ONE: Same Dale. New View
In the last couple weeks, we’ve seen a deluge of promos for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the start of his full-time NASCAR on NBC broadcasting career.
Junior has had a hectic time since hanging up his driving gloves after the last race of the 2017 season, with broadcasting duties at the Super Bowl, the 2018 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the Stanley Cup Finals and, much more importantly, becoming a father for the first time with the birth of his daughter Isla Rose. The ubiquitous NBC previews, sign off with “Same Dale. New View” which is a good line, I’ll give them that. But the real question here, though, is how exactly the four-man booth will function with Earnhardt joining play-by-play man Rick Allen and the color commentary duo Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s former crew chief. It’s a point he addressed, naturally, on Twitter:
Everyone’s in the booth. I’ll be talking when the others aren’t talking. Heck I may talk even when they are talking. Except when Rick talks. No one talks when Rick talks. https://t.co/2xzs7nyrjo
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) June 4, 2018
How this will all play out once the green flag drops at Chicagoland Speedway on July 1st remains to be seen but I’m betting on Earnhardt being a success. Sure, there might be some tough moments early on, but in the long run, I’m guessing he adapts to his new job as smoothly as he used to drink a Victory Lane Budweiser. There’s no question Earnhardt has been sorely missed on track this season. Winner of the Most Popular Driver award, usually by a landslide, for 15 straight years (2003-2017),
Earnhardt will start his new career with a sizeable bank goodwill and that will help smooth out any rough edges as he makes the transition. But like I say, my bet is that he will be a natural in the booth and his success will only be good for a sport that let’s face it needs good news. I wish him nothing but the best.
TWO: The Off Week
Next up, it’s a rare early Summer off-week for the Cup Series before we head west to undulating hills of Northern California’s beautiful wine country, Sonoma Raceway and the start of a nine-race streak. This latest stretch of racing has a wide mix of tracks including the two road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen International, the second races of the season at both Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the sole trip of the year to to the flat short track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the mile-and-a-half circuits of Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway plus the return the return to Daytona International Superspeedway and who could forget the Bristol Night Race.
At least three of the races (the two road courses and Daytona) give us a chance at an unexpected victor and with only six winners in 15 races so far, there’s a fantastic shot for someone we might not have expected to make the Chase. After this spell of nine races, it’s the final off week of the season before a 12-race run to the finish and the crowning of the 2018 champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
THREE: One more week of FOX
When we fire up engines in the Cup Series a week from Sunday, we’ll have just one race remaining on the Fox Sports slate for 2018 before we see the broadcasting baton passed to NBC and its more measured, less bombastic style of telling the race day story. Part of me still misses the six-race summer stretch that TNT used to have but those days are long gone, I realize. Once again, Fox has seen a continued slump in TV ratings this first half of the 2018 season and it’s a story perhaps best illustrated by a May 2 column in Forbes Business magazine entitled: “NASCAR Fans Are Racing Away From The Sport Even Faster.”
The writer makes the point that with the rapid speed NASCAR is hemorrhaging viewing fans – something in the region of 30 percent in the last two years alone – there won’t be anyone left watching by the time the TV deals expire in 2024. And even if that’s hyperbole, it’s still a hugely worrying problem for the execs at FOX. Where this one will end we don’t yet know but I can’t help but feel it will get worse before it gets better.
FOUR: IndyCar Title Chase
Meanwhile on the open wheel side of the fence, a fascinating title battle is shaping up as we head into the home stretch in the 2018 IndyCar Series championship. With nine races in the books and eight still to run, wily New Zealand born veteran Scott Dixon holds a 23-point advantage in the standings, following two wins in three races including victory in Saturday night’s compelling race at lightning fast Texas Motor Speedway. Alexander Rossi (one win) sits second in the standings with Indy 500 winner Will Power (two wins) in third, 36 points behind the leader. Ryan Hunter-Reay (one win) is fourth (-49 points) while 2017 champion Josef Newgarden (two wins) is in fifth place, 68 markers in arrears.
While Dixon is in the midway pole position, any one of these five drivers can make a charge for the title. One driver you would have expected to be in contention is Simon Pagenaud (eighth, -128 points) who finished second at TMS, easily his best result of the season.
“This year’s been a tough start. There were a lot of unknowns,” Pagenaud said of his season so far. “Got taken out a few times, which hasn’t happened in the past. It’s not all unknown, not easy to understand.”
But despite his huge points disparity, Pagenaud isn’t giving up.
“From then on, luck always turns around. It goes by cycle. Now it’s about executing. Myself, everybody on the team, really executed well today. It’s a good example of what we need to do every weekend.”
The veteran Frenchman’s struggles notwithstanding, it looks like we’re in for a compelling IndyCar championship battle, one that will start up again on June 24 at Road America.
FIVE: And Finally
Last week I wrote about the bizarre pace car wreck in the IndyCar race at Belle Isle Park, Detroit and we didn’t have to wait long for the next curious incident. This time round it occurred in the seventh race of the 2018 Formula One schedule at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. This time round, model Winnie Harlow, a good friend of the current champion Lewis Hamilton, waved the checkered flag on lap 69 of the scheduled 70-lap race. Harlow was quick to take to Instagram noting she just did what she was told in waving the checkers.
Fortunately, the flag snafu had no impact on what was a dominant third win of the season for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
“Tell them not to wave the checkered flag when it’s not done yet,” was Vettel’s droll response on the team radio when he realized what had happened.
You can’t make this stuff — you really can’t.