(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Grading USA Network’s NASCAR Return

Ah, yes. The twisties.  Even if the races were relatively boring, I’d still love them, the road course detours that throw a wrench into typical stock car competition. We had two races this weekend with quirky incidents and hard racing, both elements missing from the NASCAR landscape as of late.

Last weekend, the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series saw their television coverage switched around, too; both CNBC and USA took turns broadcasting at the 2.45-mile short course at Watkins Glen International.  Read on to discover how NBC’s typical crew fared while broadcasting on a different set of networks.

Cheez-It 355 at the Glen

Sunday brought the Sprint Cup teams back to Watkins Glen in front of nearly 100,000 fans.  It also saw Sprint Cup make its lone appearance of the season on USA Network. It’s the first time the sport has been televised there since an old deal to broadcast Daytona’s former Twin 125-mile qualifying races in the early 1980s.

I’m surprised how many people had trouble finding USA on their pay-TV systems.  We’re talking about one of the oldest cable networks in existence, folks.  It turns 39 next month and is listed as basic cable for every major provider in the country.  For DISH Network customers, as an example USA is an automatic within the cheapest package available, one which gets you only 60 channels.

(Credit: Getty Images)
The last time USA Network covered a NASCAR race? Drivers like Kyle Larson weren’t even born yet.(Credit: Getty Images)

For me, USA is basic cable.  Channel 28, to be exact.  While I have lots of personal memories of watching USA, many of them revolve around these guys that ran wild on weekday afternoons.  I’m too young to have actually watched races on the network back in the 1980s.  They stopped airing races just before I discovered motorsports; I imagine it’s the same for many readers.  Still, the inability to follow the switch, even when both NASCAR and NBC gave plenty of notice really surprised me. Do people pay that little attention to their channel lineup? Or are there just too many now?

As for the coverage, pre-race was relatively simple considering the switch to USA.  Viewers got what they typically want: a bunch of interviews with a diverse number of drivers.  Even IndyCar’s Josef Newgarden got in on the action, fueling speculation about jumpstarting his own racing career in a stock car.

Prior to the USA broadcast, FOX Sports’ Kenny Wallace did a quasi-sit down with Tony Stewart while Stewart was driving a Chevrolet Impala around the track. Here, Stewart describes his style at Watkins Glen, which apparently was “doing his thing.”  Much of the rest of the piece talked about what amounted to Stewart’s greatest hits at Watkins Glen (wins, the 2000 argument with Jeff Gordon, wheel-hopping to victory).  It was a nice look into what makes Stewart click on road courses.  However, as Wallace was a bit surprised to find out, Stewart drives the same on a superspeedway, road course, paved short track and dirt track.

During the race itself, I felt that some of the incidents were glossed over to a certain extent.  For example, Austin Dillon spun out right before the first commercial break of the race.  Viewers got a slow-motion replay just as the race was going to commercial; then, it was like nothing happened.

Landon Cassill’s incident was another example in that it seemed like the booth didn’t even know what actually caused the caution.  Instead, they explained that the yellow was out for dirt in the Inner Loop.  Since a similar yellow had been thrown on Saturday, during the Zippo 200 I suppose the television crew thought it was possible.

Much like last week, pit road was a big issue on Sunday, especially early in the race.  A number of contenders (Carl Edwards, Joey Logano to a point, Jimmie Johnson (twice), AJ Allmendinger) all took themselves out of the equation for the win by being penalized during the first round of stops.  The booth did mention NASCAR had increased the number of timing lines just like in Pocono and that did bust some people.  Others, like Edwards, fell victim to regular issues like an uncontrolled tire.

I wrote in Monday’s Big 6 that an uncontrolled tire completely changed the complexion of Sunday’s race.  I can understand why NASCAR would throw a yellow for a loose tire in the pits at a place like Atlanta, a track where there is no outside pit wall.

At Watkins Glen, though there’s a pit wall that would prohibit a lazy tire from rolling out onto the track.  Matt DiBenedetto’s crew could wait for a free moment, then go out there and get the tire without a problem.  Instead, NASCAR threw a full course caution for this “safety issue.”  Once it happened, NBC Sports (whose normal crew covered the race on USA) did a poor job of explaining how it all turned out.  They needed to break down why NASCAR thought this step was necessary given all the strategies in play at the time, a decision which deliberately changed the outcome of the race.  They’ve got to hold NASCAR more accountable here in what’s supposed to be unbiased analysis.

Some of the broadcast productions decisions around that time also turned out a little weird.  For example, the network chose to break for commercial right smack in the middle of a round of green-flag pit stops.  That’s not cool.  It was a local break as well, costing viewers a chance to watch when speeding penalties proved a crucial turning point throughout the day.  It was nice to watch Stewart go on about the Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions coming to Lebanon Valley Speedway here in New York on Aug. 21; I just wish I could have seen it after the race. (Note: I’m the press officer at Lebanon Valley Speedway, so I will be at that event and so will Stewart).

Afterwards, it was wreckin’ time.  I found the action a little frustrating to watch since there were so many incidents.  Having said that, the coverage of the second half of the race was pretty decent.  There were shots that showed how Logano damaged his splitter in the Inner Loop and aerial shots that gave viewers the big picture.  It says a lot that Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch basically screwed themselves out of a 1-2 finish by overshooting turn 1 on the lap 81 restart (Note: I have no idea why NASCAR threw the caution for DiBenedetto and Ryan Newman’s spins.  Neither driver hit anything and they got underway immediately).

Also, I could not tell from the broadcast what put Regan Smith and Michael Annett behind the wall.  I know that neither driver got inside the top 30 during the race, but I feel like it would have been a good idea to notify the viewers just what was up instead of leaving them to see that both drivers were off the track via the scroll.

Given that the race had two red flags and eight cautions, the race finished 20 minutes after the scheduled sign-off time.  Regardless, there was still a good amount of post-race coverage in which USA covered all the bases.  I do wish they got some time with Kyle Larson before they went off the air, though as that last-lap wreck with Allmendinger could have kept him from making the Chase.

For what it’s worth, I did enjoy watching Sunday’s race from Watkins Glen.  Then again, I would have still enjoyed the event had Keselowski had a big enough lead that he could pit on the final lap for a splash of fuel and still win like Rusty Wallace did in 1987.

Zippo 200

Saturday brought the XFINITY Series teams back to Watkins Glen for 200 miles of action on CNBC.  How was the on-track broadcast?

In all honesty, not half bad.  While Logano dominated the proceedings, there was a good amount of action for position, especially after the fourth yellow flag.  The action wasn’t completely dedicated to Cup regulars, a contingent that seems to own the show at Watkins Glen.  Brendan Gaughan and Ross Chastain had a nice scrap and Ty Dillon was in there as well.

Scott Heckert ran very well for BJ McLeod Motorsports, hoisting himself into the top 10 on merit.  Of note, Heckert is full-time in Pirelli World Challenge’s GTS class for Racer’s Edge Motorsports.  The whole notion of the booth asserting that Heckert desperately wanted back into NASCAR full-time sort of perplexes me, though.  It directly goes against what Heckert told me earlier this year at Lime Rock Park.  The idea of K&N Pro Series racers coming to Heckert for advice jives better with what’s actually going on inside the garage.

The coverage of the “Big One” stood out to me as NBC Sports (moonlighting on CNBC) covered pretty much every corner of the issue.  We got interviews with most of the main players involved that were eliminated (Todd Bodine, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Blake Koch) and good replays.  Kyle Busch was an exception,  of course but we’re talking about an angry Kyle Busch here.  The dude didn’t even bother trying to drive back around.  Instead, he hung a right and cut up to one of the main infield roads in order to get back to the XFINITY Series garage, drop the car off and head straight back to his motorhome.

(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)
Derrike Cope was simply trying to finish Saturday’s race in one piece. Instead? His car exploded in the inner loop in one of the weirdest NASCAR moments in recent history. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

The Derrike Cope explosion was truly bizarre.  I’ve been watching NASCAR races for over 25 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  All the booth could do was speculate on what caused the explosion with the help of replays and the NBCee-it (zoom) function.  The word of the day here was “perplexed.”

Later on, CNBC reported that NASCAR had impounded the car so that they could do their own investigation of what the deuce went down.  They also reported that Cope was released from the Infield Care Center but they did not get an interview with Cope on-air, unfortunately.  The NBC folks did get an interview with Cope eventually, after the race in which he seemed about as confused as everyone else.

Since the event ran long, there was next to no post-race coverage.  Viewers saw the unofficial results and the winner’s interview with Logano.  That was just about it as CNBC had to rush back to Olympic coverage from Rio de Janeiro.

Honestly, I would have preferred a little bit more post-race coverage, preferably with Cope on-air.  However, NBC is paying billions to air the coverage from Brazil, so it takes precedence.  Plus, the race had already run over its timeslot.

That’s all for this week.  The Sprint Cup Series is off this weekend.  With the exception of Ryan Blaney, everyone will be off relaxing somewhere.  Meanwhile, the XFINITY Series takes on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in what is a very light weekend. Remember that Saturday’s race will air on USA. MotoGP is also in action at the Red Bull Ring, while Pirelli World Challenge has a standalone race weekend in Utah.  Listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab.

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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As always, if you choose to contact a 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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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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2 comments

  1. Avatar

    I also remember watching the 125’s at The Anvil in Fort Edward NY. At that time it was the only way of seeing them and getting the heads up for the 500.

  2. Avatar

    Phil, your commentary NEVER ceases to amaze me. I don’t know if you are busy with Twitter or what but Sunday’s race coverage was the worst I’ve seen in years including the FOX debacles….coming back from a 6 commercial break into a caution and not one word about what caused it or why and then going right back into another set of commercials. Pathetic. And yet you “enjoyed” the presentation of the second half?