Las Vegas brought viewers the third straight tripleheader weekend to start the season. Admittedly, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race was another big unknown, but ended up being a lot more like Atlanta than anyone would have thought.
This was it. The big debut of “the package.” Did it live up to expectations? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t really know what to think going in.
That didn’t stop FOX Sports 1 from actively trying to sell this setup to the viewers. Larry McReynolds stated before the race even started that he gave the new rules an A- with the potential to upgrade it to a solid A. I felt that it was way too early to make such a statement. Bobby Labonte agreed, choosing to withhold his opinion until he saw more on-track action.
Once the race started, you saw a product that was a little different from Atlanta, but with a lot of the same characteristics. For the first few laps, you saw what amounted to pack racing. Drivers were trying to go wherever they could.
Then, the tires started to wear and drivers couldn’t really do that anymore. Going all but flat out meant that there was next to no throttle response. Momentum was key. This would be right in Mark Martin’s wheelhouse if he were still racing.
Yes, viewers got some side-by-side racing, but a lot of it was clustered around restarts. Once the tires wore a little bit, the likelihood of that lessened. That’s not necessarily how these rules were pitched.
A somewhat unusual decision on Sunday’s broadcast was that you didn’t really hear much from the pit reporters during the rounds of green-flag stops. Instead, you had booth commentary. Going back and viewing that a second time makes the whole segment feel really weird. It’s as if NASCAR instituted a new rule that limited what the pit reporters could do last week and no one told the public.
Honestly, I don’t like that setup. It leaves the viewers partially in the dark about what’s going on with their favorite drivers. Also, with seemingly no extra ambient audio from the pits, there was a lot of dead air.
That said, the first round of stops saw NASCAR call the equivalent of ticky-tack fouls in basketball against Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. FOX did a great job of showing that even a fingerprint on the concrete will get you penalized this year. McReynolds indicated that NASCAR issued a bulletin about this in the off-season. While it appears that NASCAR did not use these exact words, it appears that this will be a point of emphasis in 2019. That is something that should sound familiar to anyone who watches the NFL or NBA in regards to their officiating.
FOX used their Ghost car in order to show the difference between fresh and worn tires in a rare non-qualifying usage of the technology, but I was a bit unclear on how substantial the tire wear actually was on Sunday. This goes back to the somewhat questionable decision to not make as much use of their pit reporters under green than they normally would. I cannot see it being a benefit to FOX’s coverage. As much as I criticize FOX’s broadcasts, I truly want them to be the best that they can be. This move is a headscratcher.
A positive feature that FOX unveiled back in Atlanta that I didn’t get a chance to talk about is the “Short Track Boss” profile. It seemed like a one-off at Atlanta, but it’s apparently going to be a weekly feature. It’s going to be interesting for viewers to learn about the local bosses at play. I do admit that it makes me think of stuff that has nothing to do with racing, like robot masters in the Mega Man series or political engines like Tammany Hall in New York City.
This week, it was Scott Gafforini, a 52-year old late model racer at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kurt Busch raced against him when he was coming up through the ranks and knows that he’s a tough out. In Atlanta, fans learned a bit about Bubba Pollard, who has seemingly won everything under the sun in super late models that isn’t the Snowball Derby.
Not noted on the broadcast Sunday is the fact that the Pennzoil 400 is the fastest Cup race ever run at Las Vegas. As a result, there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. Viewers got plenty of post-race coverage, both in Las Vegas and in the Virtual Studio in Charlotte — sort of like if FOX Sports 1 still had NASCAR Victory Lane.
Was Sunday’s race what anybody really expected? Not really. Prior to the race, the broadcast booth thought that you were going to see some attrition on Sunday. You got next to none. There was an engine issue on Joey Gase’s No. 66 early, along with a strange instance involving a missing crewmember named Mark that Brock Beard chronicled on his LASTCAR site. Other than that, BJ McLeod had a vibration, and that was about it. There were more mechanical issues in the Xfinity race that didn’t have to do with wrecking.
After the race, the booth seemed a little confused at what they had just seen. The race was not really what they had expected and not at all what they had promoted.
FOX did their best to show off the close racing on Sunday, but you ended up with a lot of the same issues you had in Atlanta. Yes, they were close, but they couldn’t really go anywhere unless they were much faster. At times, it was legitimately exciting. Other times, not so much.
Ultimately, the differing pit strategies for drivers such as Kurt Busch and William Byron were some of the more interesting parts of the race. McReynolds, no matter how much he likely jumped the gun with his package thoughts, clearly came to play on Sunday. He continues to show that his preparation is top notch.
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Saturday afternoon saw the Xfinity Series travel to Las Vegas for their 23rd straight March visit. As compared to the other two races, the 300-miler (or 319.5 due to the 13 extra laps) was the most action packed. Yes, Kyle Busch won, but the Xfinity regulars took the battle directly to Busch.
Prior to the race, FOX Sports 1 went right to the gorilla in the room. They point-blank asked some of the drivers what they think about racing against Busch in the series. The responses indicate that a lot of the drivers view him as some kind of measuring stick. At the bare minimum, you know what you’re getting with Busch. He wants that trophy. You have to take it from him.
Also, there was a screw-up in the writing during the Stump the Macs segment. They put the wrong year in the question as to who McReynolds started his career with. That caused some problems. Proofread your stuff. I don’t have a potential audience of a million, but I fact check my work before posting.
Saturday’s guest analyst was Brad Keselowski, back for another go-around along with Kevin Harvick. The main theme with Xfinity Series broadcasts ever since they came to FOX Sports 1 has been constant flux. If they ever felt like actually having a permanent lineup, having Harvick and Keselowski with Adam Alexander might be the best one that they’ve had.
You have a couple of past series champions (Harvick in 2001 and 2006, Keselowski in 2010) that bring a lot of knowledge to the booth. They’re willing to work with each other. They don’t treat the broadcast like some kind of contest to see who can get the most airtime. They’re not constantly talking over each other, either.
That said, I do have an issue with how FOX handled their whole charitable thing. As many of you know, FOX Sports does not pay the guest analysts directly. They’re allowed to give some publicity to their charitable efforts instead. That’s swell and all, but that should be done in a way to not completely detract from the race. Saturday’s race saw nearly an entire segment dedicated to what Keselowski’s doing with his Brad Keselowski’s Checkered Flag Foundation with no coverage of the actual race that fans are tuned into FOX Sports 1 to watch. That could be done with a split-screen, or even just wait until after the race. FOX Sports 1 dedicated what I thought was an unusual amount of time for the race broadcast and post-race (3.5 hours) Saturday. Even with the 13 extra laps, there was still plenty of time to do it afterwards.
On-track racing was definitely different as compared to the Cup race. Drivers were definitely more on edge, which led to some issues (especially late in the race). Unlike Sunday, you could actually see some aggression on-track. With everyone flat out in Cup, it was hard to see that at times. The final lap of the race was an exception to the rule, though.
Even with the wrecking at the end of the race, there was still plenty of time for post-race coverage. Viewers got more than half a dozen interviews, a check of the points and plenty of post-race coverage.
FOX Sports 1’s coverage Saturday was fairly enjoyable to watch. The Alexander-Harvick-Keselowski combination appears to be solid. There’s no animosity and you can get some good content out of them. The camera shots were excellent. For example, did you notice the air cleaner flying out of Brandon Jones’ car after he hit the wall? Never seen that before, but you saw it here.
Speaking of that wreck, I found the coverage somewhat confusing. It seemed like they thought something was wrong with Jones’ car prior to the crash. I thought Jones scrubbed the wall exiting Turn 2 and that gave Cole Custer the run on him that led to the contact. The booth thought that Jones had a mechanical issue, but I couldn’t find proof of that. It’s pretty hard to tell if he’d hit the wall before the big wreck now since the Menards Toyota is now a piece of twisted metal, though.
Friday night brought the Gander Outdoors Truck Series back to Las Vegas for their first of two appearances this season. Going into the race, FOX Sports 1 hyped it as being one of the best races of the season last year. Did the race live up to that hype? Not really. Kyle Busch was in the race last year, but the regulars gave him more of a fight.
Going into the race, one of the biggest stories in the series was the recent bomb that Busch apparently dropped on his employee Todd Gilliland. After winning at Atlanta, he stated that he was unhappy with Gilliland’s performance and claimed that “his career is on the line.” On paper, that sounds insane. To Busch, it’s not crazy. Apparently, Gilliland is being measured against how drivers such as Christopher Bell, Byron and Erik Jones have done with the team.
It’s one thing if Gilliland actually had the same crew chief as those three drivers did. In this case, he does not. Rudy Fugle is the crew chief of the No. 51 that Busch raced Friday night. This isn’t an even playing field. I can’t imagine that Busch’s statement (which I have no doubt was given to Gilliland in some shape or form in a meeting long before Busch’s Atlanta press conference) instilled any confidence in the 18-year-old. He may not be the 15-year old who won his debut in ARCA at Toledo, but he’s not a scrub.
TV-wise, those comments led to a discussion between Todd Bodine and Jeff Hammond in the studio about whether these were fair comments. I don’t believe they are and neither does Bodine (Hammond sort of hedged his thoughts by referencing’s Busch’s track record as a team owner). Doesn’t change anything on Busch’s part, though. If he thinks Gilliland isn’t cutting it, he’ll dump him for (likely) Christian Eckes as fast as he can. The seventh-place finish Gilliland got Friday night is ok, but I doubt it’ll take any of the heat off of him.
The primary feature on NASCAR RaceDay – NGOTS Edition was a look at the relationship between Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter. For 2019, Sauter returns to ThorSport Racing after previously racing for the team for seven years. During that original stint there, things were a bit acrimonious at times. Most of that time, ThorSport Racing fielded only two trucks, so there was more attention paid to the two racers. They both apparently had alpha dog qualities at times, which could lead to clashes.
They’ve both won a bunch of races and championships. They both still want to win badly, but there isn’t necessarily that need to prove themselves anymore. As a result, their relationship is a little friendlier. They both view themselves as the standard for all of the young guns in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series today to race against.
So far in 2019, it’s hard to say whether it’s been a struggle or not for the veterans. Daytona was so much of a wreckfest that you can’t take anything from it. Take away stage points and Crafton’s in the top three, but add them in and he loses a bunch. Sauter’s had his own issues, but is currently fifth.
Race-wise, Busch was able to dominate from the very front of the field, which tempered the action to a certain extent. That said, there was still a decent amount of action to be had. Ross Chastain once again put on a show in his Trü North No. 45, racing himself up to second at one point before “being taken to restart school.” Unfortunately, he ran himself out of fuel before his final stop and ended up a lap down at the finish.
Even with some of the trucks being quite loose, there were minimal interruptions to the on-track action. As a result, there was quite a bit of post-race coverage. Viewers got quite a few interviews and some post-race analysis before FOX Sports 1 left Las Vegas.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, we drop the aero ducts and tapered spacers in order to go play at ISM Raceway. The increased spoiler height will make for more grip and potentially faster lap times. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. Cup teams will be joined by the Xfinity Series, while Gander Outdoors Truck Series teams will take the next couple of weeks off.
Meanwhile, the NTT IndyCar Series starts their season in St. Petersburg with a tough street race. They’ll be joined by a number of support series, including Indy Lights and Pirelli GT4 America Sprint. Finally, the ARCA Menards Series returns to action at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola. TV listings can be found in the Television tab at the top of the page.
We will provide critiques of the Cup, Xfinity and IndyCar races this weekend for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. For The Critic’s Annex, we’re going to take a look at some of the changes made to the TV product for SRO America (formerly Pirelli World Challenge) in 2019.
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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.