Well, last weekend was quite interesting. I noted on Twitter that the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races were the races where the officials affected the race the least. Pirelli World Challenge and the World Endurance Championship saw the winner get stripped of their trophy afterwards. The Verizon IndyCar Series muffed a penalty call that changed the outcome of the race (more on that in the Newsletter later this week). The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT-Le Mans victory was settled using a PIT maneuver in the hairpin with a little more than two laps to go.
Without having watched the races, you would have thought the races at Bristol this weekend were tame. They were anything but.
Food City 500
Sunday saw the Sprint Cup Series return to Bristol for 500 laps of action. We saw some thrills, spills and some surprises. Kyle Busch warned viewers that the race might not be all that good, but it might have turned out better than he thought on an overall scale. Not so much for him.
Speaking of the younger of the Busch brothers, he was the focus for much of pre-race coverage since he’s been so dominant recently. FOX asked a number of fans what they thought of the defending Sprint Cup Champion, which always makes for interesting television.
In addition, FOX sat Busch down and had him talk about the past couple of weeks. Naturally, he was pretty happy at the time. Not so much now. Busch also talked about how much he likes racing at Bristol (he has five wins on the high banks) and how places that he hasn’t won at can chafe at his butt. I thought it was ok. The piece doesn’t disprove any particular notion I have about him. The man is addicted to trophies.
During the race, loose wheels were a big, big issue. I’ve already written this season about the whole lug nut issue. NASCAR only stopped worrying about them because their video system can’t catch them (basically, they would need cameras on the other side of the pit wall to pick that up). Because of that, people are getting sloppy in the quest for quicker stops and better track position. Apparently, NASCAR’s going to address that later this week, but they’ve created a hole for themselves.
The booth (especially Gordon and Larry McReynolds in his side booth) made the point that the forces are too strong at Bristol to press your luck on such a setup. Personally, I agree.
Another issue was the mystery issue that struck three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing entries and resulted in Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth introducing themselves to some 8x8x3/16th’s tubing on seven different occasions. Busch’s first failure was apparently due to a melted bead, but the others were a mystery. FOX did keep tabs on wheel temperatures for the rest of the race in response to the issue, just in case. Their takeaway from the issue is that they thought it was a camber issue. However, no proof of that was found.
I thought that McReynolds did a great job explaining the track bar mount issue that put Kyle Larson in the garage. There was some confusion at the time pertaining to Larson’s issues. McReynolds put the whole thing to bed quickly and as simply as possible. Perfect.
Having said all that, I did have a couple of gripes on Sunday. First and foremost, it was rather difficult to follow the drivers that had issues on Sunday. It wasn’t too difficult to keep tabs on Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who dropped to the rear after problems on the initial start. The broadcast made it out to be some kind of ECU problem. Earnhardt Jr. described it after the race as if he hit the kill switch.
Issue with a system on the car that helps the driver in case of stuck throttle. I freaked it out on the pace laps. https://t.co/nA5FKc9gbW
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 17, 2016
However, Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson dropped back after getting penalized and we heard and saw bupkis. Then, all of a sudden, Johnson’s in the top 10. I feel that moments like that shouldn’t happen. FOX needs to keep better tabs on drivers. The FOX Box is not an end-all.
Also of note, is there a reason why Darrell Waltrip doesn’t really want to use Gordon’s insight during the broadcasts? Is Waltrip some kind of narcissist? Gordon’s actually raced the Gen6, while Waltrip hasn’t driven a Cup car since 2002 or so (he practiced the No. 14 Conseco Pontiac at Martinsville in place of Stacy Compton once). Gordon’s a four-time champion. He knows his stuff. He is not a moron. The information that Gordon provides viewers can be helpful, yet Waltrip seems to want to treat Gordon like he’s 12 when he’s actually 44. That’s not right. At times, it’s been downright disrespectful.
Coming out of the race, one of the biggest stories on Sunday was Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish for BK Racing. The man had never finished a Cup race better than 18th. He’s essentially an unknown in Sprint Cup. FOX actually showed his rather interesting entrance (he came out to ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man and had a fake beard on so that he resembled Billy Gibbons) during driver introductions and the analysts in the Hollywood Hotel (Chris Myers, Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip) couldn’t figure out who it was. For the record, Gordon thought that it was Michael McDowell.
It’s just another sign that FOX is not necessarily doing the best job of covering everyone. You can’t just assume that everyone watches NASCAR RaceHub on FOX Sports 1. Sure, it’s a good show, but inclusiveness is key on race broadcasts. That way, you wouldn’t be so surprised about people.
During the race, DiBenedetto did run well, but didn’t have the track position. He got a lap down after halfway, but got a Lucky Dog when Casey Mears slid into turn 1 on lap 339. He really didn’t show up in the hunt until Joey Logano’s car didn’t go on a late restart and held up the inside line. That boosted DiBenedetto up to tenth. The other four positions were all him (and having that crucial outside line for restarts).
DiBenedetto’s post-race interview with Chris Neville was quite refreshing. I’ve read comparisons to Lake Speed’s post-race interview after finishing second in the 1985 Daytona 500 with an 11th hour sponsor (Nationwise Auto Parts, who ended up staying for two full seasons), but it reminded me more of Rich Bickle’s interview with Bill Weber after he finished fourth at Martinsville in 1998.
My point here is that you just don’t see that joy all that much anymore in NASCAR. Instead, you get the usual platitudes to sponsors, short statements and (in some cases), sarcastic jabs. Winning is never assured. Getting that great finish really does feel good and I think some of the drivers don’t understand that anymore.
Since the race had 15 cautions, it ran over the scheduled timeslot. Regardless, viewers still got a decent amount of post-race coverage, including the aforementioned DiBenedetto interview.
Overall, I did enjoy watching the race on Sunday. It was not the doom and gloom that Busch claimed that it was going to be, but it is no easy piece to pass at Bristol. You had some good stories and good action. On the broadcast, you had good enthusiasm and moments of clarity. However, there were also some issues that I’ve mentioned above. The Darrell Waltrip-Jeff Gordon thoughts above is not really just a Bristol thing, but more of an ongoing issue that some of my readers have mentioned in the comments in recent weeks. I’m not a fan, but it is something worth looking at as the season continues on.
Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300
Of note, I had no clue what a glider kit was prior to Saturday. Turns out that it’s a ready-made tractor (the business part of an 18-wheeler) that can be had at a discount as compared to if you bought direct from a Peterbilt/Kenworth/Western Star dealer. Regardless, they’re still roughly $130,000 plus tax. Engine and transmission choice can affect (10 to 18 speeds are available).
Aside from the references to trucking, Saturday was also the first trial for the XFINITY Dash 4 Cash with their heat races.
Quite frankly, those heat races were completely anti-climactic. Next to nothing happened, there were no lead changes and very little movement up and down the order. Essentially, they made what would have been the first third of the race way more boring than it would have been. I’m not really cool with the format, since the races are now shorter than they would be without the heats. Especially Saturday, I would have felt that I wouldn’t be getting my money’s worth. I know that XFINITY would like this setup because it means that having a fifth race just to determine who’s eligible for the money the first time around is no longer necessary.
Using Saturday’s setup, I would have held the heat races 90 minutes earlier than they were held (11 a.m. instead of 12:30 p.m.). Sprint Cup Happy Hour would have been held in between the heat races and the actual race. The cars would be impounded here, but it would give teams time to fix damaged cars (with the penalty of dropping to the rear, of course).
Back to the broadcast itself. For Saturday’s race, Brad Keselowski returned to the broadcast booth for his second visit of the season. While he does have some good insight, he does need to watch himself from time to time. For example, Michael Waltrip asked Keselowski about the No. 22 team. Keselowski gave a good explanation for why the team really hasn’t been a match for Joe Gibbs Racing so far in 2016 (Answer: Many of the good crewmembers, including crew chief Jeremy Bullins, went to work for Wood Brothers Racing on Ryan Blaney’s No. 21 in Sprint Cup). Makes perfect sense, given their alliance.
However, Keselowski needs to realize that when he’s a booth analyst, there is no “we” when he refers to race teams, even the one he races for in Sprint Cup and the XFINITY Series. I know you’re probably thinking that I’m nuts, but that comes off to me as favoritism. Can’t have that.
That said, Keselowski does do a decent job making the race exciting. Earnhardt Jr. agrees with this sentiment.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 16, 2016
Then again, the race at the front didn’t really need to be sold that much. Kyle Busch and Larson were racing each other like it was no tomorrow until the last yellow came out for the collision between Mario Gosselin and Ryan Reed. I’m very happy that someone was finally able to give Kyle Busch a run for his money. Too many of these XFINITY races turn into runaways.
While Earnhardt Jr. may be a fan of Keselowski in the booth, I doubt that he’s a fan of being called out by Michael Waltrip to join the booth, though. After all, Earnhardt Jr. is a busy man with a lot of dudes who want his time. I suppose the hope is that Earnhardt Jr. in the booth for a full race would be like “Watercooler Dale” in those Nationwide commercials. It would be a much different feel compared to what we’re used to.
Post-race coverage was somewhat typical. However, since NASCAR held up Erik Jones’ Victory Lane celebration, all the other interviews came first. Guess they needed to finish getting everything set up.
Honestly, this race didn’t take much longer than many K&N Pro Series East races to run. Having said that, there was a lot of action in this race that made up for the terrible heat races. I just wish we got 300 laps of action instead of 200.
Given that Kyle Busch and Larson were going at each other all day, we got a broadcast that might have been the most strictly focused at the front of the field of any race in one of NASCAR’s National Series that I can honestly remember in my seven-plus years of writing this column for Frontstretch. However, much of the action was right there. It’s a tough place to be. For FOX Sports 1, it makes things pretty easy, but for people that aren’t necessarily fans of Kyle Busch or Larson, it means that you didn’t see much of your guy, unless he was being used as a pawn in the ongoing race for the lead.
That’s all for this week. After last weekend’s craziness, the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series return to Richmond International Raceway for daytime racing. It is the first time that NASCAR has held a regularly-scheduled day race there since 1997. Unlike that weekend in 1997, it won’t be 40 degrees. Meanwhile, the Verizon IndyCar Series will be at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama with Pirelli World Challenge. The NHRA will be in Charlotte for the Four-Wide Nationals, always a good show, while Formula E, motoGP and the Blancpain GT Endurance Series will be in action. Listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab at the top of the page.
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. My plan was to include the Verizon IndyCar Series race from Long Beach in this edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. However, I will write about it in a special Wednesday edition of the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter. Expect interpretation of the rules to be a big part of that article.
The normal Thursday edition of the Annex will cover the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s BUBBA Burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach. In that column, I will look at the broadcast through the lens of the changes announced for 2016 since Long Beach was the first race of the year with the normal contingent of personalities.
If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below. Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments and I’m happy with the increased number of comments so far this year. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.
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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.
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