Greetings, everyone. Did you like Sunday’s finish in Phoenix? It was a good one. I thought Kevin Harvick was a sitting duck, but he managed to pull it out just in time.
Last weekend saw two races in Phoenix, plus the season opener in St. Petersburg for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Good Sam 500k
On Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Phoenix International Raceway for their first visit of the year. Harvick, or the “Cactus King,” as dubbed by Chris Myers, beat Carl Edwards to the line in a swell finish.
Pre-race discussion was centered at first on Jimmie Johnson’s crash on Friday in qualifying, caused by Johnson’s steering wheel coming off in his hands. I can only recall such an incident occurring once previously. That was when Steve Park’s steering wheel came off under caution during the 2001 South Carolina 200 for the then-Busch Series at Darlington Raceway.
Unfortunately, that crash did not have anywhere near as happy an ending. Following the wheel coming off, Park’s Whelen Chevrolet proceeded to hang the sharpest left in recent memory before being T-boned by Larry Foyt, who was driving up the inside in order to get to the front of the line of lapped cars. The hit resulted in serious injuries that Park has never fully recovered from, despite the fact that he did come back to race in the Cup Series.
Case in point, Johnson’s a lucky man.
They continued to pay off this story with clips of drivers checking their steering wheels with the help of a crewmember during what appeared to be practice on Saturday, and showed Johnson’s steering column from before the race on lap 204. Apparently, in the aftermath of Friday’s crash, he (or someone on the No. 48 team) has taken a Sharpie to the column to show where the wheel should sit so that it is all the way attached.
I’d argue that the best demonstration of this setup was during practice on Saturday. Larry McReynolds sought and acquired the permission of The Motorsports Group and Josh Wise to demonstrate what goes on with the wheel. McReynolds leaned in the passenger window and explained the motions required to get the wheel attached securely. The demonstration helped to show what goes on in the cockpit. Also of note, those splines look really sharp. You have to be careful with that.
The main feature in pre-race saw a compare and contrast of sorts. Members of the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals were asked basic questions about NASCAR, while Sprint Cup drivers were asked questions about baseball. It did not go well, perhaps intentionally. I know that this was designed as a cross-promotion between FOX NASCAR and MLB on FOX, but this could have been done better.
In addition, Darrell Waltrip did his first one-on-one interview of the season with Matt Kenseth. Discussion topics here included how long Kenseth (who just turned 44) plans to race, his run to the finish of the 2015 and his start so far this year. The topics were relatively predictable, especially the last two of them. However, Kenseth really hasn’t talked much about any potential retirement, so I was wondering what he would say about it. He’s in his 17th full season in Cup (along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.). Here, he more or less skirted the question. There is no plan at the moment.
During the race, the melting of beads was a big story. Blown tires caused every one of the five cautions on Sunday. For much of the race, the booth made note of the issues and how they more or less prevented green flag pit stops because someone would wreck before they got there. However, FOX didn’t do the best job of showing viewers the tires. Kasey Kahne apparently had more than one failure during the race, but he claimed that he was saved by a yellow earlier in the race due to someone else’s issues.
I would have liked to see tires off of his car and even the leaders to see how the actual tire wear looked. Admittedly, it’s rather tough to see tires with melted beads in Phoenix. It’s not like Martinsville, where if you melt a bead, you’re going slow enough that you would either not wreck at all or hit the wall lightly (relatively, of course). Anyone who melted a bead thwacked the wall with authority. It would have been difficult to get the wheel off in general, let alone to let the viewers see what was up.
Speaking of tire issues, I’d like to know what caused Brad Keselowski’s tire issue. That was never made clear. While the cars do run disc brakes on all four wheels, I’m unfamiliar with rear tires blowing beads. He blew a right rear tire in the middle of the dogleg and managed to keep from wrecking. However, it did ruin his day.
There was a decent amount of racing for position shown, but towards the end of the day, the coverage tightened once again to just Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. Ultimately, the yellow for Kahne’s crash prevented that technique from being used to the finish.
Post-race coverage was about average in terms of interviews. I found Edwards’ quote after the race interesting.
While yes, he was joking, I believe that NASCAR would have been cool with Edwards wrecking Harvick for the win here. The brass seems to be all about publicity these days and dumping someone for the win would create publicity. However, the finish that we did get generates good publicity on its own. That’s the way it should be.
Overall, I found that the race was a little boring on Sunday. Much like Atlanta, it had a great finish, but was a little boring in the interior. There was a little more coverage of action down the order on Sunday than at Las Vegas, which made the race that much more exciting to watch. It was also good to see drivers like Matt DiBenedetto get some well-deserved dap for a good run. Let’s face it, 20th and 24th (for David Ragan) are good runs for BK Racing at a place like Phoenix.
My hope is that they can keep up their coverage next weekend in Fontana. The field is going to spread out and FOX cannot sequester themselves to the front. If they do, it’s going to be a boring 400-mile race.
Axalta Faster. Tougher. Brighter. 200
Saturday saw the first appearance of the XFINITY Series on network television this season. Unfortunately for the series regulars, moving from cable to broadcast television didn’t change much. Kyle Busch stomped the field once again.
During NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition, one of the main topics of discussion was whether having Sprint Cup regulars in the XFINITY Series benefits the series at all. It is a topic that always brings some hot takes. There are drivers that argue that they want people like Kyle Busch there because it brings out the best of the drivers. Kenny Wallace would agree with that mindset. He believes that his win in the 1994 Autolite 250 at Richmond is the biggest win of his career. Why? Because he beat Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt to get that win.
The other hand of that issue is the fact that a number of these Cup regulars, Busch included, are driving for their Cup teams. Not only are they dominating races, but jacking up the cost to compete in the series. Going forward, that’s going to be one of the big issues for NASCAR to deal with. There seemed to be some support for allowing Cup drivers to race in the series, but not with Cup teams. Who knows how that would work.
Saturday saw Joey Logano make his debut in the broadcast booth as a guest analyst. In all honesty, Logano was not bad for someone who had never done it before. It took him a little time to get used to it, but I think he worked out just fine. He didn’t try to talk over anyone. Just tried to chip in when he could with some insight. While he wasn’t quite as loquacious as he can be (seriously, the man might have the most infectious laugh in NASCAR this side of Kenny Wallace), I thought he was just fine. A good start, if you will.
In the XFINITY Series, if you’re not up front, you really don’t get much of the way of coverage, even if something bad happens to you. Case in point: JJ Yeley smacked the wall to bring out the third caution on lap 96. I couldn’t tell what that looked like. There was no replay of the incident. There was no mention as to why the caution was out until after the pit stops were complete. Even then, it was only done really quick before a commercial break. I’m sorry, but that’s unacceptable. You have to tell and/or show viewers what the deuce is going on. I don’t like being in the dark and I’m sure that other viewers would agree.
Since the race ended quite a bit ahead of schedule, there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. FOX provided viewers with seven interviews and checks of the points and results. I feel like they went a little heavy on the analysis as opposed to interviews. However, NASCAR teams (and drivers in particular) tend to leave the track way quicker than they should. That’s an epidemic that is a problem from the top of the sport all the way down to short tracks, but it’s a whole ‘nother article. As a result, it’s a little hard to get those post-race interviews.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Sunday saw the Verizon IndyCar Series return to action after an off-season that continues to last longer than the season itself does. Ratings for the season opener were up quite a bit from 2015, continuing a trend that started in the middle of last season.
On Sunday, the big story out of St. Petersburg was the fact that pole sitter Will Power was not going to be in the field due to what was being described at the time as an illness. That bites. Naturally, ESPN led their pre-race coverage off with the news, as they should have. Given that absolutely no IndyCar on-track action had aired on TV prior to the race broadcast, they aired replays of Power’s wreck on Friday and his pole run. They also aired footage of Oriol Servia during the morning warm-up.
Later, during the race itself, ESPN came back and reported that Power had been diagnosed with a mild concussion stemming from the Friday crash. I’m not holding anything against ESPN for this coverage. Mild concussions are hard to figure out. If it were something like the hit Antonio Brown took from Vontaze Burfict during the NFL Playoffs a couple of months back, then yes, you can assume that he got his bell rung at the least. Friday’s hit was way subtler.
The race saw ESPN unveil a whole suite of new graphics that puts their INDYCAR coverage in line with many of ESPN’s other properties. They look nice and clean. There’s one problem. They’re too small. I critique off of a 32’’ HDTV. The graphics are small enough that I have to squint. That’s not ideal.
There’s also a new side-by-side setup that displays the top-5 on the top of the screen, with the boxes below for the race and the commercials. Not bad. Much better than what FOX currently has for Sprint Cup. ESPN’s Andy Hall mentioned on Twitter that the order had the ability to scroll through the field during side-by-side breaks.
@AndyHallESPN Will it constantly revolve through the full field, or just show the top 5, as shown here, Andy?
— Phil Allaway (@Critic84) March 8, 2016
@Critic84 Has capability of moving through entire field during breaks
— Andy Hall (@AndyHallESPN) March 8, 2016
However, from what I could tell, that didn’t happen on Sunday. Maybe ESPN will break out that feature for the Indianapolis 500.
Speaking of the Indianapolis 500, there was a lot of discussion during the broadcast about the first few races (St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Barber Park, etc.) being nothing more than a warm-up for Indianapolis. I find such sentiment to be rather annoying. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 is by far the most recognizable race on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar. It’s not even close. However, to insinuate that the early season races prior to Indy are nothing more than just preliminary events that everyone looks past is a bunch of garbage. These teams care about each and every one of the 16 races on the schedule. They give it their all. Take race winner Juan Pablo Montoya. He won the race with a steering arm that was apparently made of linguini at the end of the race. Or Mikhail Aleshin, who ran up from 17th to finish fifth in near complete obscurity. No one seemed to notice his charge until the booth looked up with less than ten to go and noticed that he was fifth. Also, it seems like no one remembers that Aleshin actually competed in the season finale last year at Sonoma. Instead, everyone was talking like this big ol’ wreck in practice at Auto Club Speedway was the last time Aleshin drove an IndyCar in anger.
Since the race ran long (likely due to the big wreck in turn 4), post-race coverage was pretty much minimal. Viewers got an interview with Montoya in Victory Lane and a check of the results. That was it before ESPN left to get to NBA Countdown.
Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed at times with the coverage. Allen Bestwick was solid in his play-by-play role. He stated that his voice was not the best, but I didn’t really notice a difference. If he didn’t mention it more than twice, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. My guess is that he was really not feeling well, but he was a trooper. Perhaps he had Lou Duva in his corner on Sunday.
I found that the updates of on-track issues were lacking as well. You’d figure that after Conor Daly’s bad pit stop, he would have ended up behind Aleshin in sixth or so. Instead, he ended up having to make an unscheduled stop due to damage. What happened to cause that wing damage? I don’t know. ESPN showed the stop, but never paid off what happened. Weak, especially for someone that probably would have finished in the top 6 had that not happened.
Also, some debris went over the fence and near a grandstand on the run down to turn 10 after contact between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Luca Filippi on lap 42. Knowing what happened last year, that should have been noted. Luckily, it seems like no one was hurt this time.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a busy one. The Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series teams finish up the Western Swing at Auto Club Speedway in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Meanwhile, IMSA is back in action with the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring from the very bumpy Sebring International Raceway. Shortly after that classic endurance race ends, the World Championship gets going with the Grand Prix of Australia from Albert Park in Melbourne. As always, the listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab above.
I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series race broadcasts in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex will cover CBS Sports Network’s coverage of the Pirelli World Challenge opening races for the GT, GTA and GT Cup classes from Circuit of the Americas in Texas.
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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.