This past weekend, NASCAR invaded Atlanta for their yearly visit to a track where you’d probably not want to drive your street car on. The surface will chew tires up, and even with the spacers, it was still evident.
Before we get started, NASCAR made two TV-related announcements last week. First, there is the move towards not having any at-track coverage on television on Fridays prior to 3 p.m. Anything that occurs prior to that time on Friday will be streamed live at NASCAR.com.
On paper, it sounds like cost-cutting to me. Everyone is already on-site. It’s not like they’re sleeping in at the local Hampton Inn. It’s one thing if FOX Sports 1 is pre-empting practice broadcasts in favor of some other live sporting event, like a Bundesliga game. It’s a whole ‘nother thing if you’re pre-empting it for Skip and Shannon: Undisputed, a show that practice coverage out-rates. Ridiculous. It should be noted that the effects will be minimal during the upcoming West Coast Swing, but you’ll see a bunch of on-track coverage pre-empted for eastern races.
That said, how did the coverage look? Like a complete work in progress. This was something that should not have been foisted upon the public. If you’re beta testing something (which the chaps from PRN Radio (I believe) noted that they were), don’t make it the only way you can catch the session. At least they got ambient sound working an hour in.
Apparently, this whole mess seems to stem from the idea that no one watches the sessions. That isn’t true. I don’t have exact numbers, but it out rates FOX Sports 1’s normal daytime programming. Would I watch practice coverage on FOX Sports 1 if I didn’t have to work on Fridays? Absolutely. Same with qualifying. The 5 p.m. start time for qualifying and the unnecessarily shortened first round this year makes it very difficult to get home in time to catch any of qualifying.
On a happier note, NASCAR announced Friday that all races for the K&N Pro Series (East and West), along with the Whelen Modified Tour will be streamed live at FansChoice.tv this season. They will join existing coverage of the Whelen Euro Series on the site. The Peak Mexico Series has also had streamed races on the site as well, but as of Monday, there is no 2019 schedule listed on their website.
Technically, the live streaming already started with the K&N Pro Series East New Smyrna 175 back on Feb. 11, but that race was previously streamed as part of the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing. The first race under the new streaming deal will be Thursday night’s Star Nursery 100, the season opener for the K&N Pro Series West at the Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Note that the site will ask you to provide an e-mail address in order to view streams, but the streams are in fact free to view.
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Going into Sunday’s 500-mile race, no one really knew what was going to happen. Would the race be competitive, a runaway, or a freight train? The reality was a slightly slower version of what we had last year.
Rules-wise, Atlanta Motor Speedway is effectively a standalone race. The tapered spacers were installed on the cars, but the aero ducts were not because NASCAR believed that braking was going to be necessary. Teams were required to run full brake openings, but many teams completely covered them up.
In FOX’s pre-race coverage, Adam Alexander has replaced Chris Myers as the de facto host of FOX NASCAR Sunday. With Myers (and the Hollywood Hotel) gone, you lose the interplay between him and Michael Waltrip. For those of you wondering, Myers spent last weekend in Minneapolis, where he called some pugilism Saturday night on FOX Sports 1. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I’m not sure, but you still have the Grid Walk with Michael. That’s all he did on Sunday, though. FOX might have to figure out another way to use Waltrip on the Cup broadcasts before long.
Based on what I could see, you saw the field stay a little closer together slightly longer after restarts on Sunday. Eventually, the leader was able to open up a margin, but that appeared to mainly be because of handling.
I believe that FOX actively tried to sell the package to viewers by showing as many on-track battles for position as they could. Definitely more than last year. Was there more passing? I suppose. Part of that is the fact that Kyle Busch had to come from the rear of the field after wrecking in Happy Hour. Actual movement through the field was pretty rare, though. I think Ryan Newman spent the entire race (outside of pit stops) in the range of Positions 10-15.
Did the new rules really help the race all that much? Not particularly. Yahoo Sports’ Nick Bromberg wrote that Sunday’s race was actually quite similar to last year’s race, just with slower top speeds and about 13 percent less total passing. The rules did partially neutralize Kevin Harvick’s groove to a certain extent, but you had to handle on the white line on worn tires to succeed.
What is clear to me what the rules did do is that it made it much harder to recover from any issue. Aric Almirola got busted for speeding entering the pits from third on lap 87 and spent the rest of the race trying to recover. He never got back to where he was before the penalty, but finished eighth. Kyle Larson only got back to 12th after a speeding penalty with 100 laps to go. If this were the package all year, the pit stops would be even more crucial than normal. Since it’s not, I don’t really know what to make of it.
Darrell Waltrip stated during the race that he thought that the rules package was a success. He then backed up his point with what he felt was proper evidence. As much as I know many of you don’t like Darrell, this is a change for the better. He actually took the time to explain why he holds his particular point of view. He wasn’t just randomly saying something out into the ether. Now, do I agree with his point of view on the current rules? Not really. That said, whether I agree with Darrell or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he’s actually explaining things and making himself of proper use to the broadcast.
Post-race coverage was pretty decent with a good number of viewpoints after the race before FOX left for The Simpsons.
Overall, the selling of these new rules started early and continued often in the race. It’s as if FOX actively tried to make things look better than they were. I wasn’t in Atlanta on Sunday, but it seemed like a slower Atlanta race to me. Handling was still key. I don’t particularly like the idea of giving fans more on-track action just to support an agenda, though. If you could do this on Sunday, why didn’t you give fans more action last year when this stuff didn’t exist? I’m pretty sure it was there all along. We just didn’t see it.
Saturday afternoon brought cool temperatures, fog and moisture to Atlanta Motor Speedway. It also brought a doubleheader of racing for both the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
TV-wise, the biggest story of the day was that Jimmie Johnson made his broadcast booth debut as a guest analyst alongside Adam Alexander and Harvick. Johnson didn’t come into the gig completely green, though. He’s done television before. It’s just been a while.
This clip is from the Short-course Off-Road Driver’s Association (SODA) season opener at Lake Geneva Raceway in Wisconsin back in 1995. SODA was a Midwest series that raced at venues such as Crandon International Raceway in Wisconsin and Bark River in Michigan. While Lake Geneva Raceway no longer exists, Crandon and Bark River host races as part of the Lucas Oil Midwest Short Course League. ESPN had tape-delayed coverage of SODA at the time. Then, a chap many of our readers will recognize formed a rival series called CORR (Championship Off-Road Racing) that effectively killed SODA. That chap was Marty Reid.
At the time of the above clip, Johnson was mainly competing in SCORE races in the Southwest in white, purple and orange Chevrolets. Later, he became dominant at the very end of the SODA era and the very beginning of CORR before transitioning to paved ovals with Herzog Racing, the same team he kicked tail with in SODA.
Ultimately, Johnson seemed to do quite well in his booth debut. He was quick to use his vast experience to benefit the broadcast. Not having Michael Waltrip in the booth meant that you had a less bombastic broadcast, but that’s not really a bad thing. While Johnson admits that the experience was a little tougher than he expected, it seems like he enjoyed himself.
Johnson has always come off in interviews as a very polished driver. A number of fans have referred to him as “vanilla” over the years. For someone on television, that kind of personality can go either way. Some personalities clam up and feel like they can’t contribute to the broadcast. That’s effectively what happened with Danica Patrick when she first went in the booth. In other scenarios, that person can thrive. Johnson’s somewhere in the middle of that. He more or less came off very similarly to how he does when he’s interviewed. He’s informative, but still green since it’s been so long since he’s done TV on a regular basis. Given additional opportunities, I believe that Johnson could become more comfortable in a race analyst role. However, Saturday was Johnson’s only scheduled appearance on a race broadcast during the FOX portion of the Xfinity Series season.
Harvick was his usual self in the booth; a near complete 180 from the often surly veteran you get in interviews. He’s quite informative and did an excellent job breaking down what is necessary to be able to run the very inside line at Atlanta. You know, the line that he’s used to kick butt there for years.
For the race itself, there really wasn’t all that much action of note. Christopher Bell dominated the proceedings, leading all but 21 laps. The race for the win likely would have been more interesting had John Hunter Nemechek not spun out on his own with seven laps to go. At the time, Tyler Reddick was running Bell down and fans likely would have had a good race for the win.
The amount of on-track racing for position that viewers saw was ok, but nothing special. The coverage was centered towards the front, so much so that you really didn’t get to see much of the drivers further back than ninth or so. This is in contrast to Sunday’s broadcast. I can’t speak for everyone, but the only time FOX Sports 1 really dropped back down the order coincided with a high wind warning being issued for my area. The coverage blacked out at that point (not normal by any means for that kind of an alert), so I couldn’t see it.
Post-race coverage was a little more substantial than normal due to the doubleheader setup. Viewers got a few driver interviews before the broadcast was kicked back to Charlotte.
For me, the interaction between Harvick, Johnson and Alexander was the main focus of the broadcast. Knowing that, I felt that Harvick and Johnson did work quite well together. It was a decent flow of commentary. Johnson was likely a bit deferential to both Alexander and Harvick (he referred to both as experts), but as noted above, that was mainly inexperience. He just needs more reps, but when that will happen is anyone’s guess.
Ultimate Tailgating 200
Atlanta Motor Speedway announced the name of Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race extremely late. As in, they quietly unveiled it less than three days before the race. As a result, they couldn’t do some of the normal things that you normally see, like wrap the driver introduction stage with the logo of the race (it used the Atlanta 200 logo). Regardless, Saturday night’s race will be remembered for broken splitters, fog and Kyle Busch.
With the doubleheader setup, there was no NASCAR RaceDay – NGOTS Edition on Saturday. Instead, Shannon Spake hosted what amounted to an interregnum period with Larry McReynolds and Jamie McMurray. Most of that period was focused on both the Rinnai 250 that had just finished and Cup practice. The only real preview of the Truck race was a series of interviews on pit road with a varied group of drivers.
It did not take long for Busch to snatch the lead. He literally drove past five trucks in half a lap to take the lead and really didn’t look back from there. Yes, he had a loose wheel at one point, but that only meant that he led 92 laps instead of something like 118.
As you know, the victory gives Busch 52 career victories in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, most all-time. He wins nearly three out of every eight races he competes in. Post-race coverage saw Vince Welch openly opining that no one will ever touch the accomplishment (Kyle had passed Ron Hornaday, who took more than 100 more starts to get his 51 wins). Even if it’s true, it seemed unusual. Almost like Welch was fawning over Busch. I felt a little uncomfortable with it.
Outside of Busch’s accomplishments, there were a number of incidents where people ripped splitters off their trucks. I have no clue what put Joe Nemechek in the grass because there was no replay shown of that. Austin Wayne Self ripped his splitter off late, while Chad Finley popped a huge wheelie in the same crash (second picture below).
For some, this lends people to argue in favor of paving grass or installing field turf. Phil Parsons thought that the junking of trucks because of grass is ridiculous (which I think everyone would agree with). He thinks that the trucks should go to a “plastic valence.” I would support such a move, especially since valences are cheaper than the splitters.
Saturday was not a great night for Natalie Decker. She spun two separate times in the exact same spot exiting Turn 4 and finished three laps down in 24th. One of those spins may have been caused by contact from her own teammate Anthony Alfredo (who is alternatively being referred to as either “The Sauce” or “Fast Pasta” these days). To say her re-introduction to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been tough is an understatement (she attempted a race at Martinsville three years ago before going into ARCA and DNQ’d). Michael Waltrip described her night as a decent learning experience. I suppose it was quite the learning experience, but definitely not good. It was rather tough to watch. In all honesty, she’s had a terrible start to the year. Just getting through a race without something bad happening will be beneficial for her.
Behind Busch, there was some excellent racing for position that FOX Sports 1 did a great job in showing. The ThorSport Racing Fords were all over the place and more than willing to mix it up. Ross Chastain put Niece Motorsports’ Trü North Chevrolet right up there with them. Runaway-aside, there was plenty of good stuff to be had. We were limited to the very front.
Due to a late red flag for rain, the coverage from Atlanta ended pretty quickly after the checkered flag. Viewers only got interviews with Busch and Johnny Sauter before leaving the air. Sauter did admit to trying to dump him on the final restart, though.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, all three of NASCAR’s National Series, plus the K&N Pro Series West head out to Nevada for four days of action in the desert. As noted above, the Star Nursery 100 will be streamed live on FansChoice.tv. With proper track maintenance and additional divisions, it should be a much better race than last year’s complete mess. Away from Las Vegas, SRO America (formerly WC Vision) has their season opener this weekend at Circuit of the Americas. It will also be the beginning of an expanded relationship with CBS Sports Network that will see GT races aired either live, same-day tape delay, or next day tape delay.
We will have critiques of all three major races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in next week’s edition here at Frontstretch. For The Critic’s Annex in the Newsletter on Thursday, I’m thinking of taking a look at NBC Sports’ Coffee with Kyle series that premiered late last season. They’ve generally been well-liked, but I really haven’t checked them out yet. Kyle Petty recently did an episode with Mike Helton, which should be interesting to check out.
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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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