(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Couch Potato Tuesday: NBC Brings New Innovations, Decent Coverage to Texas

Last weekend was ridiculous. Too much action at one time. For instance, I originally planned to have a recap of Sunday’s 4 Hours of Le Castellet, the season opener for the European Le Mans Series, here on Frontstretch. I still haven’t seen that race yet. The schedule was just crushing with Cup, Xfinity, the Trucks, two IndyCar races, F1, WeatherTech and Michelin Pilot Challenge in action, plus my own work at Lebanon Valley. Oh, and it was an edit weekend as well. Brutal.

Last weekend saw NASCAR travel to Texas for some action under the hot Denton County sun. It was also the second NASCAR race weekend for NBC Sports. They are now full-time through early November (assuming nothing bad happens).

O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Sunday brought 96-degree temperatures and 500 miles of racing to Texas Motor Speedway. You had a small crowd of fans on-site and a lack of tire wear. More on that later. It also gave us more than five hours of coverage to look at.

In regards to the fans, everyone was very happy to have them on-site. Everything feels stilted otherwise. While NASCAR has instituted protocols that are likely more draconian than any other racing sanctioning body in the country right now (compare NASCAR’s rules to INDYCAR), the fans are not really subject to them. I think they only have to wear masks when they go in the gate and maybe in the concourses. Yes, I know it’s outside, but you’re huddled around other dudes (especially when the red flag came out). Don’t be a jerk. I wear a mask at all times at Lebanon Valley, including over seven hours Saturday. I don’t like it (and the track isn’t requiring me to do so in my role), but I’m doing it anyway.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to the office to work on Wednesday for the first time since the end of March. I’m currently wondering if I’m going to be allowed to eat lunch while I’m there. Why would I say that? We have to wear masks at all times in common areas, and if they can’t give us the necessary checkerboard cubicle pattern to ensure the proper distance (meaning no one immediately behind you or to either side), in our cubicles as well. There are no exceptions to the rule. If you can’t take your mask off for any reason, it’s pretty hard to eat (thankfully, straws allow you to still drink). Also, I don’t really have enough seniority to be able to run out to my car and eat there. Heating the lunch up and getting to my car would take up at least a third of my lunch break. I couldn’t enjoy it. At least it’s only one day a week for the first two weeks.

Enough about that. Just rather frustrated on that note.

Texas saw some changes instituted to the broadcasts. One is the fact that Rutledge Wood is not on-site. Instead, he’s stationed at his house and in charge of a new segment called “Ask Rut,” which has two focuses. One is for viewers to submit questions about the action on-track. Another is further engagement with viewers via viewer-submitted pictures and videos. Based on what I saw last weekend, this could be a mixed bag. On one hand, viewer engagement is definitely a good idea. We’ve had enough rain delays this year to last a lifetime. That could be a way to kill some time (along with more classic races since I’m starting to tire of Radioactive segments).

On the subject of tires, the performance was something that we really haven’t seen since the early 2000s (example: Elliott Sadler winning the 2001 Food City 500 by going the final 155 laps on one set of tires). That’s even with the PJ1 TrackBite out there. It’s uncanny. In regards to the tires, Goodyear tweeted this out before the race.

Was Goodyear successful with this strategy? I don’t know. I can’t speak to tire temperatures since no one’s going to share that publicly. Viewers didn’t really get to see any shots of the tires after they were behind the wall Sunday. PRN Radio did tweet this about a set of tires that had done a full fuel run on Aric Almirola’s car.

That is not very much wear at all. 50-lap tires were just as good as fresh tires. As a result, there were plenty of times where teams were doing 200 miles on their left-side tires, or even their right-sides. It led to a very busy race for the booth in regards to the sheer amount of strategy in play. Literally everything was in the cards. Rarely does stuff like that happen. The only real tire issue was with Brennan Poole toward the end of stage one.

The strategy led to a lot of green-flag pit stops, even when cautions came out that would allow teams to pit when the rest of the field was at a reduced pace. Here, NBC Sports unveiled another new innovation. It doesn’t sound like much, but they can time multiple stops at once (even if they don’t air them) and put that on-screen. They don’t discriminate who they time, either. For some of the smaller teams, maybe that’s not the best thing. For example, I know that BJ McLeod had a 31-second pit stop under green during the race Sunday. I don’t know why his pit stop was that long (I’m operating under the assumption that he needed some major changes on his No. 78), but I know it was that long.

Given the ongoing situation that is going to result in limited personnel being able to cover stops at all, this is going to really help. I like it.

Saturday saw Justin Allgaier get busted for a blend-line violation. Sunday saw Almirola, who had dominated early, fall victim to it as well. It was pretty cut and dry in my opinion, but it’s something that has rarely been called there in the past (or really anywhere, for that matter). It just seemed strange. I felt that NBCSN handled this situation well, especially knowing that they had the experience from Saturday.

The Quin Houff crash late in the race was rather ridiculous. Yes, Houff admitted afterwards that he was trying to pit and committed too late.

This was pretty obvious to the booth when they first saw a replay (they cut to the crash a little too late to see it in real time). Since then, Brad Keselowski broached the idea of driver standards. I don’t want an equivalent to the FIA Super License in NASCAR, but you have to use your head when you and everyone around you are going 175 mph. These things can’t stop in 100 feet, and at these speeds, you wouldn’t want them to stop that fast.

Our own Zach Sturniolo described Houff’s actions as if he “JJ Yeley 2006’ed [Christopher Bell]” on our Slack Sunday. That is a reference to this crash in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway back then.

Of course, the difference here is that Houff put himself hard into the outside wall doing that instead of someone else like Bell or Matt DiBenedetto (Yeley still got hit by Robby Gordon and ended up behind the wall anyway). On a personal note, I would not have wanted to deal with the angry Pat Tryson that night.

Overall, the coverage of on-track action was pretty good early on. You got a decent amount of racing throughout the field. I was quite satisfied. As the race continued on, that fluttered away, which stunk.

Post-race coverage was OK. Viewers got interviews with winner Austin Dillon and teammate/runner-up Tyler Reddick, along with a standings check before the main broadcast ended. Once that was over, viewers got additional interviews and analysis on NASCAR America Post-Race. As compared to FOX Sports, viewers with NBC are getting a more complete experience at the moment.

Vankor 250 or 350

Before we start here, NASCAR was confusing as heck in regards to this race. As far as I know, this is supposed to be the rescheduled first Truck race of the year at Texas, originally scheduled for March 27. The race name persisted, but the distance did not. This was originally going to be a 350-kilometer race. However, NASCAR lengthened the race to 250 miles or 400 kilometers. I have no idea what they’re going to do with the other race (I guess run that as a 350k race in October?), but this confusion was unnecessary. It’s why the race wasn’t referred to in a uniform fashion here at Frontstretch last weekend.

FOX Sports 1 brought back NASCAR RaceDay – NGROTS Edition for the first time since Las Vegas in February, nearly five months ago. Here, we had Kaitlyn Vincie re-assuming her role as host of the show, with Phil Parsons and Todd Bodine discussing the issues surrounding the series from the balcony of their giant studio in Charlotte.

The show did start with the news of Kyle Busch getting disqualified from the Xfinity Series My Bariatric Solutions 300. Since the Xfinity race ran long on NBCSN and the network had to leave Texas to get to Sebring for the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring, this was the first time that it was referenced on NASCAR television. While they didn’t get into the specifics, they were convinced that it would do nothing but make his desire to win even greater.

There was also talk about the Triple Truck Challenge, which was announced Saturday in Texas. This is going to be really interesting since the tracks are more diverse than last year. For what it’s worth, the Daytona race is going to be a dang nightmare without so much as a shakedown for anyone, especially in Cup. We’ve heard nothing about any chicanes being added to the course, and with the current Cup package, 200 mph at the start-finish line is in play based on iRacing (which is all I have to go by right now).

Given the current setup, pre-race interviews are going to be scarce. Viewers got one (via Skype) with Sheldon Creed and one at the track with Johnny Sauter. That might be the best we can do for now.

Joining Vince Welch in the booth Saturday night were Michael Waltrip and Regan Smith. Honestly, I think that Smith might be better as a booth analyst than a pit reporter. He can relate things fairly in that context. While yes, being a booth analyst does require you to think on your feet, your prep work is essentially done before the race starts. As a pit reporter, you do plenty of prep leading up to the broadcast over multiple days. In 2018, I interviewed NBC Sports’s Kelli Stavast and asked her about her preparation.

As a booth analyst, you’re not running around getting information 10 minutes before pre-race ceremonies, and your procedure is more or less fixed unless something outrageous happens. That said, there’s nothing stopping you from texting people at the track to supplement your knowledge. Even better, you’ll be able to feel your phone if it vibrates. You can’t do that at the track (or at least, I can’t).

As compared to recent Truck races, this was much cleaner. Waltrip even referenced this toward the end of stage one, saying “if you’ve watched Truck races the last couple of weeks, you’re probably wondering when they’re going to wreck.” That’s not really a reflection of the broadcasts, but of the races themselves. There’s been a lot of wrecking recently. Too much.

Saturday night saw a fair amount of side-by-side racing, which FS1 did a decent job bringing to the viewers. It was more competitive than a good chunk of the Cup race was. I suppose having cooler weather and less downforce did help. Yes, Busch won it, but it wasn’t easy. He was pressed hard for much of the race by Christian Eckes (which pleased him) and Zane Smith.

Post-race coverage was actually a bit more substantial than normal since the race ended a little early. Alan Cavanna had the time to conduct interviews with the top five finishers — Busch, Eckes, Matt Crafton, Stewart Friesen (who was fresh off Modified victories at both Fonda and Albany-Saratoga in the days leading up to the race — and Brett Moffitt).

Saturday night’s broadcast was fairly decent. While I’m still not the biggest fan of Vince Welch as a play-by-play guy (and a number of the readers of this column might agree), I think that Smith would work better as a booth analyst. I’m sure he’d rather race, but I believe the booth is the right place for him. The recent Cup races since the season’s resumption have exposed his deficiencies in the pits to a certain degree. It’s definitely nothing against Smith, the man. I’ve only met him once and talked to him for three minutes in 2010, years before he started doing TV. He’s a likable guy, but just wasn’t the best at getting information out there in the pit environment. Because of that, viewers felt a little more in the dark than normal.

That’s all for this week. We’ve got another brutal weekend coming up with a quintuple-header in Kansas. This time, the NASCAR Cup Series starts it off Thursday night. My only explanation for that slot is that NBC Sports influenced it due to Sunday being the (rescheduled) final day of the 2019-20 Premier League season. Prior to writing this column, I watched part of the Wolverhampton-Crystal Palace match and they were advertising their Championship Sunday coverage. All 10 matches will take place at the same time. All of NBC’s networks that can will get in on the act, in addition to the new Peacock service. Still stinks, though.

Friday is a doubleheader with the first Truck race, followed by ARCA at 10 p.m. ET. Swell. Saturday is another doubleheader, with the second Truck race starting a mere 14 hours after the first one ends, then the Xfinity race. Outside of NASCAR, many of the major series are off. The GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup does start its season this weekend at Monza in Italy.

We will provide critiques of as many of the races in Kansas as possible for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here on Frontstretch. Normally, that would include the Cup race, but since it’s Thursday night, I might just put it in Friday’s Newsletter. There will be additional races from Kansas covered here as well.

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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3 comments

  1. Avatar

    Regarding that video clip of JJ Yeley & Mark Martin.
    Watching Mark Martin hit that wall, that hard, and no injuries makes me wonder about Dale Sr crash at Daytona. It didn’t look half that hard yet fatal.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you Phil. Always a great write-up. And we certainly appreciate your extra efforts with all the different racing series and of course dealing with the challenges during this very strange time of the Wuhan virus.

  3. Avatar

    Did the ever show a replay of Jimmie Johnson crashing into TY Dillon under yellow? All I saw was Dillon’s car with major rear end damage and JJ with a bent up nose.