The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series moved over to NBC Sports this past weekend for the rest of the 2018 season. With that move comes some changes in production coverage, philosophy and talent. But the tweak everyone cares about, more than any other this decade is the addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the booth in addition to Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte.
NBC Sports has indicated they will have a number of different booth configurations during the season. We’ll see how they all work out.
Before we get going, FOX Sports announced last week that Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell will join FOX Sports’ broadcast of the Eldora Dirt Derby on July 19. Larson will be in the broadcast booth while Bell will be helping out in the pits. That should truly be interesting as neither have much, if any TV experience. Then again, they each have more dirt racing knowledge than everyone at FOX Sports with the exception of Kenny Wallace combined.
Regardless, the staffing move is pretty intriguing. We’ll have to see how Bell and Larson do.
There were plenty of interesting storylines with NBCSN’s first MENCS broadcast this season, so we’ll jump right in.
The big story of the weekend was Dale Earnhardt Jr. on NBCSN. The network gave plenty of time to the 43-year-old driver-turned-analyst in the broadcast booth, as expected.
We’ll go right to the end of the race. As you know by now, all heck went down on the final lap. Earnhardt Jr. exclaimed “Slide job!” twice when Kyle Larson pulled his move on Kyle Busch. Then, you had Busch get into the back of Larson in Turn 3. Knowing Busch, the move was coming a mile away.
First off, in regards to Earnhardt Jr.’s exclamation, it honestly sounded like something Darrell Waltrip would say. That’s not necessarily the best comparison. Also of note, there have been discussions about actually trying to make merchandise based on that call. They ultimately decided against it but that seems a little overboard for race one.
Outside of the end of the race, there was still plenty of Earnhardt Jr. content to digest. First, there was “Dale Tales,” where Earnhardt Jr. sat down with Nate Ryan to talk about his only win at Chicagoland Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. discussed his rather tough 2005 (he went from his best season in Cup to 19th in points) and the sole win of a trying year.
82 minutes into the show, Earnhardt Jr. joined Burton, Letarte and Krista Voda at the NBC stage to talk about his transition to the booth. For Sunday’s race, NBCSN used the split booth setup referred to last year as NASCAR Smarts. This setup has Allen and Burton in one booth while Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte were in the other.
Earnhardt Jr. is still very fresh out of the car, so he’s full of firsthand knowledge. Early on, he had an excellent explanation of the bumps drivers were facing while NBCSN was airing footage from Hamlin’s helmet cam.
For years, the contrast between a FOX broadcast and NBC has been in the commentary. An NBC broadcast, even with Allen on play-by-play, tends to come off as a bit more professional. Having Earnhardt Jr. in the booth can swing the broadcast on the emotion scale a little bit but it still comes off as more polished. So far, it seems like he’s enjoying himself and that’s a major plus.
Considering Earnhardt Jr. had a grand total of one race in the booth under his belt prior to this past weekend, he did a good job. It’s clear that all of the practice broadcasts NBC did leading up to Chicagoland paid dividends. I knew going in that Earnhardt has an expressive personality. I just didn’t know what a “Broadcaster Dale” would sound like. When he did the one NASCAR XFINITY Series race on FOX Sports 1 last year, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver of the last decade-plus didn’t sound like a broadcaster. He sounded like himself. He knew, organically the need to make himself heard and was more expressive. That said, he wasn’t cutting people and being rude, either.
It’s a great start.
Let’s focus on some other areas of the NBC broadcast. Their pre-race show included some key features, in-depth reporting we hadn’t seen from NASCAR on FOX. Among them: Kyle Petty conducted a one-on-one interview with Chase Elliott. Topics here included the pressure of racing under the Elliott name and the incident with Hamlin last year at Martinsville.
The takeaway here is that Elliott really is quite similar to his father Bill in on-track demeanor. More than likely, you’re not going to rattle the man. He’s going to go about things his own way. That’s perfectly fine. The Martinsville instance is likely the first time Elliott got that “big pop” in popularity NASCAR has been craving for years.
During the two-hour NASCAR America pre-pre-race show, a feature on Naval Lieutenant/NASCAR K&N Pro Series West/ARCA driver Jesse Iwuji was aired. Here, Iwuji talks about how his Naval Reserve responsibilities can clash with racing as well as how he got involved with the sport. It was an educational piece for me since I’ve watched Iwuji race over the past couple of years and knew about his military background, but not so much about how he got into NASCAR.
By anyone’s standards, Iwuji’s introduction to motorsports was relatively unusual and he’s effectively been put in the position of learning to race on the fly. That said, Iwuji’s slowly improving. We’re talking about a great man here but not so great behind the wheel. That’s still a work in progress.
During the race, NBCSN used two different setups for the running order. The primary one was the setup that has been used since 2016 for both NASCAR and INDYCAR races. However, a vertical pylon was used as well. This setup was clearly inspired by what FOX Sports has been doing with their broadcasts this year. As compared to FOX’s setup, this one was smaller, a little darker and not quite as functional.
It seems like NBC Sports wants to make this tweak into their regular toolbar graphic and decided to spend the weekend beta testing it. It’s somewhat similar to what ABC did in 1998 when they ditched the pylon they and ESPN were using for NASCAR broadcasts to install a precursor to the types of full-field rundowns we use today.
Racing wise, NBC did a pretty good job showing on-track competition. It was not necessarily the most action-packed race out there but you wouldn’t have known that based on the broadcast. If anything, this race was heavy on action at the end. Overall, NBCSN’s broadcast seemed to keep viewers occupied better than FOX has this year. I was more engaged.
There was one quibble I have with the end of the race, although there’s nothing the network could have really done. In winner Kyle Busch’s interview with Rutledge Wood, he claimed, “If you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t watch.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 3, 2018
Definitely not the best choice of words in this situation. I don’t believe that Busch was actively trying to discourage people from watching races, but it just didn’t come off well.
On the production side, NBCSN covered the duel in much the same fashion that they covered the Denny Hamlin–Chase Elliott incident in Martinsville. It was comprehensive, fair to both sides and no stone wasd left unturned. Larson didn’t get anywhere near as much of a big pop from the crowd as Elliott did, though.
So far, NBCSN’s coverage has been warmly received and also was rewarded with a year-to-year ratings increase. However, everyone must be realistic. This race kicked off the NASCAR playoffs last year and aired directly against Week No. 2 of the NFL. Chicagoland has also historically been one of the lowest-rated races of the year for the past couple of seasons. While any improvement these days is great, the real tests Nielsen-wise are coming up next with Daytona and Kentucky (assuming that it doesn’t rain).
Friday night (June 29) saw NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series travel to Chicagoland Speedway for 225 miles of action. Likely the most memorable moment of the race was the finish. John Hunter Nemechek slowed in Turn 1 on the final lap, allowing Brett Moffitt to get past for a crucial win.
At the time, FOX Sports 1 took Nemechek’s word for it on the radio (and during his post-race interview) that the engine blew on his truck. As far as Nemechek was concerned, that was the truth. It was only later he discovered that it was not the truth. As a result, there was nothing really objectionable about what FOX Sports 1 did here.
In Moffitt’s case, there was a lot of attention to the plight of Hattori Racing Enterprises and their never-ending sponsorship search. The team only made it to Joliet because of Fr8Auctions signing on to sponsor the team on Tuesday.
Admittedly, this sponsor is almost tailormade for Moffitt. Back in 2015, I had the opportunity to interview Moffitt at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At the time, he was driving Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 in Cup. Fr8Auctions debuted that weekend as his sponsor. The story behind how the sponsorship came to be sounded familiar to me.
“They sort of came to us,” Moffitt told me back in 2015 while wearing a Fr8Auctions T-Shirt. “From what I heard, they were really, really excited about being on the race car. They knew more about my career than I do.”
Effectively, Fr8Auctions did the same thing last week. I suppose it’s one of those situations where “you never forget your first.” For Fr8Auctions, Moffitt was their first driver and they want to stick with him.
Admittedly, the constant reminders of Moffitt’s plight did get annoying after awhile. We know what’s going on; no need to be reminded every 10 minutes. Apparently, they have three unsponsored races left (Eldora, Bristol and Homestead). Eldora’s a little more imperative because it’s the next race on the schedule. Bristol should be easier to sell since the race is going to be on broadcast television in primetime.
Bottom line, snagging three wins in 11 races should show potential advertisers that if you put your name on Moffitt’s truck, you’re with a winning organization.
Racing-wise, there was a good amount of on-track action Friday night and FOX Sports 1 did a decent job in bringing that to viewers. Much of the race beyond stage one featured duels at the front between Moffitt and Nemechek, in addition to other battles. It was a great race to watch.
Also, the booth commentators were back at the track this week. That was crucial for all the reasons we’ve discussed over the past couple of weeks. There is simply no substitute for being there, noticing things that viewers cannot see and explaining those nuances to them. In addition, there’s the all-important talking to not-so-secret sources in the garage to get that ever-important background information.
The race ran a little bit long Friday night, but FOX Sports 1 had already built a post-race show into the schedule, so all was good. Viewers got six driver interviews, plus the winning crew chief (Scott Zipadelli). There was also a check of the points before FOX Sports 1 left Joliet for World Cup coverage.
Overall, Friday night was a very enjoyable race to watch. There was lots of action to be had and the booth was more on their game now that they were back on-site. I do worry about the remaining five races that will be produced remotely, though.
That’s all for this week. This weekend is another busy week with seven major series in action. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series teams will be in Daytona for their third restrictor plate race of the year. Meanwhile, the Verizon IndyCar Series and ARCA will be at Iowa Speedway. IMSA will be at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park while Formula 1 will be at Silverstone in England.
We’ll have critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races from Daytona in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. Thursday’s edition of the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter will cover Saturday’s Overton’s 300 for the XFINITY Series.
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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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