Darlington Raceway is always an interesting place to watch a NASCAR Cup Series race. Yes, the 2021 Cook Out Southern 500 took over four hours to run, but that’s OK. Sit down and grab some popcorn for the Cup broadcast; the racing here takes a while. It also didn’t seem like there were 11 cautions given the amount of green-flag racing, but there were.
Sunday night (Sept. 5) was also the start of the playoffs. In past years, we’ve also seen a shift in the way the races are covered once playoff time comes around. Was that the case with NBC Sports Network this weekend?
Honestly, the answer was not really. Sunday night’s race had plenty of action to go around. Yes, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson combined to lead 302 of 367 laps, but there was a good amount of racing for position throughout the field. Also, some non-playoff drivers were able to inject themselves into the conversation, leading to appropriate NBCSN coverage.
Ross Chastain could have won this race outright had Ryan Blaney not had braking problems and spun to bring out caution No. 10 on lap 320. At that point, Chastain had beaten Larson off pit road and was seemingly faster than the points leader. He would have had to beat Hamlin to win the race, but Hamlin got bailed out by the yellow that flew a couple laps before he was going to make his final stop.
Corey LaJoie was also legitimately excellent at Darlington, the second-best non-playoff driver all night long. Just goes to show how far Spire Motorsports has come in the past year and change. Had that Blaney caution not flown, he would have finished somewhere between sixth and ninth. Remember, the No. 12 Ford was a team that struggled to be competitive last year at this time.
Speaking of LaJoie, the excellent run for the No. 7 team did not go unnoticed as they got a good amount of airtime during the race. LaJoie spent much of the evening scrapping with some of the playoff drivers and got quite a bit of dap from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Prior to the race, NBCSN rolled out a throwback starting lineup graphic in which all 37 teams starting the race had their drivers’ names called out, along with a picture of their car. At the time, it was described as a small tribute to Ken Squier.
It might not be the official throwback weekend anymore… but that's not stopping us.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 5, 2021
Looking at the graphics used, it’s a combination of the current NASCAR Cup Series logo (which I find incredibly plain, but that’s the prevailing design trend these days) and what CBS used back in 1991.
I tweeted a little about this idea during the race, but I’ll go into detail here, using 1991 as an example. Back then, nearly everyone in the field that had a sponsor had one full-time, and there weren’t very many special paint schemes. The Daytona 500 that year with military schemes due to the then-ongoing Operation Desert Storm in Iraq was an exception to the rule.
Today, almost no one has the same paint scheme in Cup with the exception of Alex Bowman and Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51, driven Sunday night by Cody Ware. While yes, the diehards will know who is in every car at all times, not everyone is like that.
NBC Sports and FOX Sports at this point need to realize that the normal setup used these days is rather deficient to allow all fans to ascertain who is in what car. That said, I believe they should move away from the more streamlined starting lineup graphics we’ve seen over the past couple of years (FOX Sports is the bigger offender here) and toward something closer to what we had Sunday night.
Maybe the final version won’t be exactly like what we got, but something a little smaller. It would still need to show the driver and the car. Just make sure you point out everyone like NBCSN did Sunday night and not skip out after going through the first four rows to dial someone up on the radio. You can do that after the starting lineup is complete (or beforehand).
Outside of the racing, one of the things that might be discussed a fair amount from NBCSN coverage was Kyle Busch‘s entry into the garage (and exit from the race) on lap 126. That would have been frightening had I been there.
I speak from professional experience; I once saw a guy get hit by a golf cart in the garage during the 2013 Rolex 24 at Daytona. It wasn’t the fan’s fault that it happened (he was OK, but clearly shaken). The crew member from the Muehlner Motorsports America team driving the cart was basically out of control, driving like a nincompoop.
This slow-motion clip of Busch’s garage entrance really brings home just how close a call this was. As for the classical music, that’s an element of the Team I5G dudes who tweeted the video out. They do this on their “ARCA Brake Weekly” iRacing YouTube videos every time someone takes out a cone, which Busch did here.
— Team I5G (@TeamI5G) September 6, 2021
As for the post-crash interview, it seems like Busch has been staying up late recently, watching the various marathons of South Park on Comedy Central. They do air the show about 50 hours a week these days (not an exaggeration), so he’d have plenty of chances. He probably saw this portion of the 2001 episode, “It Hits The Fan” and replicated it on NBCSN.
That said, I don’t think viewers got the complete idea of what happened there. The replays kicked in when Austin Dillon was running in on Busch and gave him the tap that turned him around. Our own Zach Sturniolo was there Sunday night and indicated something else being in play that viewers didn’t see. NBC needed to show another 5-10 seconds here.
In past years, NBC Sports has had a throwback booth for part of the Southern 500 at Darlington. That is no longer the case, but they did have a special setup for stage two. Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved over to the play-by-play role while Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty came upstairs from the Peacock Pit Box to call the stage. The result was interesting.
Earnhardt Jr., Jarrett and Petty do work very well together. These men have been around motorsports since they were in diapers and can convey that experience well. It’s a completely different feel as compared to when the normal booth is in play. Also, it’s a little less crowded since we have three voices instead of four.
That said, there were a couple of issues. For example, Earnhardt Jr. referred to Marty Snider as Marty Smith when he threw it to Snider for the aforementioned repetitious Busch interview. Yes, Earnhardt Jr. apologized for Busch’s cussing, then apologized to Snider for screwing up his name, saying “that’s what happens when you know two great Martys.”
But Earnhardt Jr. still excelled overall with different talent around him. Each week, he also has stories seemingly no one else has. At Darlington, he mentioned during the broadcast that he first met BJ McLeod when McLeod showed up at JR Motorsports to acquire used parts from the team to take back to his own shop and use on his race cars.
There were a number of flat tires during Sunday night’s race. Some, like Chase Elliott’s on lap 327, were the direct result of contact. Others, I’m not so sure about. William Byron’s crash appeared to be caused by one of those instances in which his tire changer might have accidentally caught the inner valve stem while changing the left front tire.
As you may remember, Byron left his stall while the tire changer was trying to get the wheel tightened. He ended up in the wall a couple of laps later.
Yes, tire wear at Darlington is always a thing. However, you never really saw how much of a thing it was with the exception of lap times. Never really saw what any of the tires looked like on the broadcast. For what it’s worth, I did see a nasty tire that came off Erik Jones’ car a couple of laps before the end of stage two, but that’s just because I saw it on Twitter.
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) September 6, 2021
I’m assuming Jones had a tire rub that caused such nastiness. However, the new pavement in turn 2 was a big story entering the race. I wanted to know how that would have affected overall tire wear since it was such a small percentage of the lap. Watching the race Sunday night, I’m not sure. Didn’t really change the pit windows much.
The race ultimately finished about a half-hour behind schedule. Despite that, there was still a decent amount of post-race content. Viewers got 10 post-race interviews, mostly with playoff drivers (Chastain was the exception here). There were also point checks and additional analysis. Fairly substantial, to be honest.
Racing-wise, viewers got a good amount of action, but it was still a little too closely covered for my taste. I understand a lot of focus on the leaders late in the race since Larson was doing his best to get to Hamlin, but there were long stretches Sunday night without a lot going on.
For instance, NBCSN definitely could have had more than one Through the Field segment (which is now sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken). However, it could be argued that pit strategies, especially in the final stage, may have precluded more of those segments.
Did I enjoy the long broadcast? Sure. There was plenty of good. There are also things NBCSN should look at from their throwback broadcasts and try to incorporate them into the regular broadcasts. Just remember that the race each week has anywhere from 36-40 drivers and not just 16. That’s critical.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series will have a doubleheader at Richmond Raceway. It will be Race No. 2 of the Round of 16 for Cup, while it will be the penultimate race in the regular season for Xfinity. Also, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his one and only appearance of the year behind the wheel.
Outside of Richmond, the NTT IndyCar Series will be back in action at Portland International Raceway on the somewhat narrow 1.95-mile road course. IMSA will be at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the Hyundai Monterey Sports Car Championship, a race weekend that was originally scheduled for the first weekend of May before being delayed. TV listings can be found here.
We will provide critiques of the Cup and Xfinity races from Richmond for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. With some additional time on my hands this week, we’ll get into the Truck and Xfinity races from Darlington in the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter. The Truck broadcast included the pit reporting debut of Josh Sims for FOX Sports 1, while Saturday’s race was action packed (had more lead changes than Sunday night’s event).
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About the author
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 the Super DIRTcar Series.