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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: The Playoff Cutoff Brings Hyperfocus

Oh boy. Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is a race that has been problematic for NASCAR over the last decade. It appears that they never properly gave penance for the fiasco in 2008. As a result, the race is a shell of it’s former self. It’s a great shame. Yes, there were apparently 65,000 people at the race on Sunday. At many tracks, that constitutes a lot of people. At IMS, it looks like a ghost town. NASCAR (and NBC Sports) considers Indianapolis to be one of the crown jewels of the sport. The reality doesn’t match that.

Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line

Yeah, that’s a pretty long race name. They’d do well to shorten that.

Oh well. It’s the 26th Cup race at Indianapolis and the final race of the regular season. There were definitely some interesting stories that came out of the race.

The on-track action was not particularly great, but I wasn’t exactly expecting the greatest race on earth. I thought that it was going to be like Pocono. That’s substantially different from how NBCSN was building up the race. They believed that the high downforce package with aero ducts would result in an excellent race. Not really. Kevin Harvick stomped everyone.

Indianapolis was the third and final weekend of the year with the radio-style broadcasts. As a result, MRN Radio’s Mike Bagley returned to work the turn 2 tower. Random aside, here’s an old-school clip of Bagley from 2000, when KNBC hired him to help with their broadcast of the Featherlite Southwest Tour LA Street Race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. commandeered the tower in turn 3, while Jeff Burton was in turn 4. Since IMS is so big, it helps to have extra eyes out there to point things. Also, IMS is the only track on the circuit with the broadcast booth located inside of the track. That, plus all the tall buildings and grandstands, make it very difficult to see much.

Personally, I feel that having the additional sets of eyes out there should help the broadcast to bring attention to various incidents on track, in addition to other things that might have been ignored by the broadcast. However, they can only be a help to the broadcast when the production team listens to those people.

Likely the best example of this actually occurred in Happy Hour on Saturday. Burton immediately called Denny Hamlin’s huge wreck as it happened, but the cameras didn’t cut to it for more than five seconds. I don’t know if that is a new strategy for broadcasting races after Anthoine Hubert’s death at Spa or not, but this is not a good way to go. It just leaves questions unanswered. In this case, it seems that NBCSN just didn’t have a good view of the incident, but you have to show something.

Quick note: If you watched Sunday’s Grand Prix of Italy on ESPN 2, you may have noticed the cutaway when Sebastian Vettel spun at the Variante Ascari just as Lance Stroll was approaching. Only slight contact was made and Vettel was given a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for unsafe re-entry. I would not be shocked if that strategy for covering crashes is a more common thing in Formula 1 going forward.

For the race broadcast, the focus was clearly on the bubble drivers (Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez). They got outsized coverage Sunday as compared to everyone else in the field, likely to the detriment of the actual on-track action. A little less was given to Bowyer since he distanced himself from his immediate competitors early on. This is one of the things I despise about this time of year. I don’t really give a tochus about the points. I’ve already done all the calculations myself. There’s a reason I don’t sleep much on Sunday nights.

The fact that Indianapolis is a cutoff race for the playoffs cannot skew the broadcast, but I believe that it did at times.

Likely one of the biggest stories coming out of Sunday was the excellent run for Bubba Wallace. He was strong Saturday morning in the opening practice session and managed to keep that up all weekend, despite the pit road shenanigans.

Having said that, I actually have no idea how he got himself into the top five. NBC went to a NonStop break on lap 118 when he had just moved past Newman into eighth. Immediately after that break ended, he was apparently still there. Then, NBC did a rather long full-screen interview at the Infield Care Center with Johnson. If you’re reading this, you know why.

By the time the interview ended, Wallace had gained four places and was fourth. No replays as to how that happened. Must have been one heck of a run. I was confused as heck watching the broadcast.

Post-race coverage was substantial as all of the playoff contenders got airtime to talk about their race and the upcoming playoffs. Did Wallace get airtime for his third-place finish? Yes, but you had to stay with the coverage all the way into NASCAR Victory Lap just to get there. Let’s just say that one of the callers onto the show bad-mouthed NBCSN on live television about that decision. It should never get to that point. And no, it was not me that called in. If I did that, I’d be accused of trying to skew the broadcast

The interview Wallace did with Kelli Stavast ultimately aired about 83 minutes after the race ended. Rule of thumb: Don’t do that. I know you love the playoffs so much that you want to marry them, but the race itself is still very important. There are storylines that don’t involve the playoffs. This whole sequence is why I believe the presence of the playoffs hurts the sport as a whole.

Pre-race coverage had a couple of interesting segments. Burton went to the TRD facility in Salisbury, N.C. to learn about fuel mileage. It’s quite a bit more complicated these days than measuring fuel in the dump can and formulas. Now, we have predictive software. Pretty crazy, to be honest.

Behind the Driver this week focused on Bowyer, directly in line with the playoff focus. Bowyer talked about his older brother, Andy, who went pro as a motocross racer, and how he looked up to Andy as a kid.

Overall, I found the constant playoff focus to be rather annoying and distracting at times. This aspect of the broadcast was likely greater than normal since the on-track product was not exactly stellar. That’s not NBC’s fault. They need to hunt and peck to find the best action out there. The radio-style setup can help to a certain degree in this instance.

Indiana 250

Saturday afternoon brought the Xfinity Series to Indianapolis for its own 100-lap race. This event has been controversial from day one. Simple as that. Having said that, there were quite a few storylines that came out of the day.

Countdown to Green really focused in on two storylines. One was Denny Hamlin’s huge wreck that occurred right at the end of Cup Happy Hour. Countdown to Green ran right up against that, so viewers got the first interview with Hamlin during the show. We didn’t get a clear view of the crash, but that was a nasty one. Don’t think anyone realized that it wasn’t going to be the hardest hit of the weekend.

The other was the rather ridiculous storyline involving Mike Harmon and Michael Annett. NBCSN explained what caused the whole issue (contact between the drivers in practice that ripped off Annett’s TV panel), then the discussion in the garage afterwards. Video circulating on Twitter indicated that the discussion between the two drivers was rather profane.

Then, you had the tweets. Oh boy. I’ve met Harmon before. I had the pleasure of interviewing him back in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway prior to the ALSCO 300. He’s a big guy. Even though he’s 60, I don’t think I’d want to mess with him.

This was followed up by live interviews with both drivers. That sent a number of people (including myself) scurrying to find the last time someone interviewed Harmon on TV. The general consensus is that it hadn’t been done since Harmon had his infamous crash in Bristol. That was 17 years ago. Annett had a good quip as well (“I guess I had a dinner date at Applebee’s that I didn’t know about until it was too late”).

Similar to the Cup race on Sunday, NBCSN also had the radio-style broadcast configuration. The only difference was that Earnhardt Jr. was not in a turn tower. His spot in turn 3 was taken by Parker Kligerman. Earnhardt Jr. spent the race on the Peacock Pit Box instead

The rules package in use for the Xfinity Series last weekend was a bit different than what the Cup teams. It was substantially slower, as in four seconds a lap or more off of Cup pace, but with less downforce. The result was small packs of cars racing together. Essentially, no one could run with the Gibbs cars early on, but once Kyle Busch started having handling issues, the race got much more competitive.

The race ended up running long, partially due to the late red flag after the Christopher BellTyler Reddick crash. As a result, post-race coverage was relatively brief. Viewers got three post-race interviews, a check of the points and some analysis before NBCSN left Indianapolis to get to lacrosse.

This race was centered on the front of the field for most of the 250 miles. That’s OK if all of the action is there. It wasn’t, especially early on in the race. Much of the event was watching a few cars nose-to-tail that weren’t really doing anything. The second half of the race was much more exciting. It’s like you need a caution every four to six laps or it gets too spread out to be interesting.

That’s all for this week. This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Note that the Cup race is quite a bit later this year. It will start at after 7 p.m. Eastern because it was so hot last year. 101 degrees in Las Vegas in mid-September is somewhere close to an average high temperature (note: As of this writing, 101 is the predicted high for Sunday in Las Vegas). I feel like they knew that going in but did it anyway.

Cup teams will be joined by the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series teams. Xfinity teams will be determining the 12 playoff contenders, while Truck teams will be wrapping up the Round of 8. Meanwhile, IMSA will be at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in California for their second-to-last race weekend of the year.

We will provide critiques of at least the Cup and Truck races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex for this week is currently undetermined. By Thursday, we’ll have a topic for you.

Also, the film Blink of an Eye has a limited engagement Thursday night at movie theaters across the country. I have purchased a ticket and will be at the Regal Crossgates Cinema 18 in Guilderland, N.Y., notebook in hand. The plan is either to write about it for The Critic’s Annex on the 19th, or in Couch Potato Tuesday after Talladega, since I plan to be at the 1000Bulbs.com 500.

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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5 comments

  1. Avatar

    I didn’t see the required burn out and interview at the start/finish line for the INDIANA 250. Was that Kyle’s idea or NBC?

  2. Avatar

    Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line With a Heineken Chaser

    Shouldn’t “Line” be Lime, Ricky?

  3. Avatar

    Did I see the broadcast go directly to a live in-car shot of inside Johnson’s car during his crash? Please tell me I didn’t see this live. Are they that obsessed with their in-car gadget that something exciting happens during the race and we have to view it from the top of someones head inside the car? Remember when the in-car camera used to be a cool thing? Me neither. I long for the days of old when broadcasts were much simpler. Nice wide shots for cars racing for position and quality people commentating on the actual race. And they wonder why the sport is struggling to keep fans? SMH

  4. Avatar

    I agree with s b on the drowned out commentary can only catch the odd word they say

  5. Avatar

    I’m not sure why NBC thins the radio style coverage is a good idea. Once again, at least 50% of the commentary was drowned out by the noise from the cars running by. Not much point of having announcers around the track if you can’t hear what they say. Also, if I wanted a ‘radio style’ commentary, I would turn on the radio. Duh. The over exposure of the ‘bubble’ drivers in just one reason I hate the not-a-playoff format. Thanks to the banner, I saw that Bubba was having a good run all day after the kerfuffle on pit road, but not a word from the announcers. Finally Junior mentioned his run, and also pointed out several other teams that were having banner days. Just one more reason why this ‘playoff’ format sucks. You miss much of what is happening on track because they focus on the teams that will make the stupid playoff. I feel as if I get ripped off, since I can only tell what is happening to 2/3 of the fiels by keeping my eyes on the ticker overhead.

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