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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Las Vegas Brings NASCAR Heat, Wrecks and Tough Work For NBCSN

The playoffs are now underway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  Admittedly, these ten races are my least favorite time of the year, TV-wise.  Most of the good things that have been tried during the season are typically dispatched in favor of a complete focus on the playoffs.  I believe this intense focus hurts the sport.  With NBCSN this weekend, Las Vegas was not really an exception to the rule.

South Point 400

I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t expecting a wreckfest on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 16) in Las Vegas when this new race was announced.  I did know when they announced the race date (and the fact it would be a day race) that it was probably going to be 100 degrees or more.  Every bit of that heat was there and it showed.

A number of fans bought tickets for the race, but never went because it was too hot.  Others hung out in the Neon Garage and never ventured into the stands.  As a result, the place looked emptier than it should have been.  Due to the sparse crowd, this scheduling decision will go down along with Auto Club Speedway Labor Day weekend for me as one of the dumber choices that NASCAR has made.  It’s as if no one at NASCAR sat down and talked with anyone that lives in Las Vegas, including the people that work at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and asked them, “What do you do outside this time of year?”

With the three-hour time difference, it was 10:30 a.m. local time when NBCSN came on air with NASCAR America.  It was already in the 90s by then.  The heat was the big topic of discussion, as it should have been since it was quite toasty.  Stuff started shutting down due to the weather, including Parker Kligerman’s iPad that he uses for notes.  Yes, that can happen with Apple equipment. That’s why you need a paper backup.  I fully admit to bringing a five-subject notebook to Lebanon Valley when I cover races there to take notes.  If I had Kligerman’s job, I’d do the same.

NBCSN stuck a digital thermometer in AJ Allmendinger’s car.  It displayed up to 158 degrees early on in the race.  Then, it apparently broke as well.  At least, I think it did.

As you all know, Las Vegas is home to the Busches.  Not the bushes in NBC’s NASCAR commercial from 2015, but Kurt and Kyle Busch.  Prior to the race, Kyle Busch took Kelli Stavast on a driving tour of the area where he grew up.  It was a rare chance to see where he came from.

Kurt and Kyle had a somewhat similar upbringing to Jimmie Johnson.  They weren’t living in a trailer park or anything like that, but they definitely weren’t rich.  Kyle showed off his childhood home and his grandmother’s home, where he spent the majority of his time.  They even drove into the driveway (private property that no longer belongs to the Busch family, mind you) to show where his first shop was when he drove Legends cars.

While Kyle Busch today comes off as a bit of a wrestling heel at times, he wasn’t really given anything growing up either.  He wasn’t a rich kid, earning opportunities as his family couldn’t do much beyond the beginner levels.  This feature was a good one, showcasing how Kyle is proud of this upbringing.

Aside from the heat, there were two main stories on Sunday.  One was the playoffs.  Let’s just say that there was plenty of playoff coverage.  With 16 drivers currently going for it, NBCSN didn’t seem to have much of an inkling to talk about anyone else (unless they wrecked) with the exception of Jamie McMurray.  That was because McMurray was best in class.

Everyone else got the minimum of coverage.  That really bites because it’s hard to sell yourself if no one ever sees you.  That goes doubly so for Briar Starr, who won Natural Light’s résumé contest and got his background, face and cell phone number plastered on Chris Buescher’s No. 37.  While yes, Rutledge Wood talked a little about it before the race on NASCAR America Sunday, you barely saw Buescher and the car on the broadcast all day.  For full disclosure purposes, I must note that Starr previously auditioned to write for us here at Frontstretch long before Natural Light’s contest came along.

The other big story concerned tires.  There were a number of failures on Sunday, the most notable of which took Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones out of the race.

Harvick pulled no punches, claiming that it was Russian Roulette every time he changed Goodyears.  In the process, he derided the rubber, basically stating that it was garbage.

Obviously, those are harsh words.  NBCSN covered the failures as they occurred.  They did show viewers blistered tires on at least one occasion.  However, there was a piece of the story missing.  There seemed to be enough failures it would have been worth the time to get someone from Goodyear on the broadcast to talk about what they had found.  That never happened.  Regardless, there should be some kind of tire test at Las Vegas next year to sort this mess out.  No one needs a buttload of tire failures in 100-degree heat.

Later in the race, the crashes started coming left and right.  The schedule for the day was already tight with the broadcast of the Verizon IndyCar Series finale from Sonoma Raceway scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.  Had the race run at normal speed, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem.  The late wrecks made the race run long.

NBC Sports had next to no communication about what their backup plan was.  They ultimately made the last-second decision to start the broadcast on CNBC.  Thing is, they didn’t even post on Twitter about it until after 6:30 p.m.  On their end, INDYCAR made no attempt at all to delay the start of their race.  It started right on time.

NBCSN made the decision to cut to Sonoma during the red flag following the crash involving Matt DiBenedetto, Michael McDowell, David Ragan and Kurt Busch.  Unfortunately, they cut over 15 seconds too late.  As a result, they missed the crucial contact between Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti that effectively ended any chance of Scott Dixon being caught.

This miss was a travesty for INDYCAR fans and something that could have easily been avoided.  Yes, it was a late start for the race, but darkness was not even close to an issue at Sonoma.  Camping World Truck Series races at Sonoma in the 1990s were run at a similar time of day, including the wacky 1997 race.  The INDYCAR start could have been pushed back a little bit to allow the Cup race to end.

The checkered flag in Las Vegas fell roughly 45 minutes behind schedule.  As a result, NBCSN had to scamper to finish up.  Literally all that aired on NBCSN was the Victory Lane interview with Brad Keselowski (after his passé donuts) and a points check before leaving for Sonoma.  At NBCSports.com, eight more post-race interviews (all with playoff drivers) were posted after the race.

Overall, Sunday was not necessarily the best day for NBCSN.  They completely botched the scheduling to begin with, then gave no notice to race fans they were going to start the INDYCAR broadcast (which was already going to air with effectively no pre-race coverage) on CNBC after the Cup race ran long.  They should have had those contingency plans ready to share much earlier.

The race itself was quite competitive.  It was by no means a runaway.  Admittedly, the wrecking put more cars on the lead lap than there would have been otherwise, but there was a decent amount of racing to be had.  The hot weather did widen out the track, even though it was just too hot for fans.

Viewers at home got to see a decent amount of that on-track action, but seemingly only if it involved playoff drivers.  Even the Through the Field segment for the network was going to be playoff only.  It says a lot that they skipped McMurray even though he was running fifth at the time.  Then, he blew his tire and wrecked directly in front of Chase Elliott.

There were some technical issues as well.  The heat issues are understandable.  Digital thermometers like the one in Allmendinger’s car aren’t necessarily designed to deal with near 160-degree temperatures for three hours.  However, there was a pretty bad NASCAR NonStop break on Lap 66 that showed the Sonoma grid and had INDYCAR NonStop on it for the whole time.

Yeah, that’s pretty bad.  I’d like to know what happened there.  Could be as simple as hitting the wrong button.  Since Sunday was the last INDYCAR race of the year, it won’t be repeated.  Regardless, this mistake is a simple reminder to check your work so you don’t look bad.

As far as the race is concerned, NASCAR may need to go back to the drawing board on this one.  Realistically, this weekend will need to go to a Thursday-Friday-Saturday night setup to work.  Sunday’s weather is normal for this time of year in Las Vegas, so it will continue to be that hot.  Future events run the risk of racing in front of even fewer people in the stands.

World of Westgate 200

Friday night saw the Camping World Truck Series return to Las Vegas for their annual visit to Nevada.  Unlike the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY series, the trucks raced at night.  That has been the status quo for them there since the late 1990s (2000 is the exception since the division did not compete in Las Vegas that year).  Despite that, you ended up with a race similar to the other two.

With the drawn-out schedule for the series, Friday night marked Race No. 2 of the Round of 8.  It’s a month to the next race.  You can just hear the groans.  The schedule gaps are completely looney.

During NASCAR RaceDay – CWTS Edition, the main feature was a piece on Hattori Racing Enterprises.  Here, we hear from Brett Moffitt about how the team has truly meshed together this year.  We also meet some of the people on the team.  It’s an interesting bunch of new guys and veterans such as Peter Jellen, who worked for Alan Kulwicki in the early 1990s.  With the ongoing sponsorship issues, it’s an all hands on deck situation there.  Regardless, Moffitt and team owner Shigeaki Hattori have been getting all-star performances all year out of everyone on the team.

It was unclear watching Friday night’s race as to whether or not the booth made the trip to Las Vegas.  I’m leaning toward no.  You never saw them on camera.  If the broadcasters were actually there, they would have shown them.

The hits came quickly as Tanner Thorson gave the wall a thwacking on lap 2.  Johnny Sauter also made early contact with the SAFER Barrier, but that didn’t hurt the defending champion much.

There was some confusion over stage lengths on Friday.  This concern is not a gripe against FOX Sports 1.  They had it right.  NASCAR.com had it wrong.  During races, I use NASCAR.com’s live leaderboard to keep track of who’s in position for the Lucky Dog and to follow the action during commercial breaks.  I noticed early that NASCAR.com had stage lengths of 40, 40 and 54 laps as opposed to 30, 30 and 74.  Had the former been in place, perhaps you would have had a slightly different race.

With the sheer amount of wrecking on Friday night, the field never got all that spread out.  That led to some crazy racing late in the event.  FOX Sports 1 caught all of that wackiness, including five wide on the backstretch.

However, they didn’t catch everything.  Stewart Friesen was fast early but had a miserable second half of the race.  Three spins will quickly ruin your night.  The first one came when Friesen spun in Turn 1 while racing for a top-five position.  Just as he was making a sweet move, the coverage cut to Sauter taking the lead away from Ben Rhodes.  As he was doing that, Friesen wiped out.

Now, it must be noted that FOX Sports 1 was in a side-by-side commercial break at the time.  Were they not in it, the action would have been the perfect opportunity for a split screen.  Unfortunately, you can never plan out commercial breaks in advance during a NASCAR race.  Something’s always going to go down.

Once the break ended, it still took quite a while to figure out just what caused the incident.  Eventually, a replay showed that Friesen twitched just a little and that was all that was needed to spin him out.  Eventual race winner Grant Enfinger got a piece, in addition to John Hunter Nemechek.

The third crash that really did Friesen’s truck in didn’t get a replay at all, despite the fact he crashed at the start/finish line.  Based on the evil handling characteristics of the No. 52 by that point, he likely got loose exiting Turn 4 and lost control.

Friesen’s third incident wasn’t even the only one not replayed.  Wendell Chavous spun early on and never even got a replay.  Granted, it didn’t bring out a yellow.  Bo LeMastus crashed out of the race on lap 46 and viewers never got any real information as to what caused that.  Even the press release is vague.  LeMastus said, “I just got into the wall there and the damage was too significant to fix.”

With 11 cautions and three GWCs, the race ran 10 extra laps.  That meant the race finished about 25 minutes late.  Post-race coverage was pretty brief but more substantial than the Cup event.  Viewers got three post-race interviews and a points check before leaving for MLB Whiparound.

In retrospect, this weekend was not the best in general for Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  The long-awaited Star Nursery 100 for the K&N Pro Series West was a dust bowl, done in by the track’s decision to water the track only a couple of times a year.  If you look through the older race results on Racing-Reference, you’ll notice at least one race in what is now Cup that got cancelled due to dust.  This race was likely not far from there.  Then, the three major events at Vegas were marked by a bunch of wrecks.  Pretty much the only people that came out of there looking good were Keselowski and Ross Chastain.

That’s all for this week.  This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY series teams will be at Richmond Raceway for some Saturday night racing.  In addition, the NHRA will be at Gateway Motorsports Park in Illinois.  In sports cars, the European Le Mans Series will be at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium while the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup season wraps up at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona in Spain.  TV Listings can be found here.

We will provide critiques of both the Cup and XFINITY series races from Richmond in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at FrontstretchFor the Critic’s Annex this week, we’ll cover Saturday’s XFINITY Series DC Solar 300.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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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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