Last weekend was yet another exhausting affair. Pretty much everyone except for INDYCAR and IMSA was in action. The NASCAR Cup Series had a doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway with the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and ARCA Menards Series as support. Meanwhile, the Xfinity Series spent its Saturday at alternatively wet and dry Road America.
Consumers Energy 400
Entering Sunday’s race, there seemed to be a lot of excitement after Saturday’s event. Sunday wasn’t so exciting.
Pre-race coverage more or less covered the likelihood of anyone beating Kevin Harvick on Sunday (didn’t happen) and the fact that so many teams had to drop to the rear despite a somewhat clean race Saturday until the end. Since so many drivers had to go to the back (13 of them, or a full one-third of the starting field), NBCSN chose to dispense with the regular starting grid graphic and show how everyone would be lining up since it was going to look so different than what was originally planned.
Sunday was the debut of the “Choose Rule,” or whatever it ultimately ends up being called. Generally, I’m not a fan of this. It’s gimmicky as heck and allows drivers to pick up cheap spots, something that hasn’t happened since NASCAR tried double-file restarts along with the tempestuous early-season pit rules of 1991 at Bristol. There’s a reason why there were 40 lead changes that day.
Also, the whole thing seems to be made to be an everyday thing at short tracks. I’ve been covering short-track racing for 10 years outside of Frontstretch, and the first I’d heard of it was a week before it was included with the All-Star Race. I went in with very low expectations and the drivers exceeded those expectations (honestly, I thought they were going to be wrecking each other under yellow).
That said, my personal opinions of the rule don’t really count here. What NBCSN had to do in regards to this rule was explain to the viewers how it works and what it’s designed to do. I think they did a good job with that. They had a camera fixed at the orange Flying V (which had to be moved after the Truck race) and it worked well. Still think it’s silly, though.
There was a lot of hubbub about the on-track action from Saturday leading into the race. The thought was that you were going to see amazing action. I didn’t find that to honestly be the case. It was no different from last year. These races really weren’t all that competitive. Harvick stomped the field and no one could really run with him, especially on Saturday.
It was the restarts that were key. Rule changes didn’t make a difference with them at all. The PJ1 TrackBite on the track played less of a role Sunday than it did Friday evening during the Truck race. In fact, it really wasn’t discussed all that much on the broadcast.
Tire wear was once again an issue, but it wasn’t the tires in the TrackBite. Instead, you had left-front tires showing cords. That’s not exactly good. I’m sure that William Byron was a nervous wreck after his crew told him about that.
Was there some good racing to be had Sunday? Yes, I think so, but mainly around the restarts. Outside of those, the field became spread out, which has more or less been a thing ever since the track was repaved for the 2012 season. That said, Denny Hamlin running down Harvick in the closing laps was literally the only time all day that someone managed to do that beyond the fifth lap of a run. Amazing.
The Brad Keselowski–Ryan Blaney crash was unexpected. This was truly just about the only time in the first 300 miles of the race where Harvick seemed to have met his match. Then, his main competition took each other out. That would be quite the meeting to sit in on. I have no doubt that while Roger Penske is an understanding man (he’s been around racing for over 50 years after all), he must have been ticked.
Sunday’s race might go down as one of those events in which the finish made the rest of the race look better. It really wasn’t anything special other than being too short.
Post-race coverage was relatively brief as the race ended right up against the end of the regular time slot. Combined between the regular broadcast, viewers got four driver interviews, a check of the points and a bit of analysis from the booth and from the NASCAR America studio in Charlotte before NBCSN left for postseason hockey.
For the Xfinity race, NBCSN ended up having to make use of what will probably be their only two-booth setup of the season. Dave Burns had the play-by-play call for the race, while Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett served as analysts. This booth setup was at the NASCAR Tower in uptown Charlotte. This was likely the street-level studio that is just outside the main entrance to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Burton actually had double duty, so he was scheduled to drive (or be driven) to Charlotte Motor Speedway to join the booth for the FireKeepers Casino 400 broadcast that was supposed to follow. The rain created quite a problem there. According to Google Maps, it’s a 20-minute drive from the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Then, Burton would have to scamper to the top of the tower from there. Having done it myself, that involves entering at Gate 4, walking to an elevator and taking that to suite level. Then, you would have to go to a flight of stairs and scale that to get to the roof, where the booths are.
As you’ve undoubtedly seen recently, lightning stinks. It’s dangerous for everyone involved and just causes nightmares. Saturday’s race had a 90-minute red flag due to multiple lightning strikes within eight miles of the track. How was this time spent? Parker Kligerman conducted a couple of driver interviews from inside of a steel building used for inspection and (I think) IMSA’s State of the Series presentations in recent years. In addition, there were some pre-race interviews from Michigan for the upcoming FireKeepers Casino 400. In effect, the rain delay was treated as the Cup pre-race show. It ultimately had to be since the NXS race ended right up against the start of the Cup race.
This rain delay coverage ultimately marked the NBC Sports debut of Brad Daugherty, who recently joined the NASCAR America pre-race crew. Here, his role is relatively similar to what he used to do for ESPN, bringing in his insight about the on-track action while also using his knowledge as a team owner. I don’t expect to see any giant forks in the near future, though. NBC Sports doesn’t strike me as being cool with that.
Saturday was also the first usage of NASCAR’s new alternative pit rules for standalone races. I understand why NASCAR made this move, but let’s face facts: We’ve seen this before. It didn’t work the last time. Luckily, this is the only time you’ll see it this year in the Xfinity Series. The trucks will use this at Gateway in a couple of weeks.
By “we’ve seen this before,” I’m referring to when NASCAR cut Truck pit crews down to five people and mandated that you couldn’t take fuel and tires at the same time back around 2009. This was a nightmare scenario in which you effectively couldn’t change tires if you had a round of green flag pit stops because you would lose too much time. Granted, there weren’t any stages back then, but I promise that this setup is going to be a mess. If anything, it’s more restrictive than it was the last time.
That said, Burns and the rest of the booth did a decent job explaining what is quite likely to be a travesty at Gateway. On Saturday, it led to prolonged cautions, like the five-lap full course caution at the end of stage 2 that started a couple of laps early due to Jesse Little spinning into the trap in turn 3.
In between the seven cautions, there was a good amount of racing for position. During the rainy period, you had great racing for position involving drivers such as Josh Bilicki and Preston Pardus fighting for the lead, Justin Haley, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric having to fight through the pack, and more. Take the long delay away and this was a very exciting race to watch.
However, given the sheer size of Road America, you end up with broadcast compromises that might not be able to catch everything. In this case, spotters for the broadcasts themselves play a big role, especially with Burns and the crew being in Charlotte. Not having as many of those people at your disposal can really hurt your broadcast.
In this case, two of the incidents that brought out cautions had no replay footage (Little and Scott Heckert’s spins into the gravel). We just saw aftermath footage. Viewers also never saw what caused the big damage that put Myatt Snider out of the race (I’m operating under the opinion that he ran in the back of Jeremy Clements, which resulted in him spinning into the wall at the entry to turn 3).
The late crash for Justin Allgaier also brought back the notion of crashes into unprotected concrete walls. At ovals in the Cup Series these days, this issue has all but been prevented with the exception of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At Road America, not so much. There are a bunch of unprotected concrete walls on the 4.048-mile road course that were installed in the 1990s in front of Armco barriers. This was done mainly so that the track could install a bunch of catchfencing (often referred to as “deer fencing”) to keep wild animals out. Trust me, you don’t want to run into one of those fellas at speed. Sadly, Cristiano da Matta found that out the hard way in 2006.
That said, NASCAR might want to look into this for next year. That was a big hit for Allgaier despite the fact that he was only going maybe 120 when he spun out. It ripped the entire door off the car and took the foam with it. Clements took a big hit as well. I have no doubt that NASCAR reviews these things with the tracks each year and this will likely be a point of emphasis.
Since the race finished within five minutes of the start of the Cup race, post-race coverage was all but non-existent, but that’s to be expected. NBCSN showed the points standings, signed off, then switched to the FireKeepers Casino 400 from Michigan. In Michigan, the engines had already been fired and the teams had completed two pace laps. They promised a post-race interview with Cindric during the Cup broadcast, but I couldn’t tell when it happened.
Most of that was not the fault of NBCSN. When the schedule was planned out for Saturday, they figured that the Henry 180 was going to finish with plenty of time for everything that needed to be done. Technically, the running time of the race (minus the red flag) was under three hours. NASCAR couldn’t push the Cup race back any more than they did or they could have run into problems with darkness, like the Truck race did Friday.
Given the elements at play, NBCSN did a decent job with the broadcast. I’ve liked Burns as a play-by-play man on previous NXS standalone broadcasts and thought he did a good job. Jarrett and Burton did well, too. I just don’t understand why NBC Sports asked him to do double duty. The mess left the Cup broadcast shorthanded for all of stage 1.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, NASCAR ventures into the great unknown. Four races, three of which will be run at rather strange lengths, on the infield road course at Daytona International Speedway. Will rain play a role? Will shenanigans go down? Will the hastily-added second chicane kill turn 1 as an overtaking zone? We’ll have wait and see.
In addition, the run-up to the Indianapolis 500 gets underway with practice starting Wednesday. Finally, the FIA World Endurance Championship season resumes with the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, its first race since February. TV listings are in the TV tab above.
We’ll have critiques of the Cup and Xfinity races from Daytona in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here on Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex will cover Saturday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (along with a necessary re-hash from the Xfinity race) and Friday night’s wreckfest.
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