This week is likely going to be a busy one, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Last weekend, NASCAR’s National Series were all in action at Texas Motor Speedway. The weather was not exactly ideal. That was something that I was actually a little worried about in regards to the Truck race moving from early November to March 29, but that turned out to not be a problem. It was a wreckfest, though.
Before we even get into the broadcasts, we must talk about the news that Sports Business Daily’s Adam Stern tweeted about last week.
➖ Announcement could come in next couple weeks.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) March 29, 2019
Such a move would be a seismic shift in FOX’s broadcast booth. Waltrip, 72 has never missed a FOX Cup race since the company entered the sport in 2001. His run in the broadcast booth is actually one of the longest ever for a booth analyst in NASCAR. Off the top of my mind, I cannot recall an analyst that has been the booth for NASCAR races for the same network for 19 years. A couple of play-by-play commentators have had longer booth tenures. For instance, Waltrip’s boothmate, Mike Joy, has called Cup races in the booth every year since at least 1991. He has worked on race broadcasts in some capacity for the last 40 years.
In regards to Waltrip, he brought a different outlook on the sport to the broadcast booth when he first started. He was literally fresh out of the car, having retired at the end of the previous season. He brought a fair amount of experience to the booth, having chipped in on Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) Series broadcasts off and on over much of the previous decade. For example, he was in the booth for Matt Kenseth’s first victory in 1998 at Rockingham with Rick Benjamin and Buddy Baker.
Once full-time in the booth, Waltrip took the advice of then-current FOX Sports president David Hill to do his best to explain why things were happening the way they were. The first couple of years actually went very well. At some point, it seemed like the platform got to him. The love of flames and chrome was something Darrell brought to the booth with him at first. The Boogitys came later. Slowly but surely, it seemed like Darrell was taking over the proceedings. Some fans consider the changes equivalent to Darrell “going Hollywood,” or becoming a parody of himself.
That trend became more and more noticeable as time went by, but may have been obscured by having Joy and Larry McReynolds there. Then, FOX made the change that resulted in Jeff Gordon effectively replacing McReynolds. That may have resulted in Gordon unwittingly walking into a power struggle.
Gordon brings a lot of the same traits to the table today that Darrell Waltrip did in 2001, but in a different fashion. While Waltrip would never admit it, it appears that having Gordon in the booth full-time may have frustrated him to a certain degree. That’s led to some issues at times. As a new full-time analyst, Gordon needed to have a bit of support from Darrell. Basically, something as simple as a promise to not completely contradict him on-air. I don’t know if Gordon got that.
As of this writing, there has been no official announcement in regards to Waltrip’s status for 2020 and beyond. However, if he were to choose to step away, it would create quite an opening. FOX Sports would have a number of potential choices to replace him. They could bring McReynolds back to the booth, which would accomplish two things. One, you fill the spot left by Waltrip and two, you gain McReynolds’ voluminous notes, tight relationships in the garage and mechanical know-how. Even with McReynolds’ interesting interpretation on the English language, he is of much better use to FOX Sports at the track than at the FOX Sports Virtual Studio in Charlotte.
Another option is Ricky Craven, who just signed on with FOX Sports at the beginning of the season. He’s worked as an analyst on then-Nationwide Series broadcasts in the past for ESPN and did quite well at it, even when his play-by-play man was a bit subpar.
The guy behind the parody Twitter account “Drunken Brian France” suggested Wendy Venturini, formerly of SPEED and currently a booth commentator for PRN Radio. She would be an interesting choice, as would Jamie Little. While I cannot recall Little doing booth commentary during a race, she has done so with practice sessions in the past, most recently at Michigan International Speedway last spring.
Another option that I know would rile a number of fans just from writing this column for the last decade would be Michael Waltrip. He’s already on the payroll (like Craven, McReynolds and Little) and has plenty of booth experience. He just finds a way to irritate people on a regular basis.
There is also the possibility that FOX just doesn’t replace Darrell and goes with the two-man booth of Joy and Gordon. Or, the possibility of an off-the-board candidate that I didn’t mention here. At this point, anything is possible (except Kevin Harvick taking the role, since he’s still going to be racing full-time next year for Stewart-Haas Racing). We will continue to cover this story over the next few months (if need be), but we’d like to hear from you. If Darrell were to retire (and we’re going to stress that it is by no means official that he’s going to), what would you like to see FOX Sports do?
With that said, let’s take a look at Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, which tied for the most lead changes so far this year with Las Vegas (26). Did that equate to a good broadcast?
Unlike the action at Martinsville Speedway, there was a decent amount of racing towards the front of the field on Sunday. I have no doubt that FOX was happy to see that. Viewers got a decent amount of side-by-side racing. The problem is that the rules package makes it very difficult to complete that pass. Combine that with the lack of tire fall-off that comes with a surface that’s just over two years old and you end up with a form of stasis at times.
That said, Sunday’s race was still enjoyable at times. FOX did seem to take pains to show viewers as many on-track battles as they could, but the at-track experience was apparently better than FOX showed. I’ll state for the record that I was not in Texas on Sunday (in fact, I’ve never even flown over the state of Texas before). I’m just going on what my colleague Beth Lunkenheimer (who was at the race Sunday) saw.
Admittedly, there were an abundance of replays of on-track action all weekend, not just in the Cup race. All three races were marked by drivers slipping in Turn 2 (just imagine what it would have been like had it been 75 degrees instead of 57). Kyle Busch nearly wiping out in Turn 2 may have changed the final outcome of the race.
Error-wise, there was at least that should be noted. Timmy Hill was driving the No. 66 Toyota for MBM Motorsports on Sunday. The team ran the same paint scheme on the car that Joey Gase used a couple of weeks ago. This likely led to the mistake of FOX noting that Gase was driving the No. 66 instead of Hill. Not true.
— Joey Gase Racing (@JoeyGaseRacing) March 31, 2019
As you can see here, Gase was having a quiet Sunday at home, watching the Cup race on TV (and pointing out the error). That’s a whoopsies. Thankfully, that was fixed later on, but it is a mistake that should not have been made. Quite simply, it’s not a good look.
Once again, the uncontrolled tire penalties became an issue on Sunday. Denny Hamlin had to overcome one (in addition to a separate speeding penalty and missing pit road twice) to win. A couple of weeks ago, I was going to compare the uncontrolled tires to handchecking fouls in the NBA. That led me down a YouTube rabbit hole in which I couldn’t actually find anything to use. It’s probably closer to watching an Ivy League college basketball game where the referees are ultra-strict. That leads to a series of “ticky-tack” fouls being called that extend the game.
Granted, such penalties don’t lengthen races, but they do take focus away from the race itself. At this point, it seems that FOX is starting to get a little annoyed at having to deal with these penalties every week. Despite that, they’re doing a good job in explaining just what is leading to these infractions and why NASCAR is assessing so many of these penalties so far this season.
The Brad Keselowski mechanical issues were rather confusing for everyone involved. Keselowski was driving around under caution when all of a sudden, the car stopped pulling. After a check of the rear axles revealed nothing, the No. 2 crew rolled the Miller Lite Ford behind the wall. 55 laps later, Keselowski returned.
With admittedly little to go on, McReynolds made use of the Virtual Cutaway Car in order to explain what goes into the rear end of Cup cars. He did the best that he could, but we still never ended up with a definitive answer as to what happened. Keselowski channeled Ken Schrader after the race, noting that it was “one of those really important parts.”
Post-race coverage was about average, despite the relatively quick pace of the race. Viewers got a decent number of driver interviews, along with a check of the points and some post-race analysis.
The whole idea of having the broadcast booth do the Victory Lane interview continues to be bizarre and stilted. I have no idea why FOX things that this is a good idea (in addition to stealing the frontstretch interview from NBC Sports). I feel like this isn’t working.
On a more serious note, FOX aired a feature during pre-race about Daniel Smith, a tire changer on Harvick’s pit crew. Smith missed a substantial chunk of last season fighting testicular cancer. This feature described the lead up to Smith discovering that he had cancer, how Stewart-Haas Racing banded together behind him and more. While I’d much rather that this situation had never happened (like everyone else), this was a very-well put together piece. This is one of those situations where you see the “NASCAR Family” show their true colors. Yes, everyone races hard as heck, but they’re always willing to support someone when they’re down. It’s not like Formula 1, where even talking to someone outside of your team is viewed as something akin to traitorous activity.
Overall, I’m still not a fan of these rules for 2019, but I was pleasantly surprised with the speed. Sunday’s race was the second fastest Cup race ever run at Texas, despite speeds being down 10 mph. There was decent racing for position, but still not a lot of movement through the field. Effectively the opposite of what NASCAR thought would happen with the rules. FOX is doing the best that they can with what they’re given.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series travel to Tennessee for the first visit of the year to Bristol. As of this writing, the high temperature Sunday is forecast to be in the upper 70s. No snow squalls this year. The K&N Pro Series East will serve as additional support on Saturday. In addition, the NTT IndyCar Series returns to Alabama for their annual trip to Barber Park. TV listings can be found in the Television tab at the top of the page.
We will provide critiques of the Cup and Xfinity races from Bristol for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex will cover the My Bariatric Solutions 300 and Vankor 350 from Texas. Next week’s Annex will cover Hurley, a new documentary about the life and times of now-retired sports car racer Hurley Haywood. I’m personally looking forward to watching this and seeing what it’s like.
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