NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: Championship 4 Doesn’t Produce a Fun Time at Phoenix

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.

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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DoninAjax

Why doesn’t NBC show the Focused Four in a different colour like red so they don’t have to keep showing the cars running 1, 2, 3, 4 at the bottom of the top 20 runners? Everyone who is watching can see they are at the front, like they usually are.

Final Points of Focused Four:

2017 5040 5035 6033 6030

2018 5040 5035 5034 5033

2019 5040 5035 5033 5027

2020 5040 5035 5034 5033

2021 5040 5035 5034 5032

Anyone who didn’t expect EXTENSIVE coverage of the Four hasn’t been watching.

Sally Baker

WAY too much focus on the top 4, and way too much time spent repeating over and over the same observations about them. There is little reason to allow all the cars on the track, since they totally disappear from the coverage. They might be a very brief mention if they hit the top 10 ahead of a ‘playoffer’, but not for long. Covering only 4 cars makes for a boring time. I found other things to do and only check back in the race occasionally. This entire way of doing the final race needs to be reevaluated.

janice

pack your woolies coming to north ga. it’s supposed to be almost 80 here today in atlanta, but after thursday (a rainy, chilly day), will be a cool, chilly weekend.

i got bored with the race. championship was definitely determined by pit stop performance. i wonder how quick pit stops will be with only 1 lug next year.

safe travels.

David Edwards

Be interesting to see the difference between an f1 pit stop where they aren’t adding gasoline, and a NASCAR stop.

Carl D.

I’m one of those people who who hits the fast forward button on the race when the broadcast starts, and I actually don’t start watching until the lights go off on the pace car. I read Frontstretch every day; I don’t need the pre-race blather. I’ve already read all about it and just want the race to get started. But I know others enjoy it… my 84 y/o mother loves all that pre-race stuff.

I agree with Don… put the championship drivers in red type or something. Does NBC even look at their graphics?

Jeremy

I have an idea for the Final Race if they’re going to insist on this “playoff” nonsense. The “Final 4” must start at the rear, inverted, so the driver that is 1st in the points starts dead last. Each of them accumulates points based on how many positions they improve. There would be extra points given for finishing the stage in the top 10 (naturally, extra points increase with each position gained inside the top 10 plus bonus points for winning the stage). At the end of each stage, the “Final 4” are sent to the back again, inverted based on points as they stand after the first stage. At the end of the race, tally up the points for the “Final 4” based on points accumulated during each stage (which is based on how many cars they were able to pass and finishing position at each stage).

To take it a step further, I would put bonus $ out for the top 10 positions at the end of each stage (Let’s say $250K to win a stage, $90K for 2nd, down to $10K for 10th), plus a BIG $1Million bonus for winning the race. The above point system for the “Final 4” plus the $ for top 10 finishing positions at each stage ensure the rest of the field has something to play for – they won’t just roll over and play dead for the Championship contenders.

This might actually make the final race worth watching, IMO. And it would create more story lines for the broadcast.

Last edited 17 days ago by Jeremy
Wes

The drivers and teams make so much money that that part of your idea doesn’t really add much incentive, but the inversion idea seems like it could work.

KU

Another great year of reporting from you Phil. Put me in the category of nervous for next year because from what I have seen regarding the new car is going lose some of the drama in the races. We will see.

Ron

Aric Almirola ran as high a 4th late in the race before dropping to 5th and ultimately 6th. I don’t recall ever hearing his name during the broadcast although I’ll admit that the coverage did have a hard time holding my attention from time to time.

DoninAjax

Gee! You mean they ignored some of the drivers? That’s NEVER happened before! It’s like they decided the week before who the drivers were that they would concentrate on. Just like every other event during the season.

Echo

Lol, you mean they do this every week and people still watch !

Echo

Kyle Larson turns to dirt this week.

Charlie

I really like your perspective and hope you continue it in this venue in 2022. I am skipping that charade in Los Angeles and will tune in again when they return to Daytona for qualifying.

Johnny Cuda

Thank you for another season of champion-level reporting Phil. I appreciate your articles very much. Have a great off-season!

DoninAjax

So Larson won the “race” off pit road and won the title.

http://insidecircletrack.com/2021/11/should-a-season-championship-be-decided-by-the-last-pit-stop-of-the-last-race/

And the pit crew cheated. I guess the other teams didn’t cheat enough on the last stop..

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