Championship Weekend is a sad time for race fans. Quite simply, it means that there’s no more NASCAR racing for the remainder of the year. I remember feeling really bummed out back when I was about eight when the season ended, because I knew that there wasn’t going to be any racing to watch for months. In 1992, you basically saw nothing after the Hooters 500 until Speedweeks. The only way you could whet your appetite was to watch some of the offseason episodes of Inside Winston Cup Racing on TNN.
That’s not as much of an issue these days. Heck, there’s still plenty of racing to be had next weekend. Today, I’m flying to Georgia to cover some more racing. Formula 1 won’t be done until December. Then, you have offseason theater, where plenty of action is available to view, either new to TV or not. Finally, there’s YouTube, the rabbit hole to end all rabbit holes. Want to watch John Cleland “go for first?” You can do that whenever you want. Regardless, we’ll keep up-to-date TV listings here at Frontstretch for the entire winter.
Before we get into the offseason, we must discuss Sunday’s Season Finale 500k. Apparently, NASCAR really wants to call the final race of the season the Championship Race. I hate that. First off, you’re taking money away from the track since they would ostensibly not be allowed to sell naming rights to the race. It also just doesn’t look right. It’s as if you didn’t try.
For the sake of this conversation, it seems like the final race of the season should have stayed in Homestead, but I guess I understand why they did it. Racing out west really puts NASCAR in a bind, though. The season should end on the East Coast for no other reason than schedule flexibility. You’re locked into the setup you had Sunday racing in Phoenix.
Sunday’s coverage was substantial from Phoenix. There was nearly two hours of pre-race coverage on NBC. I’d say that 90% of it or more was focused on the Championship 4. The problem here is that there’s only so much you can say. Think of it as a smaller version of what happens with the Super Bowl. I admit to not watching the vast majority of that programming, but they start at 10 a.m. for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff. When filling two hours is a struggle, I can’t perceive filling eight.
NBC had three groups of on-air personalities during pre-race coverage. Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were at the front of the grid, while Marty Snider, Dale Jarrett and Brad Daugherty were on the Ruoff Mortgage Peacock Pit Box. Finally, Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Kelli Stavast were on top of Rattlesnake Hill. Rutledge Wood, Parker Kligerman and Dave Burns were in the pits. With 11 on-air personalities, it was a busy time.
You also had some notables on the broadcast. Kristin Chenowith was on the show (she was there to sing the national anthem). Drivers got special good-luck messages from notable personalities (Chase Elliott got one from Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart, while Kyle Larson got one from Mario Andretti).
Viewers got to hear from all of the Championship 4 drivers (Elliott, Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin). Thankfully, that wasn’t all. You also heard from Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Chip Ganassi. With the possible exception of Harvick, they all had big storylines surrounding them.
I was happy that some of the non-Championship eligible drivers got some time during the show, but there was so much focus on the Championship 4 that it just got to be a bit much. I’ve already mentioned the notion that there’s only so much to talk about. Another issue is that the same stuff being re-iterated over and over. There’s only so much that viewers could take of that. Eventually, they could begin to tune out.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that it should have been shorter, although that could be a conclusion that some would reach. Instead, the show should have been set out in a more inclusive fashion. Maybe give a little more time to people like Ganassi since Sunday was his last race. We actually had practice and qualifying for the first time since Indianapolis in August. That allows you to build up more content for the race itself. It’s why you can’t have these dang events be one-day shows. You can’t build anything up when everyone just shows up, hangs out in their motorcoach until an hour before the race, then races.
Going into the race, one of the storylines was around the idea that the rest of the field could be a much bigger factor this year than last year. To be honest, that really wasn’t the case. They were better than last year, but still not enough to truly be a factor. Everyone else was stronger when the final race was still in Homestead.
You didn’t hear anything about Championship 4 drivers being angry at the others for having the audacity to race them like we’ve seen in the past (see Elliott Sadler holding a grudge against Ryan Preece for years for simply racing him straight up for position at Homestead). The fact that this is even a thought is sad.
NBC’s broadcast of the race was much like Countdown to Green: heavily focused on the Championship 4. Since they mostly ran at the very front of the field, that meant that the coverage rarely left there. I don’t give a tochus that this is the final race of the season. You cover the event like it’s any other race. If there’s racing for position, show it. If not, then you can come up with something else. Give as much information as you possibly can.
Phoenix can be a cruel track on tires since there is heavy braking. Since the surface is still relatively new, wear isn’t that bad. The brake temperatures caused significant issues. Quin Houff appeared to have a bead failure that put him into the wall. Anthony Alfredo took a savage hit in turn 4.
Another failure came when Chase Briscoe cut his left-rear tire after contact with Kyle Busch bent a side skirt. NBC tried to find footage of the contact that ultimately caused the failure, but couldn’t quite do so. They did show that Briscoe knew that the tire was down and tried to do something about it. However, at that speed, there isn’t much that you can do. I honestly couldn’t tell what happened to cut Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s left-front tire that put him in the wall and out of the race.
Speaking of brakes, this race turned on a caution that flew with 30 laps to go when David Starr exploded a brake rotor. Scary stuff. No footage was aired of said explosion, although brake rotor pieces ended up on the track and did make air.
NBC was right that this race came down to pit stops. Truex got really, really lucky that Alfredo didn’t crash 10 seconds later than he did. Otherwise, he would have gotten trapped a lap down. Instead, he ended up in the lead.
During the Starr caution, Larson was able to go from fourth to the lead with an 11.8-second stop that was apparently the team’s second-quickest four-tire stop of the entire season. That’s a clear example of the No. 5 team stepping it up when it counted.
However, it was rather difficult to tell on the broadcast whether he had won the race off pit road. NBC had used a head-on shot of pit out for nearly the entire weekend. Usually in that situation, there’s a camera right at pit out that shows the proper line that determines the order leaving the pits. That was not shown after the round of stops. In fact, it wasn’t shown until after the race. To me, that would have been critical at that moment, because I honestly thought Hamlin won the race off pit road.
Post-race coverage was pretty extensive, but also very limited. Viewers heard from all four of the championship contenders, saw the trophy presentation, witnessed Katelyn Larson shotgunning a beer and more. The way this was set up really didn’t pay off all of the stories that were covered prior to the race. If it didn’t involve the Championship 4, it didn’t matter. I don’t believe that to be healthy for the sport.
Championship 4 races in general are really hard for me to enjoy. It’s so laser-focused on just a small group of people that I find it hard to get any joy out of it. Having the final race of the season at Phoenix makes the whole situation worse, although this year’s finale was more enjoyable than last year.
It just drives me nuts. It’s definitely more fun to be there than to watch on TV because I’m nowhere near as frustrated since I have things to do at the track.
The last race of the year used to be a time where yes, a championship could be decided, but you’d also see a bunch of extra teams show up and people try new things. You didn’t have that this year. Had this race been back east, you would have had extra teams attempt the race since it could have been a scenario similar to INDYCAR in Las Vegas in 2011 in that the old car was going away. Might as well use up the inventory.
Having said all of that, I am sad for the 2021 NASCAR season to come to an end. That is because I love racing and have for over 30 years. I’m nervous for the future because who knows what’s going to happen with the Next Gen car in 2022? There seems to be constant worry about it in regards to how it will race, how safe it is, heat issues and more. They’ll be fine with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in February since there’s only so much that can happen on a quarter-mile oval inside of a football stadium. Beyond that is a question mark.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, IMSA finishes up its season at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for the 24th running of the Motul Petit Le Mans. It’s a full four days of on-track activity on the 2.54-mile road course. Meanwhile, Formula 1 will be at Interlagos in Brazil for the second of three consecutive weekends of racing. MotoGP also wraps up their season in Valencia. TV listings are available here.
Since I will be at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta to cover the action there, including the chilly Motul Petit Le Mans, where it will be around 40 degrees at the finish, there will not be an edition of Couch Potato Tuesday next week. However, there are plans for a season review edition of Couch Potato Tuesday on Nov. 23 that you can peruse during Thanksgiving break.
In the Frontstretch Newsletter this week, I’m going to write about the Truck and Xfinity broadcasts from Phoenix. They had similar issues, but not the same as what we got on Sunday.
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