NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Darlington Brings Booth Switching & The Ross Chastain Party

Throwback weekend is always an interesting time.  Old-school paint schemes reigned supreme at Darlington.  Old-school driver shirts were out in force.  In my friend Brien’s case, he has the fire suit that Ernie Irvan wore in the 1990 Daytona 500 and wore that to a meet-and-greet with Irvan.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t sit in the stands with that on, knowing that it was nearly 95 degrees outside.

That said, there was plenty of look like TV-wise in Darlington on Sunday.  Lots of movement going on.

Bojangles’ Southern 500

In recent years, NBC has employed a “Throwback booth” for part of the race.  Ken Squier and the father-and-son team Ned and Dale Jarrett would call a portion of the race.  Generally, this portion of the race broadcast was well-received by fans.  Even though Squier hasn’t regularly called a Cup race since 1997, he was still relatively strong in the booth.  He made the race broadcast seem a little more exciting.

That was not in play on Sunday.  Perhaps there were complaints about him referring to Daniel Suárez as “The Mexican” at one point during the broadcast last year.  I’m not really sure if that played any role at all.  Nothing public was ever said about that by NBC Sports.

Instead, NBCSN went with two booths.  The only quantity represented by both booths was Dale Earnhardt Jr.  One setup saw Steve Letarte serve as the play-by-play commentator, while Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton (from lap 18 on) served as analysts.  The middle portion of the race saw Earnhardt Jr. in a booth with Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty.  This setup was advertised as having a Petty, Earnhardt and Jarrett together.  That’s fine, but there was a lot of booth advertising prior to the race.

The Letarte-led booth was closer to a regular broadcast booth.  You tended to get a decent amount of commentary that would help viewers understand what was going on.  Earnhardt Jr. and Burton provided a good amount of analysis in a race that set Modern Era records for a lack of lead changes at Darlington.

With the “Sons of Legends” booth, you had three analysts up there.  There was a pretty significant decrease in the overall flow of the broadcast.  The production itself really wasn’t any different.  It’s just that none of the three analysts really have the skills to do play-by-play on a race broadcast and it shows.  Jarrett is probably the best of them, but that’s because he has the most booth experience.

Also, putting Earnhardt Jr., Jarrett and Petty together results in three very different styles.  While he obviously enjoys what he does, Jarrett is far from hyperactive.  He’s a methodical commentator, content to get his anecdotes in and get out.  Earnhardt Jr. is exuberant, sometimes to a fault.  Also, the dudes at NBC Sports really like him doing fee plugs.  It’s almost like they’re punishing him for some unseen deeds.  Petty is the outspoken one.  They don’t really mesh all that well and that probably made the Sons of Legends booth less enjoyable than it could have been.

As you saw, Sunday night’s race got quite spread out.  There hasn’t been a Southern 500 in the last 50 years with fewer lead changes than we had Sunday night.  Early on in the race, there was a good amount of side-by-side action that NBCSN took great pains to show viewers.  Later on, the pit strategy took precedence over competition for position in the Final Stage.

Naturally, for a race at Darlington, tire wear was the name of the game.  You hear about it a bunch, but you rarely see it.  At the end of Stage No. 2, NBCSN showed one of the tires off of Kevin Harvick’s Busch Ford.  The thing was chewed up, not because of any real failure, but just because it was worn out.  It was a very different look from the unwound tires that we’ve seen over the past few years since Goodyear introduced the DualZone technology.

A discussion point on the broadcast Sunday night was the rarity of cutting lapped drivers a break these days as compared to past years.  Kyle Larson raced Austin Dillon hard at the end of the first two stages Sunday night in an attempt to put him a lap down.  The second time was a combination of simple revenge for Dillon cutting him off with a lap to go in Stage No. 1 and a desire to keep Martin Truex Jr. a lap down.

Contrast that with the last five or so years that racing back to the caution was legal (1998-Sep. 2003).  Back then in the pre-Lucky Dog days, it was relatively common for the leader to back off prior to the line and let drivers back onto the lead lap.  That’s how you ended up with 25 cars finishing on the lead lap in the 2001 Food City 500 at Bristol at a time where 10 on the lead lap at Bristol was more typical.

Due to the pre-race lightning issues, the race ended roughly 40 minutes behind schedule.  Despite that, NBCSN offered the full amount of post-race coverage that they had originally planned to.

On the post-race show, there were a number of driver interviews, including one too many with Brad Keselowski (ongoing thing) and post-race analysis.  I don’t know why, but I was transfixed on the one guy behind the NASCAR America desk in the vintage 1990 Michael Waltrip pit crew shirt (the Country Time/Maxwell House one).

Sunday night was a somewhat convoluted night.  The race was not necessarily the most competitive, but that was mainly because Larson was kicking so much butt for most of the night.  The race wasn’t really properly previewed beforehand due to the lightning issues.  I knew about the lightning issues from Twitter before the broadcast even started (19 minutes late, due to the Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Portland running long).  Because of that lightning, viewers probably weren’t properly versed in the main storylines of the day.  Also, we know that there was lightning in the area, but it never rained at the track.  Viewers never saw so much as a look at the radar.

Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200

Saturday afternoon saw the XFINITY Series teams broil themselves at Darlington.  Coming out of that race, there is exactly one major storyline.

That is the conflict on-track between Harvick and Ross Chastain.  Chastain, making his debut for Chip Ganassi Racing, dominated much of the race.  The Florida native won the first two stages and led 90 laps on the afternoon.  Then, he came upon lapped traffic with under 40 laps to go.

First off, why did NASCAR use the MRN Radio call of the crash?  At the time of the incident, NBCSN was in a NonStop commercial break.  Rats.  That said, they did cut out of it early to cover the crash.

The general opinion was that Chastain wasn’t going to back down.  He was in position to win his first race and possibly had the best car out there.  He had deftly handed Harvick and Brad Keselowski up to that point.  Seven laps before the crash, Keselowski had briefly taken the lead away.  Chastain crossed Keselowski over and got it back.

Chad Finchum was clearly being used here by Harvick as a pick.  The thought was that Chastain would back off and let Harvick by.  With 35 laps to go in the race?  I doubt that.

A few laps after the restart, Dave Burns caught up with Harvick.  He didn’t mince words, referring to Chastain as “inexperienced,” claimed he made a bad move and that he won’t get to drive good cars very often going forward.

The general opinion is that Harvick was frustrated at the time.  Makes sense.  He just crashed.  To say Chastain’s inexperienced would be a misnomer.  Saturday was Chastain’s 205th start in NASCAR’s National Series (Cup, XFINITY and the Trucks).  How far along was Harvick in his career when he got to that many starts?  Late in the 2002 season.  His first full year in the No. 29 for Richard Childress Racing in Cup.  He ultimately didn’t drive in all 36 races that year because he got parked for Martinsville in the Spring because he intentionally spun out Coy Gibbs in the Truck race.

No one was doubting Harvick’s experience at that time.  Then again, he had been privileged with much better equipment than Chastain has to this point.  Harvick was already a champion in the then-Busch Series and finished in the top 10 in Cup points in 2001 despite missing the Daytona 500.  Problem is, Harvick had the reputation of being a bit of a hot head.  In the wake of the whole mess Saturday, fans on Twitter were referencing his confrontation with Greg Biffle at Bristol in 2002.  That was just one example of his behavior at the time.

Did Chastain hurt his future chances for good rides Saturday?  If his sponsor is any indication, no.

Larson, in response to the Gluckmeister, noted that Chastain can be analyzed better as a driver now.

https://twitter.com/KyleLarsonRacin/status/1036016475981717506

Effectively, this is the same argument that Kenny Wallace would give if you asked him.  Ask him which win he cherishes most in NASCAR and he’ll tell you that it was the 1994 Autolite 250 at Richmond when he beat Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Terry Labonte.

In Chastain’s case, he has a reputation of someone who races you hard, all the time.  For potential fans, that’s admirable.  For fellow drivers, it rubs them the wrong way.  Case in point.  Chastain and Joey Gase had their post-race confrontation a couple of weeks ago at Mid-Ohio.

Gase’s main issue here is the fact that Chastain never gives him a break.  On that day, Chastain got overly aggressive and that resulted in a late crash for Gase.  An unnecessary one as well.

When Chastain made his Cup debut last year at Dover, there were plenty of complaints about his driving style and aggressiveness.  The result: A 20th-place finish that was the team’s best unrestricted finish of the season.

Outside of those shenanigans, there was great racing out there.  Had the wreck not happened, you would have had a very enjoyable three-way duel to the finish.  Very much worth the money.  Ultimately, this race was quite a bit more competitive than the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Beyond the top three, you saw a fair amount of racing for position, but not really all that much.  What we have here is a coming out party for Chastain.  We’re talking about a man that got into racing as a kid (after he became too slow for soccer) to keep himself out of trouble in rural South Florida.  Let’s face it.  The rest of the fan base is discovering what I discovered when he made his debut in the Trucks back in 2011.

The fact that so few fans knew about Chastain to this point shows an issue with the focus of race coverage to a certain degree.  Here at Frontstretch, we pride ourselves at bringing you as many stories as we can.  For what it’s worth, Chastain has always been very open to promoting himself and doing interviews.  I wrote a feature on him based on a 29-minute interview in 2014.  At the time, he was quite gracious.  He’s hustling to get himself out there, but it’s tough.  Things just got a little easier for him.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the race ran up against the news.  Viewers got interviews with the top finishers and Chastain’s side of the story.  Kligerman had good questions for Chastain, but Chastain chose a measured response.  He did not apportion blame to Harvick at all.

That’s all for this week.  Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season comes to an end at Indianapolis.  The XFINITY Series will be on-board as the primary support.  A few miles away, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will be at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, while IMSA will be at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.  TV Listings are in the Television tab.

We will provide critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races from Indianapolis in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  For the Critic’s Annex, we’ll take a look at Monday’s General Tire Grabber 100 for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards from the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in Illinois.

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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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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Enough already with the hype about Chastain!! It practically ruined the broadcast and further shows bow many are out of touch with racing reality. Chastain has been around for a while now. It is not uncommon for him to be in some kind of avoidable incident every few races – at least those caught on camera anyway. Some guys have bad luck, some are just knuckleheads. Chastain is a knucklehead and he took a lot of shine off his performance in the 42 car by turning Harvick on purpose. The prior contact between the two was just racing that was affected by Chastains inexperience. Harvick and Keselowski would not have wrecked under the same circumstances. I am not a fan of Harvick personally (until he publicly apologizes to Johnson for the chest bump) but he is a very capable driver and an intelligent one – with a touch of temper. He didn’t intend to wreck Chastain or himself. He couldn’t get lower on the track. So I think Harvick needs to dump him and let bim reconsider door driving in the turns of a speedway.

    • Avatar

      Judging by the way Harvick “raced” Larson on Sunday there wouldn’t have been the contact between between him and Ross.

  2. Avatar

    One thing we learned about Ross Chastain on Saturday was that he has more class than a certain one time Cup champion.

  3. Avatar

    Sunday’s race broadcast was one of the best since Mike Joy handed over the reins half way through the season. All Rick Allen does is repeat what someone else said. Leave him on the pit box…or the garage, or at home.

    • Avatar

      “All Rick Allen does is repeat what someone else said. Leave him on the pit box…or the garage, or at home.”

      I vote for leaving him at home!

  4. Avatar

    If you watched Sky Sports presentation of Monza (doesnt matter if you’re an F1 fan or not) and then watched what you saw from Darlington you’d think that only one of the two was done by professionals.

  5. Avatar

    NBCsn does a terrible job on this Throwback Southern 500. No short interviews with the oldtimers. NBCsn coudn’t get them all together for the picture. I never did see Cale. DW, MW, Awesome Bill, Junior Johnson or David Pearson. The only good thing is not having those old guys doing a broadcast stint. Steve Letarte never shuts up. This weekend could be the best weekend in NASCAR if done right.

  6. Avatar

    Wilson knows what’s up. Other people have skewed views of what happened because of their irrational hatred for Harvick. Let’s call it Harvick Derangement Symptoms. The young watermelon head needs to learn self discipline . Harvick was faster near the end and the dummy would either win or crash. Very irrational yet egged on by conflict hungry “fans”.