If the lingering pandemic has done nothing else, it certainly has increased the amount of spare time I have on my hands Fridays and Saturdays. I’ve been at this NASCAR writing gig now for going on three decades, and it’s my strong preference to develop an outline for my Tuesday column by Saturday morning, start that column by Sunday afternoon and evening, then spend Monday whipping it into a bare minimum of coherence. If all goes well, I earn myself a couple of light days Monday and Tuesday to attend to errands, correspondence and appointments.
Things do not always go so well. I recognize that’s my cross to bear. With no practice or qualifying most weekends these days, sometimes you gotta dig a little deeper to come up with ideas for a column. I’ve written various random notes-type columns over the years, but they don’t typically start before late summer in the dog days of August.
The idea is to gather snippets of columns, none of which would be enough to produce a standalone version, but when gathered together, given my readers’ kindness in general and some hard-earned patience, they allow me to submit for the week. They’re not all going to be 1313 Turkey Court, folks.
I’ll start with how FOX TV is presenting race broadcasts. With fewer and fewer people allowed to attend races live (or, in some instances, less inclined to do so even when able), TV has become increasingly the face of the sport.
One thing I find increasingly irritating is the scoring pylon. It’s a large black box that takes over the left side of the screen, obscuring whatever might be happening behind it. It’s not big enough to hold the entire running order, so typically they show the top-10 runners for a while, then splice in drivers in positions 11-20 below that. At unequal time marks, they’ll shift over the bottom half of the pylon to drivers running positions 21 through 30, then, at seemingly random intervals, they’ll show the rest of the field below the top 10, sometimes for only a few seconds.
“So what’s the big deal?” I hear some of you asking. How many fans really give a damn who is running 21st to 31st anyway, especially now that NASCAR has effectively eliminated most of the “start and parkers” anyway?
Oh, there are times that I’m really interested in that group or even the drivers running behind them. Let’s say one of your favorite drivers commits a pit road violation and has to restart at the tail end of the field for a commitment box violation or removing equipment from his pit stall. He’s no longer inside the top 10. It’d be interesting to see what kind of progress they’re making advancing back toward the front of the pack. Are they storming forward like Sherman through Georgia or getting caught up behind slower traffic on what amounts to a single-groove track? Will they be able to stay on the lead lap or are the leaders bearing down on them? The basic question here is how badly is his afternoon (or evening) going to suck?
NASCAR Cup Series TV broadcasts are no longer a novelty or a rarity like they were in the 1970s until ESPN dragged the sport kicking and screaming into the limelight. Over those decades of experimentation, I thought we’d drawn some conclusions on how some things should be done. Eventually, it seemed we decided that the running order should be presented as a scroll rolling across the bottom of the screen, starting with the leader and scrolling all the way back to the driver in last. I recall reading somewhere the bottom of the screen was decided upon because humans confronted with anything moving above their line of vision triggered a fight-or-flight response that caused general uneasiness. My days of visions of pterodactyls in the garden are long since behind me, but I still prefer the scroll on the bottom edge of the screen.
The other big change I’ve noticed this year is a switch from videotape to cartoons when showing the drivers, mostly in promotional pieces. Yeah, I’m of the generation that grew up with Saturday morning cartoons. We’re talking the hardcore stuff here: Tom and Jerry, The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd. Is it duck season or wabbit season? Oh, I don’t know but I’m fixing to shoot something.
Yes, they depicted firearms in cartoons that catered to kids, a state of affairs that would probably lead to demand for congressional committees these days and billions spent on medical treatments to “cure” little deviant bastards like me before we all headed to the mall with assault style rifles to avenge the lifetime of fear and violence brother Daffy had to endure. Had his beak blown 180 degrees around to the backside of his head, Daffy did. Yes, sir. I seen it with my own two eyes. More than once.
The cartoon NASCAR drivers are, of course, a lot better behaved, and to this point unarmed. You want violence during a NASCAR TV broadcast? You’ll have to wait with the rest of us for the next Noah Gragson interview.
I’m not sure why FOX made the switch from video to cartoons. Maybe they still have unresolved issues regarding their Little Digger experiment that went so badly awry? Hey, little sympathy for self-inflicted wounds, folks.
More likely, it had to do with shooting those video clips while still keeping the mandated six feet apart from other sentient beings and fleeing immediately back to the relative safety of your second guest bedroom as soon as the latest “Stranger Danger” virus-carrying threat can be banished.
In some instances, the cartoon depictions of various drivers are good enough to be passable in that you can recognize what driver they are trying to depict, though often times I have to look at the sponsorship on the cartoon drivers’ suit to figure out which one of several it is supposed to be. Other cartoons are done by dropouts of those art correspondence schools that challenged eager young artist wannabes to draw “the Pirate” or “Tippy the Turtle.”
Some are just too awful to look at. Hair seems to present a real challenge to some of the would-be cartoonists. And since these days, every driver but Harvick has a full head of hair, that’s an issue. Facial hair is even more challenging. I have seen Martin Truex Jr. in real life and he’s a reasonable-looking guy. He doesn’t look like a deranged Wookie coming down off a three-month narcotics binge like in the cartoon version of him FOX frequently uses.
Cartoons aside, is Chase Elliott off to a slow start this year in his title defense? Let’s look at some numbers. With Alex Bowman having won at Richmond last week, all three of Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates have won a Cup race this year, though he has not (Kyle Larson won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and William Byron won at Homestead-Miami Speedway). Elliott has led just 76 laps in the Cup Series to date this year, and his average finish is 14th. His best two results to date this year are second in the Daytona 500 and again at Martinsville. His only DNF to date was at Atlanta, where he’s a hometown favorite (and where, to paraphrase Kenny Mayne, “he remains popular”).
Elliott ran just five Cup races in 2015 with a best result of 16th at Richmond Raceway. Chase ran the full slate of Cup races in 2016 with a best result of second at Michigan International Speedway. He again ran the full schedule of races in 2017 with a best result of second at Dover International Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall (the penultimate race of that season).
Elliott won his first Cup event in his 99th start at Watkins Glen International, the 22nd Cup event of the 2018 season. He also went on to win Dover and Kansas Speedway that year. He also won three races in the 2019 season, the first of them at Talladega Superspeedway, the 10th Cup event of that year. He also won at Watkins Glen that August and at the Charlotte ROVAL late that season. His average finish was a lowly 15.1 that year, leaving him 10th in the season-long standings.
Last year, Elliott won five times, with the first of those victories being at Charlotte in the eighth race of the season. His next victory didn’t occur until August at the Daytona road course. His next win was at the Charlotte ROVAL, getting him into the title chase where he won at Martinsville and Phoenix, the last two races of the season to claim that title.
See a pattern here? While I am surprised Elliott hasn’t won a race yet this year, I hardly think it’s time to hit the panic button or even the sireen. He was, after all, ahead of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in the points going into Sunday’s Talladega race (though he left two markers behind Harvick), and nobody was writing either of them off just yet.