
Racing-wise, last year’s race will probably be best remembered for the dust. The rain was at least partly to blame here, but it was not really a thing, thank goodness. Despite the precipitation, there were no real issues with ruts and holes like there was last year. The fact that the Next Gen car is lighter than the Gen6 likely helps as well. It made for a less physical race. It wasn’t really all that much racier, though. You ended up with six lead changes Sunday. That was only one more than last year.
Overall, FOX brought viewers a fairly competitive race. There was racing to be had out there. The coverage was very much front-centered for much of the broadcast, though. I fully admit that I watched the majority of this race on an Amtrak train Sunday night. The area between New York City and Albany immediately along the Hudson River can be sketchy at times in regards to cell service, but when I was watching this broadcast, much of what I saw was at the very front. Supplementing what I saw live with additional coverage from the DVR only backs up my thoughts. It seemed like it was a decent race when it wasn’t raining. We just saw a very small portion of what was going on. Also, Bristol Motor Speedway has no luck.
In the future, I do hope that FOX tries to further re-integrate their stage into NASCAR RaceDay as that seemed to be a good move. After the recent pre-race shenanigans, Sunday had likely the most coherent pre-race coverage from FOX in a long time. Part of that is the fact that this was a dirt race, but it was far more on topic, no matter how many times we see track workers unable to catch a rabbit. Talladega is a perfect place for that.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, Talladega Superspeedway is hosting a tripleheader of action. The NASCAR Xfinity Series and the ARCA Menards Series will race on Saturday, while Cup teams will go for 500 miles Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, Formula 1 returns to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Italy for the Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna. TV listings can be found here.
We will provide critiques of the Cup and Xfinity races from Talladega in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. This week’s Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter will cover Saturday night’s Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt. Here, we learned that Kurt Busch has spent far too much time recently in a bakery. The ARCA race at Talladega will be covered in a later Annex.
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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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