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(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Did “Chasing” Ratings Help Or Hurt ESPN?

At the very front of the field, the Phoenix International Raceway race weekend was not the most competitive out there. In 644 total laps of racing across three series, there were only 16 lead changes, and the most dominant driver in each race led more than 84 percent of the laps (interestingly enough, Kevin Harvick was the least dominant of the three dominators this past weekend).

Sound a little boring? Perhaps. But the Chase, on the Sprint Cup side kept both the broadcast and fans at home on overload trying to keep up with the action. How ESPN handled the changing math, in the first year of the new format along with their coverage post-brawl helped determine whether fans will tune back in for Homestead instead of tuning out. The sport’s short-term future, for better or for worse is sitting in the hands of a “lame duck” operation.

What you got, considering that scenario was a bit of a mixed bag. While ratings rose at Phoenix I wouldn’t say the quality of broadcasting rose along with it. Let me explain…

Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500

The Eliminator Round is finally over, at long last, as of the ending of Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. But to get there, the usual suspects had to be cleared.

NASCAR Countdown started off with a look at the allegations against Kurt Busch, who’s accused of domestic abuse by his ex-girlfriend – clearly a very serious situation. ESPN treated it with the respect that it deserved. However, with the story only being an allegation at this point, there’s only so much that can be said about it. Obviously, no one’s going to be talking to Busch about it because that’s moronic and borderline actionable.

As a result, we got the CliffsNotes version of the events from the police documents and statements from multiple parties. While that level of coverage is decent and doesn’t take a side, you have to consider the idea of whether Busch should be out there while under investigation for this crime. That never really happened on Countdown. They simply said that Busch is going to race, and that was that. I think such a discussion could be done without dragging Patricia Driscoll’s name through the dirt. Problem is, victim blaming was one of the most prominent features of the whole Ray Rice saga for the NFL. NASCAR clearly wouldn’t want any part of that kind of controversy besmirching the rainbow logo.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Kurt Busch was all over the news leading up to Sunday’s race. ESPN’s pre-race coverage led off with news surrounding the domestic violence investigation launched against him. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

NASCAR’s approach to the Tony Stewart situation earlier this season is basically the precedent on how it’s going to handle such an issue: Busch will be allowed to race with no restrictions. The Travis Kvapil prdeal last year is another example. In that case, Kvapil was actually charged with crimes and was not suspended. With the increased scrutiny given to those who commit crimes against their significant others recently, I doubt NASCAR could get away with that approach.

The Busch portion of pre-race only lasted a couple of minutes. The rest of it was dedicated to rehashing the fight in Texas. Naturally, there were good portions and bad portions. Marty Smith’s piece about drivers’ frustration with Brad Keselowski’s recent actions was by far the best part of Countdown.

However, the rehashing just went on and on. Seriously, dudes? I should have kept a count of how many times I saw the clip of the fight on TV over the past eight days. Has to have been at least 50 times. The fight completely overshadowed the upcoming race. I guess everyone just assumed that Kevin Harvick would stomp everyone. Granted, it came to pass, but you can’t assume the stomping will happen. It’s Sprint Cup. Almost nothing’s guaranteed.

During the race, there was a decent amount of action on track. Whether we saw it was almost completely dependent on whether one of the Chasers were involved. They took precedence over everyone else in the field with the points on the line.

The Jimmie JohnsonJustin Allgaier contact on pit road probably would have gotten more coverage had it not occurred at Phoenix. The two collided on pit road during the first caution, but it was so hard to make it out on replay that I couldn’t tell what happened. You would have to have been sitting right next to the TV to catch it, much like a kid quasi-cheating at Duck Hunt by putting their zapper right up to the screen.

During the race, the Keselowski-Gordon conflict was brought up as soon as the two antagonists got to each other on lap 57. That kind of stuff is brought up all the dang time and it’s not necessary. The viewers aren’t stupid; we know what’s going on. We don’t need a rehash, especially after NASCAR Countdown spent 40 dang minutes going on about it.

Despite my rants about the Chaser focus, the newer version of Phoenix International Raceway is finally becoming a better track for side-by-side action. That’s great to see; while, yes, you’ll still see the shortcut action, it may not be as necessary in the future as it once was. ESPN did a decent job showing the side-by-side action on Sunday, and the overall action (excluding the can Harvick opened on the field) was really good. PIR should be very happy.

Speaking of Johnson, ESPN really didn’t cover his issues all that much. While it was mentioned that he was having electrical issues, it wasn’t covered all that well. Viewers probably missed that he got lapped and needed a Lucky Dog. Johnson talked to the media after wrecking and revealed that the electrical issues caused his wreck: the brakes “exploded” because the electrical woes forced him to cut off his brake fans. More coverage of Johnson’s issues would have been welcome, especially since Johnson’s one of the biggest stars in the series.

Actual post-race was quite short and centered upon those in the Chase. Additional interviews aired as part of SportsCenter, but they too were Chase-centric. There’s more dudes out there than just Chasers.

Sunday’s broadcast, despite having some great action, is just another reason why I hate the Chase. No one mattered Sunday except the eight Chasers. There are so many other stories that could be covered on ESPN’s broadcasts in addition to the Chasers, but they chose to ignore many of them to bombard viewers with Chase and fight talk.

DAV 200 – Honoring America’s Veterans

No football got in the way of ESPN’s coverage of yet another Kyle Busch butt-kicking on Saturday. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your opinion), a somewhat controversial caution wiped out Busch’s lead and gave Brad Keselowski one final chance to snag the lead, of which he took advantage.

Naturally, Chase Elliott was the primary focus of Countdown. At the time, he was the champion-elect, needing only to stand pat in order to clinch the title. I’ll admit that it’s a great story. Then it turned into a blush fest. That gets annoying really quick. We know the young gun is good. Tell me something I don’t know before you start complimenting his parents like Elliott is a well-behaved 4-year-old at Applebee’s.

Sadly, the race was yet another Kyle Busch coronation. Outside of the Busch coverage, there was an unhealthy amount of coverage given to Elliott. Toward the end of the race, ESPN had entire segments of the event dedicated to the driver of the No. 9. I know that he’s the champion, but you have a race to cover. There’s other things going on that fans might find interesting. The race involves more than just four or five guys.

There were 40 starters on Sunday, sort of. I have no clue what happened with Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car. It appears that the fourth-generation racer blew an engine on the pace laps. No mention was made of the issue and it doesn’t appear that either Jeffrey Earnhardt or JD Motorsports are talking much about it; the team put out a matter-of-fact tweet stating that the engine put the No. 4 out while Earnhardt didn’t mention it at all.

The only reason Busch didn’t win was because Alex Bowman ran out of fuel and NASCAR threw the caution two seconds before Busch would have gotten the white flag. I felt that Bowman was getting out of the way and that NASCAR shouldn’t have thrown the caution. In the last few laps of a race, NASCAR should take great pains to avoid throwing cautions. Seemingly everyone else does. However, it seems like they didn’t even try to wait it out. They threw the yellow before Bowman could get to the apron, despite the No. 5 likely traveling at 100 mph or more. Like it or not, that caution changed the outcome of the race. He had no trouble getting back to pit road. NASCAR should have just let the race finish under green.

The booth first checked to see whether Bowman got in the wall in what could be considered an attempt to justify the caution. Once it was apparent that no contact was made, it just chose to accept the caution as gospel and go from there. Despite the decision, there seemed to be some exasperation in the voices in the booth with NASCAR’s move.

If the commentators in the broadcast booth didn’t like NASCAR’s move to throw the yellow, then why not call them out? It’s not like it really matters now whether they tick off NASCAR or not. Ten days from now, they’ll be done with stock car racing for the foreseeable future (I’m not saying that it’s forever, but it’s going to be for quite a while). Some truth-telling would have benefited the broadcast.

Post-race coverage was, as expected, Elliott-centered. Yes, Elliott won the title. We know that. It’s quite an accomplishment. Even his own teammate in an Internet-exclusive post-race interview was asked to wax on about Elliott’s talents. It’s overkill.

Overall, Saturday was a perfect example of ESPN being able to place extreme focus on the two major stories of the season. Those stories are naturally the ascendance of Elliott and the battles between Kyle Busch and whoever is in the No. 22. They dominated the day to everyone else’s detriment. Yes, Brad Keselowski won the race with a great move, but he had no business winning that race. As much as everyone reading this piece won’t like it, Kyle Busch won the race, and got stiffed. No wonder he was ticked afterward while talking to Dave Burns in the aforementioned Internet-exclusive clip.

Lucas Oil 150

Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series turned into a quagmire before it ever began. The power outage that occurred had me thinking that the race would have to be run after the Nationwide race on Saturday for a time. However, they were able to get enough laps in to call the race after the second outage. Of course, by that time, it was already almost midnight EST.

During the Setup, the primary piece was on 16-year-old Cole Custer. I found that interesting at first since FOX Sports 1 had already done a piece on Custer that aired on FOX during the Setup prior to the Fred’s 250 at Talladega. There, Custer (who, mind you, wasn’t even in the race) talked about his big win at New Hampshire. Here, we get what we probably should have gotten at Talladega. We learn more about the 16-year-old phenom, including his idolization of Johnny Sauter. I know that sounded strange to me when I heard it, especially given Sauter’s recent form. However, I had to remind myself that everyone that makes it into the Camping World Truck Series has fans. Even drivers like Milka Duno, who made her debut at Talladega, have fans.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
A solid amount of attention was paid to Cole Custer in Truck Series pre-race coverage. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Once the race began after a long delay for a power outage, man, what a start. The field made it 50 yards before someone wrecked, resulting in one of the longest cautions that I’ve seen in years. Sad truth is, despite a 17-lap caution, it still wasn’t enough. My guess as to why NASCAR never red-flagged the race was the earlier power outage. Had NASCAR stopped it, they would have completed less laps before the second outage. Thing is, no one knew the second outage was coming. NASCAR should have stopped the race after the first four or five laps of caution when it became clear that the cleanup was going to be extensive. FOX Sports 1’s coverage of the wreck was decent, although it never expressed anything that resembled a motion against NASCAR’s plan for the situation.

Despite 17 laps of caution, the track still wasn’t cleaned off, which led to a series of additional wrecks. It was ridiculous.

When the trucks weren’t wrecking, we got some decent action on-track. That action wasn’t at the front since Erik Jones was kicking butt and taking names. The action was further back and we got good coverage of that racing for position.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the final weekend of the NASCAR season. While Chase Elliott was already crowned Nationwide Series champion on Saturday, there will be Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series champions crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In addition, the NHRA will crown its champion in Pomona. Here’s your listings.

Tuesday, November 11

TimeTelecastNetwork
7:00 a.m - 8:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 10)
8:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 10)
5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
6:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.The 10: NASCAR's Greatest FinishesFOX Sports 2#
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 2*#

Wednesday, November 12

TimeTelecastNetwork
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 11)
7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 11)
8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 11)
8:30 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 11)
4:30 p.m. - 5:00 a.m.NASCAR America: Celebrate the StatesNBC Sports Network#
5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
7:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.The 10: Greatest Comebacks in NASCAR HistoryFOX Sports 2#
8:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 2*#

Thursday, November 13

TimeTelecastNetwork
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 12)
7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 12)
8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 12)
8:30 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 12)
5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
6:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.The 10: Biggest Bonehead MovesFOX Sports 2#
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 2*#
8:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.The 10: NASCAR's Greatest FinishesFOX Sports 2#
8:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1*#

Friday, November 14

TimeTelecastNetwork
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 13)
7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 13)
8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 13)
8:30 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from November 13)
11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.Nationwide Series Practice No. 1FOX Sports 1
12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1FOX Sports 1
2:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.NASCAR LiveFOX Sports 1
2:30 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.Camping World Truck Series QualifyingFOX Sports 1
4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.Nationwide Series Happy HourFOX Sports 1
5:45 p.m. - 7:45 p.m.NHRA Auto Club NHRA Finals Second Round QualifyingESPN 3$
6:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.Sprint Cup Series QualifyingESPN 2
7:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NCWTS SetupFOX Sports 1
8:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200FOX Sports 1
10:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.NASCAR America: HomesteadNBC Sports Network
11:00 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#
11:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#

Saturday, November 15

TimeTelecastNetwork
12:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.NASCAR America: HomesteadNBC Sports Network# (from November 14)
4:00 a.m. - 6:00 a.m.Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200FOX Sports 1*/# (from November 14)
7:00 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200FOX Sports 2*# (from November 14)
10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1FOX Sports 1*# (from November 14)
12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 2FOX Sports 1
1:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.Nationwide Series QualifyingFOX Sports 1
2:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.NASCAR LiveFOX Sports 1
3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Happy HourFOX Sports 2
4:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.NASCAR CountdownESPN 2
4:30 p.m. - 7:45 p.m.Nationwide Series Ford EcoBoost 300ESPN 2

Sunday, November 16

TimeTelecastNetwork
3:00 a.m. - 5:00 a.m.NHRA Auto Club NHRA Finals Final QualificationsESPN 2*/ (from November 15)
10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.K&N Pro Series West Casino Arizona 100FOX Sports 1*/ (from November 6)
12:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceDayFOX Sports 1
1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.NASCAR CountdownESPN
1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.Red Bull Global RallyCross: Las VegasNBC* (from November 5)
2:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.NHRA Auto Club NHRA Finals Final EliminationsESPN 3$
3:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.NHRA Auto Club NHRA Finals Final QualificationsESPN 2*//# (from November 15)
3:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400ESPN
5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.Formula DRIFT: Final Fight, Part No. 1NBC Sports Network*/ (from October 9)
7:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR Victory LaneFOX Sports 1
7:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.NHRA Auto Club NHRA Finals Final EliminationsESPN 2*/
11:00 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#

Monday, November 17

TimeTelecastNetwork
12:35 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#
1:00 a.m. - 1:30 a.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#
1:00 a.m. - 4:00 a.m.Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400ESPN 2*/# (from November 16)
1:30 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#
2:00 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.NASCAR America: The ListNBC Sports Network#
3:00 a.m. - 4:00 a.m.FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of ShanghaiFOX Sports 1*/ (from November 2)
4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
6:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.The 10: Greatest Drivers in NASCAR HistoryFOX Sports 2#
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 2*#

* – Tape Delayed
/ – Highlighted Coverage
// – Highlighted Coverage that has been cut a second time
# – Repeat Coverage
$ – Available via password-protected online streaming. Check with your internet and/or programming provider for availability in your area.

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series season finales for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex on Thursday will cover the Baku World Challenge, the season finale for the Blancpain Sprint Series from Azerbaijan. Watch for the cameo from former Camping World Truck Series racer Miguel Paludo. The K&N Pro Series West Casino Arizona 100 will be covered 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 Sports
ESPN

At this point, there is still no public contact e-mail for NBC Sports. When they finally get around to creating a new link, I will post it for you.

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.

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About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
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 Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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3 comments

  1. Avatar

    ESPN simply updates fans on what the chosen few do throughout the afternoon and that’s it. They don’t care about the racing, except when it coincides with their predetermined storylines. Nascar is turning into a Survivor type reality show now. It stopped being a sport long ago.

  2. Avatar

    Like you, I was so sick of the rehashing of the Texas mess I could scream! It was almost as bad as the ‘race coverage’ that only revolved around the 8 ‘chasers’ to the exclusion of all the other cars on the track…unless they happened to be next to a chaser. Really not much reason to watch if I’m only going to get such limited exposure.