Since the middle of the last decade or so, Auto Club Speedway has not been regarded in the best of terms. It was the poster child of NASCAR’s expansion away from traditional markets, encapsulated by the track getting a second date in 2004 on Labor Day weekend as a result of a date and track swap (they got Rockingham’s fall date on Darlington’s weekend). The move was met with a drop in attendance at both races, which led to NASCAR cutting Auto Club Speedway back down to one race.
Before we get started, a tweet from a meteorologist started a firestorm in regards to INDYCAR coverage last week. It is no longer available as of this writing, but the tweet from meteorologist Jeff Cox of Macon, Ga.’s WGXA (a split ABC and FOX affiliate) indicated that ESPN (via ABC) notified their affiliates that 2018 will be the final year of INDYCAR coverage.
Both ESPN and INDYCAR apparently gave no comment statements in response last week. 2018 is the final year of ESPN’s deal with INDYCAR and the majority of the on-air staff for those broadcasts (including play-by-play commentator Allen Bestwick) were laid off last year. They’re working more or less as freelancers this season. INDYCAR has not announced their TV future for 2019 and beyond but are committed to stay on linear TV.
Last weekend, NASCAR returned to Fontana for their one and only appearance of the season at Auto Club Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. kicked some butt. We know that. FOX has to handle the butt kicking.
While a number of our readers do not care at all about pre-race shows, they do set up the race. What did viewers get from 90 minutes of pre-race coverage? Not a whole heck of a lot of coverage previewing the race. Everything seemed to be about Kevin Harvick going for four wins in a row. That is a great storyline, but it’s not the only one. Intensively focusing on that could screw you over if something were to go wrong.
As for Michael Waltrip, his ridiculousness continued on Sunday. He spent his “Grid Walk” hanging out with the Migos. His act (which the general public saw when he did Dancing with The Stars) got tired years ago. No offense, but I don’t want to watch Michael Waltrip failing at dabbing on a pre-race show. He can do that on his own time in the rented house that he apparently stayed in over the past couple of weeks. I want to be informed about potential storylines in the race, or to learn something about a driver or drivers in the field.
Also, my understanding is that the Migos are a bit outside the consciousness of a number of NASCAR fans. They’re a hip-hop act that has had three top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, including the number-one hit “Bad and Boujee” featuring Lil Uzi Vert from 2016. Here in Albany, they’re best known for performing at a concert back in 2015 at the Washington Avenue Armory where a riot occurred. There are lawsuits pending at the moment from the events of that night.
Speaking of “screwing yourself over,” guess what happened on lap 38? Narrative destroyed.
At the time this wreck started, the FOX booth was talking about home tracks of California natives. While it’s obvious that FOX had no idea that heck was about to go down (after all, you can’t really predict wrecks at a place like Auto Club Speedway), they were distracted when it happened. They inadvertedly hurt themselves.
Jeff Gordon was the first to notice the wreck while Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip were silent. It seemed like they were shocked.
With Harvick effectively out of the picture, the rest of the race seemed to be a near anti-climax. The crash eliminated what could have been a legitimate challenger to Truex. In the end, no one could run with Truex over the last 100 miles.
Yes, the restarts were wild, but all restarts at Auto Club Speedway are wild. The track’s 75 feet wide with plenty of room to roam. However, outside of those periods, FOX really didn’t do much to make the race seem exciting at all.
That could be one of many reasons why ratings are down. The race pulled a 2.4 overnight rating Sunday. Granted, Tiger Woods rumbling into contention at Bay Hill in Florida didn’t help, but it still looks bad knowing that next weekend is the first cable race of the season. Also, you could use the same argument to explain why the ratings in Phoenix were down since Tiger was playing there as well.
Final ratings should be released on Tuesday. When they’re out, we’ll add them to our TV ratings page, which has ratings for all three of NASCAR’s National series, plus the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Obviously, Tiger is a big draw for the PGA Tour and has always been. NASCAR doesn’t have that kind of a draw. The sanctioning body would actively discourage such a thing. One man cannot make a sport relevant or irrelevant in the public eye.
We’ve previously written that NASCAR appears to be hoping that Darrell Wallace Jr. could eventually become the Tiger of NASCAR. The likelihood of that occurring is not great. Nothing against Wallace, but it seems highly unlikely, especially at the speed in which Woods rose to prominence on the PGA Tour.
Innovation-wise, FOX unveiled a new camera shot in Fontana. Quickly dubbed the squirrel cam or rail cam, this was a Steadicam situated in what used to be a signaling space used by CART teams in the 1990s. Think of NBC’s Batcam, but lower to the ground and you have the right idea. Unlike Batcam, this setup was nowhere near as fast and seemed to go against the flow of traffic most of the time. As a result, it seemed to be a missed opportunity.
Actual on-track racing for position could be few and far between at times. When we did get battles, they were pretty decent. However, the track’s so wide that it almost doesn’t seem like people are actually racing each other. They’re just doing their own thing. That’s not FOX’s fault. That’s just the design of the track.
FOX did search around to find some racing at times, which was good to see. Long sequences of green flag racing at Auto Club Speedway tend to spread the field out, making actual racing for position hard to come by at times.
Post-race coverage was decent since the race ended relatively quickly. Viewers got a number of post-race interviews, in addition to a check of the points. One man that was missing from that group was Kyle Busch, who finished third.
Normally, finishing third means required post-race interviews for television and radio. It also used to mean a required press conference in the Deadline Room, but not anymore. That’s not a good change, by the way.
FOX indicated in their coverage that they “couldn’t catch up” with Busch for a post-race interview. Busch refuted that.
Another race-another moment in needing to defend non postrace interview. NASCAR parked me at the end of pit road for loose lugs. I then walked pit road the distance back to the turn into the garage and only MRN asked. TV was elsewhere. They had a shot, skipped it.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) March 18, 2018
Did Busch shirk off his responsibilities? It appears that he did not. As a result, it’s on FOX for not interviewing Busch. It’s unclear what FOX would have gotten out of him had they actually taken the time to talk to him. Regardless, you would never know for sure unless you got with Busch and asked him the Q’s.
In addition, Busch stated this as well.
What seriously needs to b determined is what’s the requirement post race. My suggestion is Top 5 required for TV interviews on pit road (this goes for TV too). TV can’t just skip a guy cause he’s not “a story” or not air the interview bc there wasn’t time to air it.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) March 19, 2018
This particular argument doesn’t really involve the fans (or TV), but Busch does have a point. After Chase Elliott’s crew pulled off the stupidity with the duct tape spoiler extension last fall, NASCAR made rule changes that made what were already the toughest post-race interviews in motorsports to get even tougher. NASCAR realistically needs to fix that so that the media can actually talk to people. It would also help if everyone weren’t in so much of a dang hurry to get home.
On Sunday, FOX really didn’t do a very good job at making the Auto Club 400 compelling in any way. It probably would have been exponentially easier to do that had Harvick not wrecked. This isn’t Chicken Little. The sky shouldn’t fall down just because Harvick made a boo-boo and wrecked himself.
FOX needs to venture outside of their comfort zone, get those stories and bring it to the viewers. It seems like they have to do more with less these days. Everyone has to do their part. That includes the Waltrips. Michael can’t just goof off all the time. Most of what he does on Cup broadcasts is waste time that could be used to do something more constructive. I don’t advocate for firings, but if you can’t be a benefit to the broadcast in your current role, then you need to make changes in order to make yourself productive.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series teams return to Martinsville for their first visit of the year. Finding action to show should not be a problem. In fact, FOX will likely have the opposite problem. Also, cool weather at best. As a result, it’s going to be slippery. The track will not take rubber.
Meanwhile, Formula One makes their return to the ESPN family of networks with the Grand Prix of Australia from Albert Park in Melbourne. The setup is somewhat similar to what we had with NBC Sports, but with differences. The most notable is that there is very limited pre-race coverage and very limited post-race coverage. Also, televised coverage of Practice No. 2 has been swapped for Saturday’s Practice No. 3. TV listings, as usual, can be found on the TV Schedule page.
We’ll provide critiques of the Cup and Truck races from Martinsville in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. This week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex will cover Joey Logano kicking butt in the Roseanne 300. Next week’s Annex will cover Formula One on ESPN 2.
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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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