Labor Day weekend in NASCAR traditionally involves a visit to Darlington, S.C., population 6,149, for 500 miles of racing. While placing the race here on the schedule effectively prevents me from ever going, it is still a test of driver skill and equipment durability.
Sunday (Sept. 3) night also marked the first race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. As a result, I was expecting a fair amount of coverage to be given to the playoff contenders and constant point checks. In reality, the point checks were kept within control. I didn’t really see any of them prior to lap 248.
Even that was enough to irritate some of my colleagues. With 16 drivers in the first round, covering the race really doesn’t look that much different than normal for Darlington. I think it will be quite a bit different once we get to Kansas Speedway and especially Bristol Motor Speedway.
Outside of the playoffs, the biggest story was the return of Ryan Preece to the fold after his massive barrel roll at Daytona International Speedway. Prior to on-track activity Saturday, Preece had a quasi-press conference outside of his hauler that looked somewhat similar to Davey Allison’s after his 1992 crash at Pocono Raceway.
Prior to the race, we heard from Preece, who was good to go despite the remnants of two black eyes. Unfortunately, his evening was miserable. Aside from contact with Christopher Bell that spun out Bell, you really didn’t see much of him all night. I found that a little surprising, but since he never really ran better than 28th, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked.
NBC Sports usually has multiple booth setups during the Cook Out Southern 500 as a way to shake things up since this is the longest race (by time) of the NBC Sports portion of the season. In past years, this would have been where Ken Squier entered the conversation. For the past couple of years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been joined by Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty for stage two and Sunday night was no exception.
With no Rick Allen or Jeff Burton in the equation (Steve Letarte still chimed in from time to time when prompted), you ended up with a very different feel. It’s not folksy, but you have a somewhat relaxed trio that clearly likes the racing that they’re seeing and can only partially relate to it since so much has changed since they stepped out of the car.
In Petty’s case, he seems to act like he’s older than Jarrett and has been out of the car longer than the 1999 champion. Neither is true. Petty actually finished out the 2008 season before he was more or less forced out of the car by the merger between Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports that formed Richard Petty Motorsports. Meanwhile, Jarrett retired (as planned) seven races into that season. Also, Jarrett is more than three years older than Petty but started in Cup five years after Petty.
What does that look like in practice? Both drivers struggle to relate to a lot of the technology that has come into the sport in recent years, like the SMT data that allows teams to see what their competition is doing. There’s also the added influence of engineers on the sport. In Earnhardt’s case, he was still racing when engineers were an extremely important aspect of racing. They weren’t on the same level during Jarrett and Petty’s careers despite those careers overlapping with the first nine full seasons of Earnhardt’s Cup career.
Our own Michael Finley had an interesting thing to say about Earnhardt’s play-by-play call Sunday on our employee Slack feed. He believes that Earnhardt is trying to do a Chris Economaki impression from when Economaki was part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
That is an interesting take. Earnhardt is well-known for his love of NASCAR history. Emulating someone who would be considered a historic figure as far as television goes wouldn’t be far off. The problem is, there really isn’t a whole lot of TV coverage with Economaki in the booth available to make that call definitively. Most of the coverage I’ve seen of him over the years has had Economaki in either a pit reporter role or as a host.
Overall, there’s a lot to like here. Jarrett and Petty are able to recognize certain things that Burton and Letarte might not always pick up on. It is somewhat less shouty without Allen on the call, but we’re all aware of Earnhardt’s excitability. I like the setup, but I don’t necessarily prefer it over the normal setup.
Seriously, this is ridiculous. The wreck happened because Kevin Harvick chose to pit and Reddick realized that he’d been snookered. There was no way in heck that Reddick would have made the commitment line from where he was when he stomped on his brakes. Best-case scenario, Reddick would have ended up fourth after the stops because he would have lost a bunch of time had Newman not run up on him. If anything, this might have been the best-case scenario for him as it eliminated a contender for the win.
As for Harvick, he was screwed the minute the wreck happened. He was committed to pit. Ultimately, it was right on the line of being able to react in time to avoid the orange box and he didn’t do it. The Stewart-Haas Racing crew servicing the car there only made things worse. As a result, Harvick only got back to 19th.
NBC Sports did a pretty good job covering the incident. It had good footage of everything that happened here, it had the footage of Harvick entering the closed pits and correctly identified that Reddick caused the incident himself even though Newman never hit him. The whole situation should have never happened though.
Does that mean that Harvick should have won the race? I can’t say that. For all I know, Kyle Larson might have still been able to get to the lead. Maybe it doesn’t happen immediately after the spin like what happened Sunday night (technically, the pass for the win occurred during the round of stops immediately after Newman’s spin), but it still could have happened. I don’t think Reddick finishes second though.
The race ended up running a little long. Despite that, viewers got more or less a full accounting of post-race coverage. There were a few interviews, including one with Alex Bowman that was taped after he crashed with Daniel Suarez, but NBC Sports didn’t have time to show it after Suarez’s interview. There was also a check of the points and some post-race analysis before leaving Darlington.
When it comes to playoff races, I don’t like it when the playoffs completely overshadow the race itself. That was definitely not the case Sunday night. Viewers saw a regular race that just so happened to take place during the playoffs. Yes, you saw reminders that the gold lines under the drivers represented those in the running, but it really wasn’t intrusive.
The actual on-track product was ok but it seemed very difficult to pass on the broadcast. However, passing was up significantly from last year. Perhaps it was an example of just not showing the most competitive action on track in favor of other things, like the late battles up front, where no actual passing happened.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a full weekend of racing. Kansas Speedway is scheduled to host a quadruple-header of racing. Friday is a doubleheader with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and the ARCA Menards Series. Saturday sees the NASCAR Xfinity Series wrap up its regular season, while the Cup Series will continue the Round of 16 on Sunday with the Hollywood Casino 400.
Meanwhile, the NTT IndyCar Series wraps up its season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the FIA World Endurance Championship will race at Fuji Speedway. TV listings can be found here.
We will provide a critique of the Hollywood Casino 400 at a bare minimum in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. The Critic’s Annex will cover Saturday’s Xfinity Series race from Darlington.
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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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