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(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chooses NASCAR On NBC

Last week was nothing short of a doozy.  You had a Cup race that took more than six hours to run due to rain and wrecks.  An XFINITY race that featured a fair amount of passing, but was run at too slow of a pace for my taste.  You also had a wreckfest on the loose surface at Eldora.

Before we get started, you’ve probably seen that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has signed a deal with NBCUniversal (not just NBC Sports) that will see the 42-year-old racer join NBC in some capacity.  I couldn’t tell you what the heck that will entail (there will be more announcements later this year) at the moment, but it sounds pretty cool.

What we do know is that Earnhardt will have some kind of on-air role with NBC.  At bare minimum, he’ll be at all the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races in the second half of the season.

Outside of that, he could pop up in any one of NBC’s properties, not just NASCAR.  The idea of Earnhardt turning in on Tour de France coverage was broached.  That would be interesting, but I don’t know what it would look like.

NBC Sports president Sam Flood did state outright during Monday’s conference call that “…we’re not big fans of having him do XFINITY races.”  The reasoning for that is the rather obvious conflict of interest that comes with having someone that is a team owner in the series calling the race.  It is an interesting contrast to FOX Sports.

In addition, Earnhardt’s personal businesses Hammerhead Entertainment and Dirty Mo Media will be involved with this deal in some way, shape or form.  That could mean Hammerhead Entertainment could produce shows that air on NBCSN.

Finally, going to NBCUniversal should not change who Earnhardt is. His persona has always been quite welcoming. Sure, there are a number of people who think that he’s only where he is because of his last name, but let’s face it.  Earnhardt is not a controversial figure.  He’s one of the few people in motorsports that has name recognition outside of motorsports.  Given everything that’s gone on over the past few years, we need somebody like that.

In whatever his role with NBCUniversal ultimately looks like, I have no doubt that Earnhardt will have fun with it.  Getting business for his own companies through this deal will also help him long-term.  I’m truly intrigued.  I look forward to the future announcements to see just what Earnhardt Jr. going to do next year.  I doubt he’ll be climbing L’Alpe-d’Huez or anything like that, but it will likely be worth watching.

Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400

On Sunday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what has become one of the more polarizing races on the calendar.  For 2017, we have a new, somewhat unwieldy name for the race and lower downforce.  However, neither of those things will be what most people remember about Sunday’s race.

One thing fans will remember from the Brickyard 400 is the wrecking.  There was a lot of wrecking. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

If you ask someone a decade from now what they’ll remember about Sunday’s race, they’ll probably mention the wrecking.  Based on average speed, Sunday’s race is the slowest Cup race ever at Indianapolis.  Yes, just barely slower than the travesty in 2008 and the 2004 race that had 13 cautions.

At the same time, most of these incidents were from people trying their darndest to win.  I thought that the broadcast did a pretty good job of covering those wrecks.

Likely the biggest moment for NBC’s broadcast in regards to wrecking was the big crash on lap 150 that took out Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones.  NBC had the Helmet Cam on Kurt Busch, which gave viewers a first-person view of the crash.  The talk over the past month has been that Helmet Cam is the best possible view ever concocted to show viewers what drivers see.  Sunday was the first time that someone wearing the Helmet Cam wrecked.  It was spectacular.  Even though Kurt Busch walked away from the crash, it seemed to legitimately affect the commentators, especially those who haven’t raced.  It was if they said to themselves, “holy cripes.”

At bare minimum, that will be a learning experience for everyone involved.  I wouldn’t be shocked if some kind of protocol came out of this in regards to replays of crashes.  Yes, Kurt Busch was uninjured, but you saw the steering column break away and lift up by more than half a foot.  Depending on the severity of the crash, you may see Helmet Cam footage withheld from replays.

By the time the race finally ended Sunday evening, it was nearly 9 p.m.  NASCAR made the decision to not put out the caution on the final restart until after Kasey Kahne passed the Overtime line.  I knew going in that if they had anything happen on that restart, the race was over regardless of where it happened.  It just seemed like Steve O’Donnell was skirting around the issue Sunday night.  Think of it like Talladega in the spring of 2013 when the XFINITY Series Aaron’s 312 was cut short due to darkness.  That is the situation we had on Sunday.

Probably the most annoying portion of NBC’s broadcast on Sunday was when they signed off the actual race broadcast before even getting to a winners’ interview.  Cripes, I know the race was over its slot by three hours (no joke, it really ran long by that much), but the viewers deserved at least that before moving over to NBCSN.

Why did they make that move?  They likely wanted to give the time to Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, a beleaguered newsmagazine that’s only been on TV since the beginning of June.  My guess is that Kelly’s show is done by Labor Day due to low ratings, but I’m no expert at that type of television.  There were constant ads for the show during the race (on this episode, Kelly talked to Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon about efforts to improve his hometown of Hazelton, Pa., something ESPN did last year).

Regardless, the situation just looked bad to me and a lot of people watching.  We know dang well that NBC cares about NASCAR.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have overpaid to get rights.

The race coverage itself seemed to have more racing for position than last year, even during the relatively staid first 250 miles.  Despite the race being a Kyle Busch benefit at times, it was still compelling.  Then, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. crashed out.  It was basically a free-for-all from there.

Overall, my thoughts are that there weren’t really a lot of stories covered on Sunday.  It was basically wrecking, Kyle Busch failing to win in a year and fuel mileage.  Even with those storylines, there was still a lot to cover.  I would have liked to see some of the guys who got great finishes get some airtime on NBCSN after the race, but that was tough to come by.

Eldora Dirt Derby

Wednesday night saw the Camping World Truck Series take center stage for their biggest race of the season.  The TV schedule for the action was reminiscent of endurance races, to be honest.  Regardless, viewers got a night’s worth of action.

On the topic of broadcast scheduling, yes, the exact scenario that FOX Sports noted ahead of time did happen. The United States Men’s National Team did win their group in the Gold Cup and did play on FOX Sports 1 when the race was scheduled to happen.  I feel like that was a pretty big game and drew a good number of viewers on FOX Sports 1.

Stewart Friesen had quite a night at Eldora, winning the pole and finishing second to Matt Crafton. (Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

If it wasn’t the first knockout round game, perhaps the game would have bumped The F Word with Gordon Ramsay off FOX and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Regardless, we ended up with the race on FOX Business Network.  Based on the ratings, it seems like race fans found the channel.  I’m happy with that.  Just wish it didn’t take three channels to air the dang thing.

Prior to the race weekend, FOX Sports took a little field trip up to my neck of the woods.  Specifically, they traveled to Malta, N.Y. for the purpose of interviewing Stewart Friesen for a feature in his natural environment.  That environment just so happened to be Albany-Saratoga Speedway, where Friesen was racing a Modified. Since I live 28 miles from the track and technically work for the chap that owns it, I recognized it immediately.  I was last there a little over a month ago for a rare Wednesday night show and talked to Friesen at his hauler.

At the time, Halmar Friesen Racing was in the middle of their brief hiatus and Friesen was racing dirt to pass the time (Note: The Halmar team has a fleet of Modifieds here in New York).  He admitted to me that he wasn’t having much fun in the Camping World Truck Series to that point.  With the recent uptick in performance, he probably feels a little better, even if he was bummed about missing out on the victory.

In the feature itself, Friesen talked about growing up in dirt racing (his family used to own Ransomville Speedway in Western New York) and how that has basically made him the man that he is today.  For those of us in New York, we’re already quite familiar with Friesen.  I didn’t particularly learn all that much, but for those of you who weren’t that familiar with it, this works as a nice primer to the man.

In the race itself, we got a good amount of action.  It can be rather difficult to cover everything given the variance in lines taken and strategies.  As a result, the broadcast booth was on its toes.

Kevin Harvick was in the broadcast booth as a guest analyst, and I’m not really sure why.  Harvick’s far from a dirt expert, although he has done some racing on the loose surfaces.  I didn’t think he brought that much to the broadcast, but he didn’t hurt it any.

What really helped the broadcast was Kenny Wallace’s input.  Yes, the excitable Missourian was back as a kinda-sorta pit reporter.  In practice, Wallace’s role was the epitome of what Jeff Hammond should have been doing when he was the “roving reporter” on FOX’s Cup broadcasts a couple of years ago after Dick Berggren retired.

Wallace spends much of his time racing UMP-style Modifieds (there’s a rather substantial difference between those and what Friesen typically races) throughout the Midwest.  He’s become very knowledgeable about dirt racing over the past decade and used that knowledge to the broadcast’s substantial benefit.  In all honesty, Wednesday night was probably Wallace’s best night ever as a broadcaster.

There were a couple of aspects of the broadcast that I wish could have been better (you know, other than the channel changes).  First off, there’s the whole issue of noticing stuff that’s right in front of you.  Case in point, Justin Shipley was running very well in the No. 80 Ford.  He was right in the hunt before being forced to retire from the race with engine issues.

The booth was surprised when Shipley went behind the wall, but I was not.  I noticed smoke out of the No. 80 on lap 80.  He completed 121 laps before retiring.  This wasn’t me stopping my DVR and looking in the background somewhere.  Shipley’s truck was fighting for a top five spot…and smoking.  It was right front and center, and apparently no one noticed.

To be fair, engine issues were at the forefront for much of the race because of the track watering that resulted in nearly everyone (with the exception of Friesen) having their trucks blasted with dirt and mud.  That was just plain crazy, like the track wasn’t bedded in enough for the race.

Also, I felt that it should have been made clear quite a bit earlier that there was going to be a competition caution.  The first I heard about it was on lap 6 of the race.  By that time, the yellow would have been 14 laps away on a track with laps under 20 seconds.  That’s not right.

Christopher Bell being able to come back from his early crash was legitimately amazing and the booth thought so as well.  Bell thrashed his truck to get back up front and a flat tire prevented him from earning a well-deserved top five finish.

With all the wrecking and cautions, the race ended about 45 minutes later than scheduled.  As a result, viewers got a shortened amount of post-race content.  We got interviews with race winner Matt Crafton, Friesen and Bell before FOX Business Network left Eldora for Lou Dobbs Tonight.

Overall, Eldora didn’t disappoint.  It was a great night of racing with a very enthusiastic crowd and (incredibly so with Wallace) an enthusiastic on-air group.  I thought that FOX Sports did a pretty good job with the broadcast.  The on-track action was key and they did well covering it.  Wallace really brought the nuts and bolts of racing on dirt here and was truly a great help.

That’s all for this week.  Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series returns to Pocono Raceway.  The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will serve as teritary support.  Meanwhile, the XFINITY Series will make their second visit of the season to Iowa Speedway.  The Verizon IndyCar Series will be at Mid-Ohio for their annual visit.  Pirelli World Challenge will race on the undercard.

I will provide critiques of the Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  The Lilly Diabetes 250 will be covered in Wednesday’s edition of the Frontstretch Newsletter.  Given the special rules package and everything that happened therein, I believe that it deserves some extra time.

For the Critic’s Annex on Thursday, I’ll be covering FOX Sports 2’s broadcast of the Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park.  By that point, the broadcast with IMSA Radio commentary will be available on YouTube.  Compare and contrast time.

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. 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.

About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
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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3 comments

  1. You were far too kind about the coverage at Eldora. As small a track as that is, they missed almost every incident that brought out a caution. Instead we had to see the caution lights come on and not have a clue as to why. Then see a car sitting on the track with damage and not know why. Then a replay of what should have been shown live.

    The hyper focus with the front of the field is to blame for this. Plus, the commentators apparently can’t look out their window to call the race and instead have their faces buried in a tv monitor the whole race. This wasn’t Indy or Talladega. this was a tiny dirt track where you can see everything by simply looking out the window. Poor job in my opinion by the FOX crew and made for a frustrating night for this viewer.

  2. It really didn’t matter to me what network Junior signed with, but I confess a part of me was hoping it would be
    fox, and that at least one of the Waltrip’s would retire. No such luck.

  3. Lordy, I was wishing like I do when I purchase a lotto ticket, that I would win, win, win! Of course that never happens or will happen! I wished, wished, wished, the ego know as Booger would go away do his thang with house reno’s he said he was going to do, with the attention seeking new bride! It is not to be! GAWD, go away!