Martinsville is always likely to produce fireworks when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolls into town. Sunday’s First Data 500 was no exception to the rule.
First Data 500
Given the controversial nature of the incident between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin, we’re going to start right there. Most of you reading this column probably already know what happened, but we’ll just throw a clip of the wreck in here for good measure.
The NBCSN crew seemed to be pretty quick in stating that the crash was intentional. Rick Allen noted that Hamlin “…was into Elliott’s rear bumper 100 feet before the corner.” Doesn’t sound like much, per se, but that is one-eighth the length of the backstretch at Martinsville.
Dale Jarrett was quite clear that he felt Hamlin’s actions were over the line. Kyle Petty agreed, claiming that “you don’t jack him up three-quarters of the way down the backstretch.” Petty also stated that move is unacceptable in any form of racing.
There was only one Victory Lane interview Sunday night, but that was mainly because of the backstretch shenanigans. Elliott was quite displeased with Hamlin and wedged the Chesterfield native into the wall to show his anger. The two then got out of their cars and started arguing.
At the time the discussion started, NBCSN was actually showing a replay of the aforementioned shenanigans. They cut out of it to show the live argument. You could tell that the crowd was jacked up due to the possibility of fisticuffs. Had it gone down, I personally believe that it would have been desirable compared to the crews all being there to go at it as well.
The post-race interviews with each driver were really quite interesting. There was definitely a heel-and-face setup here. The NBCSN interviews with Elliott and Hamlin were aired on the jumbotron and the audio on the public address system. As a result, Hamlin got a chorus of boos while talking to Dave Burns. Meanwhile, Elliott got cheers during his interview with Kelli Stavast.
Of note, there was no reference during the broadcast to the bearded man who apparently wanted a piece of Hamlin after the race.
Honestly, I’m surprised that guy could even get out onto pit road after the race. With the recently increased post-race security that came out of Elliott’s team attempting to cheat with their duct tape spoiler extension, it’s difficult for media members with hard cards to get down there. People with hot passes, even those that are plastic as opposed to paper, aren’t supposed to cross the pit wall. This unidentified man must have been a sponsor or team guest of some kind. Regardless, he was not happy with Hamlin, referring to him as a “Dirty Dog.”
Also, yes, Rick Allen must apologize if someone cusses on live television. He admitted it on Twitter after the race to a fan who asked him about it. The move sounds like a network policy but I really don’t think it’s necessary. This is not an episode of 3-2-1 Contact. Sure, kids were watching the race. I watched events at Martinsville live on TV as far back as 1991. However, these broadcasts aren’t made for kids. We’re adults. We can handle “gutter language,” as one reader memorably described it to me in an email, every once in a while.
Oh, if you’re wondering why Hamlin’s not going to get fined like Dale Earnhardt Jr. did back in 2004, there’s a couple of reasons. One, the race wasn’t on over-the-air television like the EA Sports 500 at Talladega was back then. Two, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was emboldened as heck when it came to content because of the “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Anything objectionable was going to elicit a fine at that time. NASCAR effectively forced Earnhardt Jr. to cover NBC’s fine back then. Even if Hamlin had cussed on regular NBC Sunday, the likelihood of NBC getting fined for it would have been very low.
In the race itself, there was a heavy focus on the playoff contenders for much of the day. However, there was a lot of battling for much of the event as well. If you properly layered up for Sunday, you would have enjoyed that race immensely if you were there. Temperature-wise, it was similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona back in January, minus the 14 hours of rain (cold).
Viewers were treated to a very good amount of side-by-side racing which was very satisfying to watch. The outside groove played a big role for what seems like the first time since the track was repaved. The ability to have two-wide battles did affect the race quite a bit. A good chunk of the discussion early on was centered upon groove choice and whether the outside line could truly work.
Outside of wreck coverage, post-race was OK. The idea of holding off on key post-race interviews for 45 minutes or more still grinds the gears, though. Martin Truex Jr. finished second and still couldn’t get the time of day for over a half hour. Clint Bowyer didn’t get any airtime until NASCAR Victory Lap, which started at 8 p.m.
Finally, for most race fans, Sunday night was their first glimpse of Martinsville under the lights. The new LED lighting system at Martinsville is probably much better than the typical one for the immediate area. Remember, Martinsville Speedway is effectively in a residential neighborhood. There are houses a couple of hundred feet behind turn 1.
That said, it is a different experience watching a race under the LED lights. There’s not as much glare and not as much light reflection. It seemed very nice, but the overall picture seemed a little dull, as if the lighting isn’t quite as bright as NBCSN expected. Regardless, Clint Bowyer seemed to like it.
Overall, the broadcast seemed to be a little too focused on the title contenders. Yes, the events on Sunday did directly affect said playoffs, especially Hamlin’s move on Elliott. Despite the postseason focus, viewers still got a lot of good racing for position and likely would have enjoyed the on-track action.
Texas Roadhouse 200
On Saturday afternoon, the Camping World Truck Series made their 38th visit to Martinsville Speedway (crazy when you really think about it). The race was won by Noah Gragson, but there was a fair amount of action prior to that.
Pre-race coverage was just about average. Once again, there was lots of playoff focus. The downside of all that discussion is that the race is truly secondary to the championship. That is not really how motorsports work. But in this current NASCAR format, all that ultimately matters are the points.
In the race itself, John Hunter Nemechek once again had a terrible day. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire in qualifying, then crashed early after the brakes failed.
Unlike Sunday’s First Data 500, a race that was run with temperatures in the 40s, Saturday was more normal weather-wise. As a result, brakes were more important. Outside of the short period of time in which Kyle Busch had the perfect piece of paper covering a brake duct, brakes were covered more on Saturday than Sunday. That’s despite a very similar failure to Nemechek, one which took Carl Long out of the Cup race.
Nemechek’s crash occurred during an early commercial. However, since the crash occurred just before the commercial break would have ended, FOX Sports 1 made the decision not to cut out of it.
Saturday’s race also had a couple of young racers making their debut. Mason Diaz really turned some heads by qualifying in the top 10 and earning stage points. Qualifying up front earned Diaz some dap from Matt DiBenedetto.
Not sure who Mason Diaz is, but he's p3 in first round of truck qualifying in the 86 and he has my respect 👍
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) October 28, 2017
In the race, Diaz ran quite well and earned stage points for Brandonbilt Motorsports. However, a cut tire dropped him to a 23rd-place finish. The booth took notice of Diaz’s form and gave him quite a few compliments. That will go a long way to benefit his career. Remember, this series is one in which Greg Biffle was hired to drive for Jack Roush partially due to Benny Parsons vouching for his talent. Anything can happen. Don’t be shocked if you see more of Diaz next year.
Unlike Sunday’s antics, we never saw any kind of confrontation between the two drivers. Bell admitted that his truck just wasn’t quite up to snuff at the time and was pretty sure that the contact was not intentional. There was no on-track meeting between the two during the race because Bell was unable to get back up front after the spin. It was a rare instance in which the No. 4 team didn’t bring their “A” game to the track and Bell simply made the best of it.
Hermie Sadler competing in the First Data 500 meant that he was somewhat limited in what he could do prep-wise for the broadcast. As a result, FOX Sports brought Alan Cavanna back in order to bolster the roster. Cavanna once again did a very good job. Cavanna’s background in hard news (remember, he was a reporter for WSOC in Charlotte before joining NASCAR.com a couple of years back) admittedly does help here. It gives him the ability to come up with good questions on the fly, the toughest part of a pit reporter’s job. Of course, that’s if you exclude the multiple voices in your head at the same time.
Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the race ended less than ten minutes before coverage of Kansas State and Kansas college football began. Regardless, viewers got five post-race interviews and a check of the points before coverage ended. There was no reference to Gragson “praying to the porcelain god” after the race.
As compared to Sunday’s race, FOX Sports 1’s Saturday coverage was less playoff dependent. However, given the near universal playoff coverage on the Setup, newer viewers may have been at a loss as to what they were going to see. FOX Sports 1 did recover, though, doing a decent job showing a lot of the side-by-side action in-race. As compared to other races, viewers got a great idea of how drivers were progressing through the field. Regular readers of this column will note that progression has been a gripe of mine this season.
The actual on-track action was quite good with the outside line starting to play a role. It makes me confident that we’ll see some excellent racing at Martinsville in the coming years. Remember that prior to the repave, crews at Martinsville had to grind the concrete in the turns in order to promote side-by-side racing.
Knowing how much rubber was laid down with just practices and a 200-lap truck race does make one wonder what the First Data 500 would have been like had it not rained. It could have been a much different event, especially early on.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, all three of NASCAR’s national series will be at Texas Motor Speedway for three days (well, two nights and one day) of competition. Meanwhile, the FIA World Endurance Championship travels to Shanghai Circuit in China for their penultimate race of the year.
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