This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and XFINITY series returned to action at Texas Motor Speedway, and once again, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated much of the weekend.
Before we get started, last week, NASCAR and CMT announced a new three-part series, NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed, which will air on consecutive Sundays starting on May 8 at 10 p.m. A press release describes the series as “…a no-holds-barred account of the sport’s early pioneers and ascension to national prominence.”
Duck Commander 500
On Saturday night, it rained. Rat farts. As a result, FOX’s broadcast from Texas Motor Speedway ran all the way past 1:30 a.m. ET. I know some of you tuned out that late at night, but I did not.
Of course, having Duck Commander sponsor your race means that you’re banking on the star power of the Robertson family, best known for their reality show, Duck Dynasty, on A&E. The Robertsons were all over the pre-race ceremonies, which is generally fine. Family patriarch Phil Robertson took on the invocation. It was… interesting, and sparked some controversy on social media.
As a rule of thumb, I do not like to talk about invocations or national anthem renditions in this column for a couple of different reasons. One is that saying anything that could be viewed as a criticism of either basically gives you a scarlet letter for life, unless you’re ranting about someone “trying to make the anthem their own,” in which case, nearly everyone agrees with you. The second is that it really has nothing to do with the broadcast other than the fact that the networks air it.
During Phil Robertson’s somewhat rambly invocation, he stated his desire for a “Jesus man” to win the presidency. Apparently, that means Ted Cruz because Phil Robertson has already publicly endorsed the senator from Texas. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not there is an invocation at all before any race. Bearded one, do us a solid and don’t throw your political views into it. The sport’s dealt with enough bad press in this election cycle (see Brian France’s endorsement of Donald Trump). If Robertson was reaching for, to use wrestling parlance, a “quick pop” from the assembled crowd prior to the race, it didn’t work. Not even some cheap heat. Just silence. Also, this instance qualifies for the Deadspin Corollary. If it makes Deadspin and has nothing to do with the race, it is bad. This invocation did make Deadspin. Why does this stupidity keep happening?
Outside of Robertson’s not-so-great invocation, pre-race content was pretty decent. NASCAR RaceDay had a nice piece where Kenny Wallace sat down with Ryan Blaney and talked about his recent form. Sure, there was some discussion of his recent takeover (with buddy Darrell Wallace, Jr.) of NASCAR’s Snapchat after Phoenix, but there was also some interesting talk about how Blaney put himself on the map during his part-time XFINITY schedule for Tommy Baldwin Racing back in 2012. You might remember those races he did in the SealWrap-sponsored No. 36 and surprised many with his form.
The long rain delay really did not lead to any extra pre-race coverage. There were maybe three or four extra driver interviews, and that’s about it. FOX left Texas at 8:21 p.m. ET to show a repeat of Untold Stories: Daytona, then returned just before the engines were fired. It’s a good show with some interesting content (Smokey Yunick, Mario Andretti at the 1967 Daytona 500, the late 1960’s Aerowars, etc.), but it’s not current action. I guess they really didn’t have that much content available. They didn’t even take advantage of the stuff they had on NASCAR RaceDay. Weak.
During the event itself, the racing did get quite spread out. When the third caution flew for debris (which was never shown on-air) during a commercial break, Martin Truex, Jr. had a ten-second lead over second-place. When the field gets that spread out, it is the duty of the TV partners to show as much exciting action as they can. Just seeing some fast cars isn’t necessarily enough anymore. For a good chunk of Saturday night’s race, we saw that. Admittedly, I was a little bored at times.
However, that is not a reason to shorten the race, as my colleague Aaron Bearden suggested on Monday. If I were buying a ticket to the race, I’d want as much content for my money as possible. If the race were shortened to 400 miles, it would still cost the same for the ticket and the same to get to Justin (the nearest town to Texas Motor Speedway) for the race. As far as I’m concerned, fans wouldn’t be getting the same value for their money.
FOX did a good job explaining Paul Menard’s black flag for “manipulating the body” on Lap 127. Late last season, Jimmie Johnson got busted when a crew member hip checked the right side of the car while removing the rear tire, and this enforcement on Menard shows that NASCAR is serious about cutting out the flaring. Later, FOX did even better when it came to breaking down what caused Carl Edwards to have to make an unscheduled stop. Short explanation: the front tire changer only hit a couple of the lugnuts on the right front wheel in a desperate attempt to keep the lead. I’m not a fan of NASCAR not policing lugnuts since introducing the video officiating system last year. The desire to win at all costs is eventually going to get someone wrecked. Granted, NASCAR has stated that if you lose a wheel on-track due to lack of lugnuts, they’ll give you something like a P3 penalty, but I feel like it’s inevitable. It’ll happen this year, mark my words.
Post-race coverage, despite the late hour, was quite decent. FOX provided viewers with a half-dozen interviews and a check of the points before leaving the air to get to the (at least here in the Albany area) tape-delayed late news.
In and around the cautions, you had a decent amount of racing for position, but I found that there were just too many single-car shots despite the fact that there was racing abound elsewhere. That said, there were some alternate stories (Chase Elliott charging from the back to finish fifth, Hendrick Motorsports’ night in general, Austin Dillon before he wrecked it, etc.) that did get some good coverage.
Overall, I found the broadcast to be just average. Without a whole lot of action to show, a race can be quite plain. FOX didn’t do the best job in making Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 exciting. It was probably quite a bit better if you were there.
O’Reilly Auto Parts 300
On Friday night, the XFINITY Series returned to Texas for its first visit of the year to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. As you know by now, nothing really changed. Kyle Busch spanked everyone again, but the question is whether that fact hurt FOX Sports 1’s broadcast.
Saturday night’s race saw the first booth appearance of the season for Carl Edwards. Of all the guest analysts that FOX Sports has tapped for the XFINITY races, Edwards is the only one who had significant booth experience prior to the beginning of last season. That booth experience was with ESPN, and seemingly came out of a legitimate personal interest on Edwards’ part. As a result, he entered Saturday’s broadcast with more booth experience than drivers like Clint Bowyer. Also, Edwards’ ESPN experience came with Allen Bestwick on play-by-play. While I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Adam Alexander, Bestwick has always come off as a taskmaster and one who knows how to control a broadcast booth.
As a result, Edwards came into Friday night’s race prepared to make some good points. I found his commentary to be quite informative. He’s come a long way since his earliest outings with ESPN, where he openly stated on-air that he didn’t know what to do.
The ongoing main story in the XFINITY Series is the complete domination by Joe Gibbs Racing, and that didn’t really change on Friday night. Now, it’s to the point where I believe that FOX Sports wants anyone to take the fight to JGR. While ratings are flat with 2015 at the moment (according to Sports Media Watch, viewership for this race was within 1000 viewers of last year), eventually, people are going to gravitate away if Kyle Busch keeps winning and making a mockery of the field every week.
Thankfully, the broadcast was not completely focused on the Gibbs cars. We did get some action for position, and some rather dicey action at that (see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. nearly wrecking and taking Kyle Larson with him). However, the field is spread out enough so that it’s hard to really get all much action for position in these intermediate races.
Since the race ended right up against the end of the time slot, post-race coverage was a little hurried. Viewers only got interviews with the top 3 finishers (Kyle Busch, Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski), along with a check of the unofficial results before FOX Sports 1 left to get to MLB Whiparound. I’m not really surprised at that, but it still bites.
Overall, my main takeaway from the broadcast was Edwards’ performance, which I thought was really good. He seemed to work really well with Alexander and Michael Waltrip. Having the experience with a more regimented booth does help. I believe that Alexander (and by extension, FOX NASCAR itself) runs a looser ship. In Edwards’ case, it’s so far, so good. For a guest analyst, the ability to assert yourself on the broadcast is key. If you can’t do that, Michael Waltrip will walk right over you. Sure, he’ll be friendly while he does it, but he’ll do it.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, there’s a lot on the schedule. The Sprint Cup and XFINITY series travel to Bristol Motor Speedway for their first visit of the year. Unlike the past two years, Sprint Cup teams will be greeted with sunny skies on race day, which means it will take significantly less than 10 hours to finish the race.
Also, note that Saturday’s XFINITY event will feature heat races. I think that’s going to be a quagmire for multiple reasons, including (apparently) a no-backup rule once the heat races start (which even local tracks don’t have, but most teams on that level don’t have backup cars). Meanwhile, the Verizon IndyCar Series, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Pirelli World Challenge will be in Long Beach, while Formula One will be in Shanghai. Listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab.
I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, XFINITY and Verizon IndyCar series races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. For the Annex this week, we’re covering the Blancpain GT Sprint Series opener from Misano in Italy.
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