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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: The Cup Playoffs Start With Mediocre Action & Distractions

Schedule-wise, this weekend was a terrible idea.  A 7:15 p.m. Sunday night green flag on a non-holiday weekend really doesn’t work well.  Especially when the race is in Las Vegas and the only reason it started that late is the fact that it was 101 degrees at the time the green flag dropped.  The thing is, everyone knew that was going to happen.  101 degrees in Las Vegas is normal for this time of year.  It seems like NASCAR simply didn’t think things through when they gave Las Vegas Motor Speedway their second date.

South Point 400

Sunday night racing during the NFL season.  Not a good idea.  With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on the NBC family of networks in the second half of the season, you’re nearly guaranteed to get short shrift.  Remember back in 2015 when NASCAR effectively had to beg NBC to keep the Ford EcoBoost 400 on NBC after 7 p.m. when the start of the race was delayed due to rain?  They were planning on moving the race to NBCSN at that time to not make way for Sunday Night Football, but for Football Night in America.

Sunday saw the South Point 400 start up against NBC’s highly-rated NFL highlight show Sunday Night Football preview show.  Not great.  This time of year, it’s just tough.  Racing out west makes it worse.  Being in the desert like Las Vegas is another strike against you.

Granted, since Sunday night was the first Cup playoff race of the year, there was plenty of playoff focus.  Early on in the playoffs with 16 playoff contenders, it isn’t that bad.  It’ll get worse as the playoffs continue.

Kyle Busch ran into problems right away.  In the opening five laps of the race, he hit the wall exiting turn 2 and damaged his M&M’s Hazelnut Spread Toyota.  That necessitated a green-flag pit stop that put him two laps down.  That fact was a story and NBCSN did cover it.  What really got fans online in a twitter (pun intended) was that the No. 18 pit crew technically got away with a violation.  For 2019, NASCAR banned the fueler from doing anything on a stop other than fueling the car.  The live coverage captured Busch’s gas man grabbing a hammer that had been tossed by a crewman across the car that had landed on the decklid.  Yes, it’s a stupid rule, but one that should have been called.

NASCAR has already acknowledged that it blew the call.  Had it been called, the No. 18 would have ended up three laps down and probably destined to finish around 28th, regardless of whether or not Busch ran into the back of Garrett Smithley.  The end result there would have been that Busch would have been equally as surly after the race as he actually was.

The issues here are that: 1) NBCSN did not notice this infraction.  It was never really brought up on the telecast.  Had they done so, perhaps NASCAR would have called it.  2) NASCAR has invested a buttload of money into this Hawkeye system of cameras and a battalion of officials, yet they also missed it.  This is a system that detects one man’s fingerprints touching the ground and calls a penalty, yet it didn’t detect this.  It’s not like the No. 18 team painted its hammer the same hue of robin’s egg blue on the car.  Perhaps the system sees a hammer and thinks it’s a lug nut.

Speaking of the NFL, there was one point during the race in which Rick Allen made mention of the NFL game currently airing on NBC.  I have no idea why that would happen.  It’s not like it would go the other way.  While yes, there is typically promotion of Sunday Night Football during Cup races, that normally occurs before the game gets underway.  Promotion of races on Sunday Night Football can happen, but it’s usually for the race coming up next weekend.  They will never plug a race that is currently happening on there.

I doubt that the plug was Allen’s idea, but that’s a good way to cannibalize your audience.  By telling viewers that there’s a live NFL game on broadcast TV directly opposite you, you might convince them to hit the clicker and go watch that instead.  I know that a lot of you aren’t necessarily wrestling fans, but there is a parallel here.  In late 1998, WWE Monday Night RAW was tape-delayed on USA, while WCW Monday Nitro was live on TNT.

Right at the end of 1998, Mick Foley (wrestling under the name Mankind) won the WWE Championship on RAW.  The show was on a Tuesday night but didn’t air on television until the following Monday, Jan. 4, 1999.  Tony Schiavone, a commentator on WCW Monday Nitro, spoiled the result on live television in an attempt to cannibalize the WWE’s TV ratings (the “Monday Night Wars” were near their peak at the time).  That, and Foley had wrestled in WCW in the past and they thought he wasn’t worthy.

The result was the exact opposite of what WCW hoped would happen in that hundreds of thousands of people changed the channel from TNT to USA to watch Mankind win the title.  While some switched back, it’s arguable that the damage was done.  As shown on this line graph on Wikipedia, this occurred right around the time that the two outfits had near equal TV ratings.  The next year saw the WWF overtake the WCW handily.  Two years after the spoiling, WCW was more or less dead.  The spoiling isn’t the only reason why this happened, but it had to have played at least a small role.

While such a scenario would not happen in this case, I would not be shocked that Allen talking about a live event on another channel could have hurt the race’s TV ratings.  Let’s face facts.  The NFL is not NASCAR’s friend these days.  It’s why I think NASCAR needs to get out in front of the afternoon games for Sunday races on the east coast (meaning start at 12:30 as opposed to 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.).

During the race, news broke of the death of Mike Stefanik in an ultralight plane crash.  Allen explained what had happened to viewers in a thoughtful way for a minute or two coming out of a commercial break.  Never a good thing to have to do, but it was handled properly.

The actual on-track racing Sunday night was not necessarily the best.  It was rather hard to pass with the additional downforce.  As a result, almost nobody was happy at the end of the race.

That said, there was some decent racing to be had.  NBCSN took pains to show viewers a good amount of racing when they could.  Las Vegas races generally have a lot of green flag racing in them.  Before William Byron cut his left rear tire and spun out on lap 181, there had been over 670 miles of Cup racing at LVMS this year with only the stage breaks for cautions.

Post-race coverage appeared to be cut short.  The race was due to be followed by a 60-minute edition of NASCAR America Post-Race that would run up to 11:30 p.m. ET.  That show ended at 11 p.m.  Why?  It’s likely because the race itself ended a little early.  I guess NBCSN felt that there weren’t enough decent stories to go around.

Ultimately, viewers heard from 13 of the playoff drivers, including an angry Busch (this was where he made his quip about drivers who can’t win late model races competing in Cup).  There were also checks of the all-important points and analysis.

Prior to the race, there were a couple of notable pieces.  First up was a piece on “air conditioning” in Cup cars.  Sort of a foreign idea, but we’re basically getting at a piece about the various Koolboxes and hoses meant to keep a driver cool in the car.  NASCAR is nothing like FIA-sanctioned competition in Europe in this regard.  Overseas, a number of series have rules mandating a maximum in-car temperature of approximately 95 degrees Fahrenheit (with penalties if that temperature is exceeded).

Behind the Driver this week featured Kurt Busch.  He cited two people.  One was Craig Keough, founder/owner of Star Nursery and the man who gave him his shot in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour after Chris Trickle was killed in a drive-by shooting.

The other person was his father, Tom.  According to Busch, Tom instilled a blue-collar work ethic in him.  Tom sold MAC Tools but had to operate on east coast time while living in Las Vegas.  Not exactly ideal.

Tom was not above putting Kurt (and for that matter, Kyle) to work on the car and on other tasks.  Kurt getting involved in racing ultimately allowed Tom to walk away from his own local racing.  That’s mainly because there was only so much money to go around.  Things were stretched to the limit when Kyle started racing.

Overall, Sunday’s race was not really anything special.  We did get some good racing, but that was tempered with some not so good things.  The focus was clearly on the playoff contenders, but it was possible for non-playoff drivers to get some time in the sun.  There’s no doubt that those chances are going to decrease as time goes by.

Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300

Saturday night saw the regular season come to an end for the Xfinity Series.  300 miles determined… not a whole heck of a lot.  Ryan Sieg was more than two full races ahead of Gray Gaulding entering the race.  The only way that he could be usurped for the final playoff spot is if Gaulding or someone else shocked the world.  Even though he didn’t win the race, Christopher Bell made dang sure that wasn’t in the cards.

That said, since there really wasn’t all that much in terms of playoff storylines at play, pre-race coverage wasn’t very different from regular races.  Viewers got a decent amount of pre-race interviews, but a number of them were focused on getting momentum for the playoffs.  Also, Elliott Sadler had his final start Saturday night, so NBCSN talked to him about stepping away from the sport permanently.

Much of the race Saturday night was rather anti-climactic.  Bell snatched the lead away from Cole Custer on the very first lap and dominated the proceedings.

That said, there was still a decent amount of racing for position early on.  NBCSN attempted to show some of that action.  Then, the field spread out.  There was only so much to go around.  As a result, they tended to narrow their focus considerably.

Luckily, the second half of the race had a bit more to offer for viewers.  Bell finally had something resembling a rival in Justin Allgaier.  The field wasn’t quite as spread out and you had more action.

The way the cautions ultimately fell meant that a number of teams ended up with fresh tires in their pits at the finish.  Not so much for Tyler Reddick, who chose to pit during the final caution with 70 laps to go.  The idea of someone going over 100 miles on a tank of fuel these days is incredibly rare.

Post-race coverage was about average.  Viewers got a decent amount of post-race coverage, but with an obvious playoff bias.  I have no doubt that extra interviews were conducted, but we only got interviews that had to do with the playoffs (and Reddick winning).

Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series travel to Richmond Raceway for more night racing.  It should be an interesting show.  Meanwhile, the the IndyCar season comes to an end at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.  Formula 1 travels to Singapore, while SRO America will be at Road America in Wisconsin.  TV listings can be found in the Television tab.

We will provide critiques of the Cup and Xfinity races from Richmond in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  The Critic’s Annex on Thursday will cover both Friday night’s World of Westgate 200 for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the film Blink Of An Eye, which had a special engagement in theaters last week.

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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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2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Talk about “Much Ado About Nothing!

    Don in Connecticut

  2. Avatar

    Nice to see Kyle Busch hasn’t forgotten how to be nasty and spiteful, looking like the biggest ingrate on wheels. If one of ‘the best’ can’t figure out how to safely get past a much slower car (like several before him had), maybe the problem is his? One of the most ungracious ever to sit in a car.