Talladega Superspeedway is usually a toss-up, where craziness is the norm and staidness need not apply. At least on Sunday, that was not the case.
Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 had the second-lowest number of lead changes in any Cup race ever run on the 2.66-mile tri-oval (15). Why? Because Stewart-Haas Racing apparently found a way to beat the system.
In overall feel, Sunday’s race reminded me of some of the Cup restrictor plate races in the 1990s. Back then, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for small groups of drivers to pull away from the field and attempt to settle races by themselves. The difference between now and then is that there are a lot more multi-car teams today and the cars are built to be completely identical at these shops.
We’ll use one example for this discussion. The 1993 Daytona 500, even though the final run of the race was only 27 laps long, came down to a five-man duel between Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Geoff Bodine and Hut Stricklin. These five drivers belonged to five different teams. Gordon and Stricklin drove for multi-car teams, but neither of their teammates were in the hunt. As a result, everyone was in it for themselves.
Sunday, you had all four Stewart-Haas drivers nose-to-tail for the vast majority of the race, playing the field like a fiddle. That left NBC at a loss to describe anything like this ever happening. Small packs pulling away aren’t new, an entire team doing it is. Nate Ryan on NASCAR Victory Lap compared it to the Daytona 500 two years ago when Toyota dominated. That race was more competitive than Sunday’s was. Other guesses equated the performance to something not seen in decades.
Naturally, such an on-track performance is going to affect how a race is covered. It’s up to NBC to make the best of it.
Also, Sunday was a big day for NBC Sports because it was the last Cup race for Mike Wells, their longtime director for race broadcasts. He’s been working on broadcasts for the better part of 40 years, which covers nearly the entire history of NASCAR races being broadcast live and flag-to-flag on television. His first NASCAR race as a director was at Rockingham in 1981, the first Cup race to air on ESPN (via tape delay).
To that degree, there were a number of tributes paid to him during the broadcast. The most visible to viewers would have been that they let Wells “call” the first lap of the race. In this case, that meant that the broadcast booth went silent and the broadcast played the audio from Wells’ microphone in the TV compound. At the very least, this is a very different way to look at a race. Also, Wells had way more monitors at his disposal than any of us did. Even when it’s only practice going on, there is a hive of activity in the TV Compound. It’s clear Wells appears to be very calm when he’s at work. That’s key for a position that entails dealing with a fair amount of chaos on a regular basis.
When someone has a job doing something as long as Wells did, the job becomes like clockwork and he made his position look easy on a regular basis. That said, the show’s still going on this weekend in Kansas. NBC has had other directors step in as Wells has scaled back his schedule in recent years; now, they’ll need to step up.
As previously noted, it did not take long for the Stewart-Haas Fords to assert their dominance. That went doubly so whenever Kurt Busch was in the lead. He could apparently pull the field up to 206 mph on the backstretch. It’s like playing a racing game (for the sake of this example, we’ll use the old NASCAR Racing 2003 Season for the PC). The AI in the game can in fact pack race. However, if one car (or a small group of cars) is that much better than everyone else, you’re running flat out just to keep up. That was Sunday.
By the end of the race, the domination was so evident that it seemed almost frustrating at times. You see this all the time in television. Sporting events, news shows, Legends of the Hidden Temple, the list goes on. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that the booth knew what needed to happen in order for the finish to be really good, but that the pack couldn’t deliver.
Busch had a car that handled terribly for much of the race. That was by design. They skewed it out enough that it was going to be evil regardless. Had the rest of the field been able to keep him from hooking up with his teammates, then maybe he couldn’t have stayed up there.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in particular is the best man in the booth to describe a scenario such as Sunday. In the early 2000s, he was known as the “Pied Piper” at Talladega. Everyone would just follow him wherever he went. The DEI plate cars were strong at the time, but mainly due to an engine alliance between DEI, Richard Childress Racing and Andy Petree Racing known as RAD.
If anything, Sunday’s race might have been one of the most handling-dependent races at Talladega since the plates arrived in 1988. A number of drivers had serious trouble keeping their cars low (which only benefited the Stewart-Haas cars more). That also likely played a role in some of the tire wear we saw. For instance, there was footage of a partially-unwound tire that had been taken off one of the cars. That’s serious stuff that you don’t really see much in a plate race.
Another issue surrounded flat tires. Ganassi teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson both blew left rear tires and crashed. I’m a little confused on McMurray’s incident because McMurray was unable to get himself restarted after getting stuck in the grass. Yes, McMurray finished seven laps down, but I think that should have been explained a little more because I came out of that thinking that McMurray should have technically been out as a result (because of the stupid Damaged Vehicle Policy that I still believe has no place in the sport).
With the cars running so low to the ground at Daytona and Talladega, I struggle to figure out the stresses to the cars that cause the tire failures. As crazy as this sounds, they’re effectively racing with similar rear suspension setups to they used to qualify with in the late 1990s.
Normally, Talladega races are pretty easy to cover. There’s a big pack of cars and everyone’s close together with the exception of stragglers. Not the case Sunday. NBC had to give time to multiple different packs. They did ok doing that. In this situation, there were notable drivers in the different packs as opposed to all the notables being in one pack. That more or less forced NBC to be a bit more inclusive.
NBC did show just how much the Stewart-Haas cars were able to pull away from everyone else, especially in Stage No. 1. There, the front pack pulled out something like seven or eight seconds on everyone else. Compared to the 1990s, it’s easier for the other packs to get back in the hunt if people start racing each other, so drivers will stay in line much longer. 20 years ago, racing for the lead with a six-second lead over the next pack would cost you about a quarter of that lead over a couple of laps. Now, it’s likely half or more.
In the first stage, Brad Keselowski was forced to pit with a loose wheel. Compared to what we’re generally used to when that comes up, this was nothing. However, NBC did a great job showing just how minute the issue that Keselowski actually felt.
Post-race coverage was decent. Viewers got a good number of interviews, but not all of them aired live. Why? That’s because of the so-called “race after the race.” This is what Jenna Fryer was ranting about on Twitter Sunday night (and I didn’t know about until Monday morning). Heck, it’s way easier to get post-race quotes at IMSA races even without a press conference than it is at Cup races. After Saturday’s Motul Petit Le Mans, I got quotes from the champions and most of the class winners in a tent next to the podium. It’s a wild goose chase at best at Cup races.
That said, NBC did get the good quotes from Busch and Ryan Blaney about how NASCAR likely held the final caution out for too long. That likely forced NASCAR to put out a statement about the caution.
Overall, it seems like Wells went out (at least from NASCAR races, since they did note that he’s going to direct the Indianapolis 500 on NBC next year) on a decent note. The race itself wasn’t all that great action-wise since Stewart-Haas Racing effectively stunk up the show, but NBC did well with what they were given.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series will be back in action at Kansas Speedway as the playoffs continues. In addition, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season will conclude Friday night. Finally, Formula 1 returns to Circuit of the Americas in Texas for their annual visit.
We will provide critiques of the Cup and XFINITY Series races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. In this week’s Critic’s Annex in the Newsletter, we’ll cover Saturday’s Fr8 Auctions 250. It was an interesting race that resulted in some last-minute column changes here at Frontstretch.
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