The Frontstretch: Couch Potato Tuesday: NASCAR Improvements While A New Network Rises Above by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 3, 2012

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Hello race fans, and welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where the dissection of race broadcasts is a simple fact of life. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series was back in action at Martinsville Speedway, while the Camping World Truck Series came back out of their extended hibernation to support them. In addition, the IZOD IndyCar Series had their second race of the season at Barber Motorsports Park.

I originally planned to place a scathing rant against ESPN here for their treatment of the recent Blake Koch issue. However, I’ve been pre-empted. Matt McLaughlin claimed the topic for what I’m sure will be an epic takedown later this week. As a result, I will state for the record that ESPN’s actions are ridiculous, and that’s it.

Let’s move forward.

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

NBC Sports Network, debuting their IndyCar coverage for 2012 ran a short tribute to Dan Wheldon (pictured here driving the No. 98) on Sunday, their former colleague who perished during last Fall’s tragic crash in Las Vegas.

Sunday afternoon saw the IZOD IndyCar Series back in action at Barber Motorsports Park. Unlike St. Petersburg, the series’ lone visit to Alabama brought the renamed NBC Sports Network out for their first telecast of the season.

2012 brings one major change to the broadcast team, a little less than what I was expecting for the newly reorganized network. On pit road, Lindy Thackston has been replaced in her role as a reporter by Townsend Bell. Bell does not have much TV experience and it is clear that “reporting” is not his only gig. Heck, Bell and Jenkins even referenced the fact that he will race at some point this year in the series.

Generally, I liked Thackston last year in her pit reporter role. I thought she did a good job. However, she didn’t bring actual in-the-seat racing knowledge (she’s a reporter/journalist). In contrast, Bell brings personal experience to the job. I think with this move, NBC Sports Network might be trying to recreate the camaraderie that they had last year with Dan Wheldon during the three weeks that he subbed for Dallenbach. Regardless, it should be interesting to watch how Bell works out in this role. As for Thackston, she’s still involved with the series. From what I’ve seen, she’s working with Ed Carpenter Racing with their PR and social media.

IndyCar Central started out with a brief recap of St. Petersburg. This segment was done in montage form, similar to what we normally see on NCWTS Setup. Commentary was split between ABC’s commentators (Reid and Goodyear) and IMS Radio.

The ProfessorB segment saw Jon Beekhuis take a look at how the new car affects driving styles (specifically, Dario Franchitti’s). Interestingly enough, the Dallara DW12 comes standard with a set of pedals designed to suit only left foot braking. Franchitti isn’t a left foot guy (neither was Rubens Barrichello, but he apparently switched upon coming to the IZOD IndyCar Series). We were shown the special pedals and foot rest in the No. 10 designed specifically for Franchitti. Interesting, but I still think that fans may want to know a little bit more about the new cars beyond that.

We were next brought NBC Sports’ version of a piece on blocking to compare and contrast with last week’s from ESPN. Long story short, NBC Sports’ version was probably twice as long and featured input from quadruple the number of drivers (we’ll count Bell here as well). Far and away, NBC Sports wins that battle. Also of note, Helio Castroneves took a real mild jab at ESPN for all but missing what amounted to the pass for the win in St. Petersburg. That’s right, TV partners. The drivers watch your telecasts. They see everything that we do and can call you on mistakes if they feel like it. Keep that in mind for the future.

Before the race began, a short tribute to Dan Wheldon was shown. As you may remember, in addition to his time driving in the series, Wheldon spent a significant amount of time working on Versus’ race telecasts and the short-lived and woefully-rated IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly. Jenkins and Robin Miller talked about what a joy it was working with Wheldon and just how much of a character he was. Apparently, it was Wheldon’s idea for Miller to do his Grid Runs that became famous last year for… ridiculousness. Miller did his run, again in 2012, but the planning was not the best. It was right up against both a commercial and the invocation (not seen).

The race itself featured quite a bit of racing for position on track, even though there simply wasn’t all that much action at the very front. Knowing that the new Dallara DW12’s still have a bunch of question marks after 394 miles of racing, I thought that the race was excellent. Lots of action for position. I’m not sure if this adjustment is a result of the new car being better to race with, or if NBC Sports Network just brought us more battles than last year. Also note that some of the features of the old IR03/IR07 chassis, like the Push-to-Pass (or Overtake) button, are not yet on the DW12.

Bob Jenkins, Jon Beekhuis and Wally Dallenbach were very lively in the broadcast booth, a real pleasure to listen to. There was lots of strategy discussion when there was all but bupkis to that respect on ESPN. In fact, they claimed that the teams wouldn’t give them the information to help the telecast. Perhaps that says something else entirely about them.

Post-race coverage was fairly extensive. NBC Sports brought viewers eight post-race interviews, a short conversation with Tim Cindric (winner Will Power’s Strategist) and a check of the unofficial results before leaving for SnoCross. I would have liked to have seen a check of the points as well, but we’re still early on in the season. That mistake won’t get a pass in two weeks at Long Beach, though.

I greatly enjoyed watching the telecast. The new rules instituted by Race Director Beaux Barfield have made the action more exciting even without Push-to-Pass. I had never seen this much action for position at Barber Motorsports Park. This competition can only be good for the rest of the season. However, note that Jenkins is starting to mix up some names. He needs to watch himself. Much more of that and people are going to start claiming that he’s unprepared.


TV viewers spent almost the entire afternoon watching Kevin Harvick lead the Truck Series. Where was the rest of the field?

Kroger 250

Saturday afternoon saw the Camping World Truck Series return from a far too long break to race at Martinsville Speedway. However, the early morning rains in Southern Virginia and extenuating circumstances forced a series of changes.

Firstly, the rains nearly canceled qualifying. NASCAR waited until the absolute last moment to start the session. However, in order to do that, the beginning of the race was pushed back roughly 30 minutes. Then, the No. 19 of Mike Bliss had some kind of oil leak that caused a lengthy delay during Sprint Cup qualifying.

The main result of all these delays was that NCWTS Setup was cancelled for the broadcast. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t planning on doing it. Here’s a picture of Krista Voda getting ready to go on-air on Saturday. All that prep for nothing. ‘Tis a shame.

In lieu of the Setup, Rick Allen hosted an abbreviated pre-race show from the booth using a couple of aspects from the planned show. The primary piece was a one-on-one, sitdown interview that Michael Waltrip conducted with Daytona winner John King. King talked about his emotions that night in Daytona and his overall background in racing (kinda thin, to be honest). I found Waltrip to be a little incredulous and annoying during the piece, but King came off fairly well. He’s honest about his abilities behind the wheel and has an infectious personality. There were also brief grid interviews with King and Jeb Burton.

Right at the beginning of the race, SPEED’s scroll was showing the incorrect race length (150 laps instead of 250). I know, we’re nitpicking here, but that’s kinda important. Speaking of random screwups, they posted point standings during pre-race that stated that Ross Chastain was ninth. Uh, no. Chastain wishes that he was ninth in the standings. He was 25th at the time. Even after finishing a career-best seventh on Saturday, he’s 11th (still good for a rookie, though).

Speaking of Chastain and his watermelon backing (absent on Saturday except for a watermelon on the quarterpanels of his No. 08), I think Michael Waltrip spent a little bit too much time around the delicious fruit over the past week or so. No offense to Chastain, but I don’t need Waltrip spouting out random watermelon references that don’t relate to anything during races. I could understand it the first time, maybe even the second reference. Not the sixth. It just plain got annoying.

Watermelon rind references aside, Saturday’s race telecast was sort of one-sided. And not just on the track. The commentators in the booth correctly guessed that there was seemingly some kind of agreement between Kevin Harvick and Ty Dillon that allowed Harvick to swoop into the lead at the start of the race from the outside, and that Harvick would let Dillon by in order to lead a lap. After that, Harvick was able to almost go flag-to-flag on Saturday because nobody could do anything with Dillon. Ty Dillon ended being the Bo Darville to Harvick’s Cledus Snow (Ok, that’s the best reference I could come up with here. I think something pertaining to RollerJam would have worked better).

However, despite this domination, SPEED spent a little too much time going on about Harvick and Dillon running away from the rest of the field and hiding. There was a fair amount of action back in the pack, but a lot of that was sacrificed in order to talk about Harvick and Dillon more.

Despite being over their scheduled signoff time by roughly 20 minutes when the checkered flag flew, SPEED gave the Truck race a small amount of post-race coverage. There were four post-race driver interviews, plus an interview with the winning crew chief. There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings before SPEED left to get to their tape-delayed coverage of the Rolex Sports Car Series race from Barber Motorsports Park.

Goody’s Fast Relief 500

Sunday brought the Sprint Cup Series back to Martinsville for another round of short track racing. Like most of the pre-race shows we’ve seen from FOX this year, the pre-race coverage was mostly spent in the “Hollywood Hotel.” However, this week they stepped out of the portable studio a little bit more than normal, which was good to see. For example, they showed their first non-Hotel initiated live interview since Daytona. The fact that I have to type that should tell you that something isn’t quite right.

Kevin Harvick’s piece on the FOX pre-race show was clearly different as the network tries different, creative strategies to lure in viewers for the race.

Since Sunday was April Fools’ Day, FOX commissioned a segment designed to be a generalized laugh riot (under normal circumstances), pulling some practical jokes on people. I wish they were really practical jokes, because some chop-busting would have been perfect on Sunday. In reality, Clint Bowyer narrated what amounted to a blooper reel. I guess it was OK, but I was bummed out. I wanted actual practical jokes. Unfortunately, that’s too much to ask.

Since Kevin Harvick was running a special paint scheme commemorating the end of prohibition and the allowances of beer sales by the federal government (note the distinction here), he narrated a short piece about the “Happy Days” returned. I also thought that segment could have been improved.

During the race, FOX brought viewers more inclusive coverage than they have recently. This part was good to see. It wasn’t just a couple of specific drivers that got coverage during the race. Having said that, the long green-flag runs that seem to be so common these days still resulted with a lot of race time being spent in commercial breaks. 43 minutes of green flag racing were lost to ads. FOX desperately needs to work more closely with their advertisers to be able to give viewers more side-by-side commercials. Waiting until what amounts to the final 30 minutes of the race before even starting them is just not working.

For some reason on Sunday, FOX used these “Coming Up” graphics when they went to commercial breaks. I’m not feeling them. They give off the impression that the entire telecast is highlighted, or tape-delayed like what NBC used to do for their rare NASCAR telecasts in the 1980’s as part of NBC SportsWorld. They would air parts of races in-between programming like Sumo Wrestling or Gymnastics (Note: For NBC’s broadcast of the 1983 Winston 500, they really did air the race around Sumo Wrestling). Now, we all know that FOX isn’t going to do that, but it still doesn’t mesh well.

Post-race coverage was decent since the race ended fairly quickly, even with two GWC’s. There were seven post-race interviews and checks of the unofficial results and point standings before FOX left the air. I liked the fact that they were able to get reaction from David Reutimann about what happened to cause the yellow on Lap 497. Reutimann had already taken to Twitter before said interview with Dick Berggren to talk about what actually happened after the race in some kind of an attempt to set the record straight, but a lot of people didn’t necessarily believe him (Brad Keselowski stated that Reutimann should have to sit out Texas because of this issue). There was no benefit to Reutimann intentionally causing a yellow there. One could argue that Reutimann actually hurt himself.

It should be noted that Larry McReynolds was unusually emotional about this instance. He did not come out and claim that Reutimann should be suspended like Keselowski did, but he did state that Reutimann should have been able to make it to pit road before the car died. However, I don’t believe that McReynolds knew all the facts at that time. He might have been premature in that analysis.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is Easter Weekend, a traditional off-week for the Sprint Cup Series. This year is no different. With the Daytona 500 being pushed back a week due to just the threat of the NFL expanding to 18 regular season games (which didn’t happen), this weekend is one of just two for the entire season. However, the Cup teams have company. Namely, everyone. No major series is racing at all next weekend.

For that reason, I will forego the typical chart this week. However, there are two tape-delayed races that will be aired on Easter Sunday. The first of those is the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Barber 200 from Barber Motorsports Park (run late Saturday afternoon). That will air at Noon ET on Sunday. I watched it myself on SPEED2.com and can attest that it was pretty nutty. 75 cars on a 2.3-mile circuit… ‘Nuff said. Later on Sunday, the V8 Supercars are in action at Symmonds Plains Raceway, Marcos Ambrose’s home circuit and the only Tasmanian track on the calendar. Tape-delayed coverage begins at 5:00 PM EDT. I’ll have critiques of both of those shows for next week.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique,
feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, if you would like to contact any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX
SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the 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.

Contact Phil Allaway

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RickP
04/03/2012 07:54 AM
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Speed’s obsession with Ty Dillon, Harvick and RCR was on full display. I wondered how many times they could say ‘Ty Dillon’ in a race and the last 15 minutes of it they proved that they could say it alot. Pretty ridiculous, really.

On the FOX/Cup side, what can you say. DW continues to be a self-absorbed idiot.

GRAHAM
04/03/2012 02:18 PM
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DID YOU ASO NOTE THAT THE No 48 WAS PLACED OVER MATT KENSETH’S PHOTO IN THE STARTING ORDER.
COME ON FOLKS IS THAT A LOW BLOW OR NOT TO BAD MATT FINSHED IN FRONT OF JIMMY

Joe
04/04/2012 12:32 PM
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The FOX cup race coverage was still a stinker but I must say it was slightly less “stinky” Sunday. They actually attempted to go back through the field ….. all the way to 15th spot! And kudos to Ruiti for granting an interview. Do you think that punk Kyle Bush would have had the guts to speak to the media?