Welcome back, race fans. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series were back in action at Martinsville Speedway. Meanwhile, the Verizon IndyCar Series made their return to Phoenix International Raceway in front of a modest crowd (read: Better than an XFINITY race).
Sunday brought the Sprint Cup Series back to FOX Sports 1 for their seventh points race on the network. Everyone seemed to be jacked up, from the broadcast booth to AJ Cook when she gave the command to start engines.
I’m not really a fan of NASCAR being used to increase viewership of cable networks. It’s one thing to put NASCAR RaceHub on FS1. The show’s been on the channel since 2009 and it’s the steadiest draw on the channel’s schedule. Granted, that’s another article for another day, but RaceHub does well there.
FOX Sports 1 may very well never get the reach that they want because of people downgrading their pay-tv packages. While they’re not losing homes at the rate that networks like ESPN are, they’re not growing any at all. Despite being the sports arm of an over-the-air network, FOX Sports 1 is not a basic cable channel with good lineup position for every provider. At least in my cable system, finding FOX Sports 1 is not necessarily ideal for many viewers. That’s part of the reason why the ratings are off.
Another aspect of the coverage that I’m not really a fan of is the fact that the normally interview-heavy NASCAR RaceDay becomes the regular pre-race show. That means that we don’t get as many interviews and way more analysis. Not necessarily a good thing. The pieces that did air were pretty good though. Larry McReynolds walked viewers through the evolution of air guns over the past few decades, which is quite interesting. The guns themselves are more or less the same design as 30 years ago, but different materials and construction.
Another feature focused on Chris Osborne, Matt Kenseth’s spotter who made his 2016 season debut on Sunday after an off-season car accident put him on the shelf. Here, Osborne described what happened and pictures of Osborne’s heavily damaged sedan were shown. Both Osborne’s wife and son were also injured in the crash, but they are recovering.
My takeaway here is what Osborne said after recounting the crash and the injuries. He seems to hold himself responsible for Kenseth not winning the Daytona 500 back in February. He believes that Kenseth would have claimed No. 3 had he been on the stand instead of on his couch. However, that’s way out of his control. The crash before Christmas was not his fault. He also blames the mess that saw Kenseth not scored for a lap at Atlanta on having another backup spotter different than the one they had for Speedweeks. Having a familiar voice in your ear helps.
FOX Sports 1’s coverage seemed to be marked by less commercials. When I critique Cup races, I always have my phone nearby so that I can use the stopwatch function. Sunday’s broadcast had only 20 minutes of green-flag commercials (two of which were side-by-side breaks). That’s very low for an event at Martinsville with only eight cautions. Also, the breaks we did have were shorter than normal.
Also, FOX did make some good use of their technology. Once again, the weather prevented rubber from being laid down at Martinsville. Good cripes. Goodyear should bring a softer tire to the paperclip for the fall race. Seems like every dang time NASCAR goes there, they can’t lay rubber down no matter what they do. The racing there is the same now as it was in 2004 when it was repaved. This time, the FLIR technology FOX had at their disposal showed the clear difference in track temperature between the asphalt and concrete portions of the track. My main issue here was that they gave track temperatures, but was that for the asphalt or concrete? I assumed that it was for the concrete, but it wasn’t made clear. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pitched the idea (for what probably has to be the third time) of grinding the corners in an attempt to create a second groove. I’m not opposed to that, provided that its done right. You do it wrong, and a chunk damages Jeff Gordon’s car.
FOX also had great camera placement on Clint Bowyer’s car Sunday. Early on, the camera in the right rear corner of the No. 15 was able to catch Bowyer running his inside shoulder down to the cords. While it’s common at a place like Martinsville to see that (especially when rubber isn’t being laid down), it’s pretty rare to actually see it on the car in use.
During the race, there was a good amount of racing for position and FOX did show viewers that action. They also showed some instances of drivers getting themselves in trouble. Regan Smith was a bit of a battering ram at times. Meanwhile, Joey Gase just put himself in the wrong place at the right time and nearly got wrecked as a result.
Since the race finished quite a bit earlier than expected (it’s the third-fastest Sprint Cup race ever run at Martinsville), there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. Here, FOX was able to wrap-up almost every major story in the race, including the intra-team duel between Austin Dillon and Paul Menard. Based on what was posted on Richard Childress Racing’s Twitter page, they’re cool now, but Dillon was a bit ticked during the race with Menard’s driving.
Paul & Austin chatted on pit road and shook hands after the race. ? pic.twitter.com/XgYzkX5lZY
— RCR (@RCRracing) April 3, 2016
Overall, I felt that FOX Sports 1 did a decent job covering the race. I did have some issues, though. One was the fact that they didn’t really do all that well of a job explaining what caused Kevin Harvick to drop back late in the race. He was a contender for the win and was one of the only drivers that could run with Kyle Busch. He ended up 17th. That has to be a lot more than just getting booted out of the groove once. Having said that, there was more than enough information on why his teammate Danica Patrick ended up dropping back after running as high as eighth.
Also, there seemed to be a lot of confusion around mid-race. Everyone seemed to assume that Joey Logano was a lap down and holding up drivers in the middle of the lead lap with his massive nose patch. In reality, he’d been back on the lead lap for 100 laps and was running in 12th.
Alpha Energy Solutions 250
On Saturday, the Camping World Truck Series returned from a break that is way too long to race at Martinsville Speedway. With only two races complete, the points are shuffled and a very competitive field took the green.
During the Setup, Ray Dunlap sat down with points leader (prior to the race) Parker Kligerman for an interesting sit-down conversation. Of course, any conversation with Kligerman is bound to be interesting.
When I talked with Kligerman in 2010, he was still a Penske development driver, but even that was an up-and-down experience, marked with uncertainty about when he was going to race. Since then, the entirety of Kligerman’s NASCAR career has been up and down and Dunlap commented on that. Probably the most interesting part of the piece was the idea of Kligerman being told that he needed to be “more public.” I find that interesting. Over the past couple of years, Kligerman has written for Jalopnik and become a TV personality. He has a future in either field if driving doesn’t work out.
During the race itself, there was some pretty action almost from the start of the race. Yes, Kyle Busch won the race, but he was the recipient of a very early bump n’ run from Ben Rhodes. Maybe lap 3 is not the best time to break out that skill, but it was interesting and brought a smile to my face.
GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter and Kaz Grala both crashed out of the race due to tire issues. Sauter’s in particular confused me because of how early in the race that it occurred. You don’t melt beads in 43 laps at Martinsville. That’s more of 70-lap thing. I feel like GMS Racing had a bad batch of parts or something. It’s interesting that only Sauter and Grala had the issue while Kyle Larson and Spencer Gallagher were fine. Ok, Gallagher had his own issues on Saturday, but that they had more to do with getting hit than anything else.
There were a couple of instances in which FOX Sports 1 could have done a better job in explaining what was going on. Late in the race, Spencer Boyd spun in turn 3 and lost a lap getting back underway. Interestingly enough, that did not draw a yellow. Viewers could just see Boyd coming back up to speed, but weren’t given any explanation as to what happened.
Also, Austin Wayne Self technically failed to qualify for the race. However, he started in the rear, using Tommy Joe Martins’ No. 44. Martins had actually qualified 24th for the race, but crashed during Round No. 1 of qualifying.
According to the Instagram post above, Martins’ team repaired the truck, but I guess Tim Self (A.W.’s father) came calling with the money and Martins allowed them to take the spot. They never really talked about this fact until after the halfway point of the race when Self spun out in turn 4. Given Martins’ hard crash in qualifying, you’d think that FOX Sports 1 would have gotten some kind of quote from him since he was second on the board at the time he crashed.
Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the race ran long. Despite the short amount of time available (the race finished 15 minutes after the scheduled end of the timeslot), viewers still got interviews with the whole top 5 and a check of the unofficial results before FOX Sports 1 left the air. Not bad, given the circumstances. There were no point standings given, but John Hunter Nemechek’s second-place finish gave him the points lead.
Overall, Saturday’s 255-lap race was quite exciting. Kyle Busch continues to be a tough driver to beat. Vince Welch is continuing to do just ok in the booth. He doesn’t add much to the broadcast, but doesn’t take anything away. The broadcast did show quite a bit of action for position, which is always good to see. Overall, I was satisfied, despite the caution clock commentary was a bit much (I went into the race assuming that it wouldn’t be used, and it wasn’t).
Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix
Prior to Saturday night’s 250-lap race, there was a lot of doom and gloom going around. Some were convinced that people were going to be seriously injured or worse during the race. Thankfully, that was not the case. However, the race wasn’t exactly the most competitive event, either.
Phoenix served as NBCSN’s first IndyCar race of the season. Unfortunately, due to scheduling, they couldn’t have their regular team on hand. Leigh Diffey had Formula One duty, which meant that Rick Allen was deputized to serve as the play-by-play commentator. I can’t recall Allen doing many IndyCar races in the past, but he did just fine. His performance would be familiar to anyone who has watched a NASCAR race over the past few years. I was satisfied with what I got out of Allen except for one thing.
During IndyCar Live, the main feature of the show was a piece on James Hinchcliffe and the people who helped save his life last year at Indianapolis. Here, we got first-person accounts of the condition that Hinchcliffe was in after the crash that, to my knowledge, had not previously been made public. The piece revealed that it was seriously a touch-and-go situation. While I don’t want to have a situation like that happen again, sometimes it’s good to be able to hear these accounts. Hinchcliffe is a gregarious person and driven to succeed. He didn’t even get to three questions with Marco Andretti before asking when he could get back in the race car when he was in IU Health Methodist Hospital. I thought it was a great piece that really sums up just how difficult a situation that Hinchcliffe has overcome to race again. Unfortunately, his actual race on Saturday night stunk.
The race itself wasn’t the most competitive event on earth. Then again, track position is a premium in almost every race at Phoenix, regardless of the series. That’s nothing new. The speeds were. 177 mph laps in the race didn’t look all that much different from 189 mph laps.
Much like last year in Sprint Cup, the starts and restarts were key. If you could snatch some spots there, you’d really help out your case. Ryan Hunter-Reay proved that in a big way on the start, gaining seven spots by going to the land less traveled. Otherwise, passing was at a premium. NBCSN did give viewers some races for position during the race, but not all that much.
As the race continued on, cautions that fell at rather inopportune times knocked a number of drivers off the lead. The general focus of the broadcast narrowed when that occurred. Personally, I find that rather irritating. Just because someone falls off the lead lap doesn’t mean they’re worthless. FOM’s coverage in Bahrain on Sunday did not have that issue. If Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Nasr have a battle for 13th late in the race, they’ll show that. It’s a policy that I would prefer be adopted for all series. Give viewers the action, regardless of where it is.
The end of the race was a bit messy. With a few laps to go, Hunter-Reay hit the wall exiting turn 4. A lap or so later, a small piece of debris came off the No. 28 and ended up on the frontstretch. The booth was hoping that INDYCAR would call a quickie caution and shake things up for the finish.
Yes, they got that caution, but it came with just two laps to go. There was mass confusion for more than one reason. One, they thought that the debris was the cause. If that were so, INDYCAR took their dang sweet time bringing out the yellow. However, that was not the reason why the yellow flew. In reality, Alexander Rossi smacked the wall to bring out the yellow. I have no idea what happened there as the cameras did not catch anything.
At the time, the commentary seemed to be centered on the idea of the race actually resuming, despite the fact that the yellow came out on lap 249. Analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy were jacked up, thinking that they were going to see a mad dash to the finish. Chaps, the Verizon IndyCar Series is not NASCAR. There are no GWC’s here. It was over the minute the caution came out. Bell and Tracy seemed to think that the late caution would have created a situation similar to Iowa from last year, in which a yellow came out with 38 laps to go when Takuma Sato crashed. Some of the leaders pitted, while others did not. While that was a nice race, Saturday night would not have ended like that. Given the length of some of the yellows in the race, a caution with nine to go would have resulted in a GWC.
In that situation, it is the play-by-play man’s job to center everyone and provide the correct information. Allen seemed to be slow to do it, partially because he’s been doing NASCAR races for the last 13 years and nearly every race he’s ever called has had the possibility of a GWC. You got to get up on that. Luckily, IndyCar races don’t end under caution all that much (unless they’re the Indianapolis 500, where that seems to happen half the time).
Post-race coverage was rather substantial. Viewers saw ten post-race interviews, which resulted in viewers getting multiple different viewpoints of the race.
Overall, the race in Phoenix wasn’t the greatest. Maybe it was a little too fast. Regardless, INDYCAR has something to build on for future races on the short tri-oval. I’m not sure what Allen’s schedule for INDYCAR races is going to be for the rest of this year (remember, Diffey is on play-by-play for both INDYCAR and Formula One), but I think that he should brush up on the INDYCAR rules before he has another go. I never have any issues with enthusiasm with him and Saturday night was no exception to that rule. However, in a booth role, you are an educator. You cannot forget that.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series are back in action at Texas Motor Speedway for the first night races of the season. Meanwhile, motoGP travels to Circuit of the Americas and the Blancpain GT Sprint Series gets underway in Italy. Your TV listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab at the top of your screen.
I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Annex will have additional opinions of motorsports programming Thursday in the Frontstretch Newsletter.
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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.