(Photo: Getty Images/NASCAR Media)

Couch Potato Tuesday: NASCAR Returns in Darlington With Big Changes

Sunday was a big day for NASCAR, as the Cup Series returned to action at Darlington Raceway. Viewers are hungry for anything sports-related, and while the general opinion right now is that the race went off without a hitch, it’ll be quite a while before we know that for sure. Overnight numbers indicated that the audience was the largest for a Darlington race since 2011.  The final ratings will be posted on our TV Ratings page Tuesday afternoon.

TV-wise, NASCAR returned with a bunch of changes. No subterfuge. FOX was upfront and honest with what they were working with. Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon were based out of the FOX complex on Route 24 in Charlotte along with Larry McReynolds. Regan Smith was the network’s sole track presence working the pits.

A smaller than normal group of technicians and producers were in the TV compound at the track, while another group was in Charlotte. All the replays came out of the FOX Broadcast Center in Los Angeles. Long story short, this was a complicated setup.

What did that look like on TV? I feared that it was going to be jam-packed with drone shots that would leave me dizzy once the race was over. Yes, there were drones hanging around and they did get some usage during the broadcast, though not as much as I thought.

Overall, the actual pictures we got didn’t look dissimilar to normal Cup races from before this pandemic began. You still had a good number of stationary and roof-mounted cameras in use. The handheld cameras, not so much. There were a couple, but not many. There were more in-car cameras in play. Cup races outside of the Daytona 500 in recent years have typically only had four cars with cameras. Sunday’s race had seven.

One of my primary takeaways from the broadcast is that I’m somewhat confused as to what Smith’s role in this setup. Yes, he’s the pit reporter, but what can he do? I’ve interviewed pit reporters about their roles multiple times in the past, such as this interview I did with NBC Sports’ Kelli Stavast in 2018. A good chunk of what you would normally do (weekly meetings with drivers and crew chiefs to gather information for the broadcasts) is largely out of the question right now.

In addition, it appears that Smith is heavily limited in what he can do in the pits during the race. He cannot really talk to crew chiefs on the broadcast. I suppose he could text them, but there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t know he was texting them. Darlington may not be anywhere near as loud as Bristol, but it’s still loud enough that you wouldn’t hear a text chime or feel a vibrating phone.

As a result, he couldn’t add all that much to the broadcast. I felt a little lost at times during the race simply because we don’t have the information that we’re accustomed to. Part of that is the fact that there wasn’t any practice. Let’s face it, there’s only so far you can go with people just being happy to get back out there.

Viewers heard from Jimmie Johnson after he crashed out of the race at the end of stage one, but not from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. If you’re wondering, the quotes you’ve seen where Stenhouse voiced embarrassment about his crash came from Stenhouse’s Twitter feed. I cannot say if anyone talked to him after he left the infield care center, I just know that Smith didn’t on-air.

With no PR reps allowed on the property (with the possible exception of manufacturer reps) and the few media members sequestered in the press box outside of turn 3, you’re really missing out on coverage. I just felt more lost than normal.

Race coverage-wise, viewers got a decent amount of racing for position. Given the dominance shown at times by Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Alex Bowman, much of the action wasn’t at the very front. Viewers got a good idea of what was going on throughout much of the field.  Better than at Phoenix back in March. Also, the Virtual Media Center that NASCAR has made available to media members like myself helps a lot. The timing and scoring is generally better than what’s available at NASCAR.com and updates quicker.

Since Sunday’s race ran long, there was not all that much post-race coverage. Smith conducted interviews with Harvick, Bowman and Kurt Busch before FOX left Darlington. Again, Smith is only one man. He can only do so much.

Prior to the race itself, there were three pre-race shows worth noting. First, WJZY and WGHP, the FOX affiliates from Charlotte and Greensboro, teamed up for a special show called Return to Racing. The show was aired on local TV stations owned by the Nexstar Media Group. They own CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, CW, MyNetworkTV, and Telemundo affiliates, so it was all over the map. They’re not as large as the Sinclair Broadcast Group, but still own 173 local affiliates (they also operate 41 additional affiliates under local marketing agreements or shared service agreements. That takes some explanation and this is not really the place for it). Here in Albany, N.Y., the show aired on WXXA FOX 23 right up to the start of NASCAR RaceHub. In the track’s home market (Florence-Myrtle Beach, S.C.), it aired on CBS affiliate WBTW News13.

By all means, this looked every bit like a local production. The two North Carolina FOX affiliates had four on-air personalities (Will Kunkel and Josh Sims from FOX 46, while Kevin Connolly and Danny Harnden represented FOX 8) stationed across Routes 34 and 151 from the track, introducing various features. One was about Darlington Raceway being chosen to restart NASCAR’s season, with an interview with Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp. Another actually focused on the recent eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series “champion” Timmy Hill and how it might positively affect his career in real life. They even had a reporter at the Raceway Grill down the street from the track, talking to locals showing up there just to be close to the action.

This was an interesting way to cover NASCAR in a somewhat less-refined fashion. The typical productions viewers get from FOX Sports and NBC Sports are slick shows with a large budget. What the Nexstar stations did was put together a program that definitely had a feel of a local broadcast but at the same time a feeling that everyone involved knew exactly what they were talking about and could do the sport justice. You don’t see that every day.

That said, I did miss the first five minutes. There was some sort of technical difficulty. Not sure what it was (when I tuned in, the screen just said Technical Difficulties with the FOX 23 logo on there), but the show came on in the middle of their interview with Tharp.

While that show was on TV, NASCAR had their own brief pre-race show on their YouTube channel. Alex Weaver (working from her home) conducted a series of interviews via webcam/Zoom. For instance, Matt DiBenedetto talked with Weaver from his Ford Mustang streetcar. Cole Pearn was also on the show from his home in Canada, along with Erik Jones.

Honestly, I felt like I gained more from this YouTube pre-race show than the edition of NASCAR RaceHub that aired on FOX. There, you had Shannon Spake in the studio, with Jamie McMurray and Larry McReynolds.

On NASCAR RaceHub, the big feature of the show was about Ryan Newman’s return to the seat. Most of the footage used for that piece came from the Zoom press conference that Newman held last week.

The only pre-race interview was conducted with Clint Bowyer on the grid. Smith has been equipped with a boom mike with which he can interview drivers. That worked out fine, although it was probably a little unwieldy for Smith to work with.

Overall, given the circumstances, FOX did quite well with what they had. As the season continues, I truly hope that these restrictions can ease a little so that something resembling a normal circumstance can return.

I feel like NASCAR may have forced FOX into sending only Smith to the track to serve as a pit reporter. In the coming weeks, I believe that they need to look at that and see if it would be possible to have someone else to accompany him on the opposite end of pit road. Or even just someone to talk to people after they leave the Infield Care Center.

As for Joy and Gordon, I’m not a fan of them staying in Charlotte, but Darlington doesn’t have the largest booth set up on earth.  It may not have been possible to provide the necessary separation.

In Charlotte this weekend, I think that it might be possible. NBC Sports has taken advantage of two broadcast booths next door to one other for the past two years during the ROVAL weekend since they have four people in their booth. I’ve been in one of those booths personally during a practice session (and looked in on Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte in the other one).  I feel like it would be possible to put Joy and Gordon in the separate booths with the appropriate monitors and radio hookups for the Coca-Cola 600 (and for that matter, the qualifying broadcast as well), but you might have to remove some of the other people that would normally be in there as well.  However, I believe the viability of such a move would be completely NASCAR’s call. It would be out of FOX’s hands. The only thing I can guarantee for sure is that you would likely get sweaty up there. It’s not exactly the coolest place on earth, and that’s with the shades down to block the harshest sunlight.

That’s for this week. Racing continues this week with the Xfinity Series returning to action at Darlington tonight (Tuesday, May 19), weather permitting, of course. Wednesday night sees a second Cup race at Darlington. Sunday starts three nights of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. TV listings can be seen in the TV link above.

For now, I’m planning on covering the Toyota 200 and Toyota 500 in the Critic’s Annex, which is scheduled to return to the Frontstretch Newsletter on Thursday. That plan is admittedly sketchy; as of this writing, Tropical Storm Arthur is hanging out off the coast of Cape Hatteras. It’s not going to make landfall, but rain bands have been lashing the Pee Dee region all day Monday. The forecast for the next three days is not great. We’ll have to see what happens.

Next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday will cover the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte. It might also have the second Darlington Cup race, depending on how long it takes to get that in.

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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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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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    I have to say one benefit of all the restrictions was not having to put up with Michael Waltrips’ silly walk down pit road. While it certainly wasn’t a ‘regular’ amount of coverage, I thought they did well under the circustances.

  2. Avatar

    While everything wasn’t up to par with what we are used to, it was good enough if that’s what it needs to be to run the races.

    In a way, having less coverage allows you to just sit back and watch the race without all the chatter and over analyzation. There have been many weeks where I have yelled at the TV for them to just shut up and let me watch the race.

    And, as sb pointed out,,,, Hallelujah!!!! no Michael Waltrip!!!! makes it almost worth it.

  3. Avatar

    Totally agree that this stripped down coverage may actually be better. No meaningless, maybe slightly informative spots after or during the racing. i.e. fewer people equates to more actual race coverage. Yes issues with the infield and pit coverage as those are typically good and provide perspective. Smith did his best being the lone reporter.
    It would be interesting to see a facetime report after a caution pit stop with a crew chief.

  4. Avatar

    Well the race itself was good coverage. I’ve said all along they don’t need so many so called analysts and comedians to tell us track coverage. Now I certainly don’t know what was actually said because I turn sound off and listen to MRN radio. It is about 30 seconds behind actual tv. But worth it not to listen to Jeff and Larry mac

    Lots of racing coverage.

  5. Avatar

    I’m with those who were delighted by the absence of Michael Waltrip. I also thought the television coverage was pretty good, and was actually more watchable that “normal” coverage. I would like to see less use of the in-car camera, but I know some people really like them, so maybe they’re doing the right thing. I’m only one viewer.

    One thing that gets on my nerves is the knee jerk reaction to assure the audience that a wreck is not a name driver’s fault. We are immediately told that the lapped car, “had to check up and there was no place for Jimmie Johnson to go,” when that clearly was not the case. Anyone who has watched racing for any length of time could see when the accident was happening that Johnson was trying to pass to the inside and messed up. Why do they even try this “God don’t make no mistakes” crapola on us?

    Doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t a great driver, of course he is. He’s won seven championships. But there is no human being alive who doesn’t ever make a mistake.

  6. Avatar
    wildcatsfan2016

    Count me in as very happy that Mikey Waltrip wasn’t part of the broadcast. The less is more approach worked well IMO.

  7. Avatar

    Oh my gosh, Michael Waltrip on xfinity race broadcast

    • Avatar
      wildcatsfan2016

      janice – ugh that’s sad. Knowing that Mikey will be on that broadcast has made me lose interest in watching.