Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: How FOX Can Improve Broadcasts Everywhere, Not Just Richmond

This past weekend began a short track season, much along the lines of what NASCAR fans used to have in the 1990s. Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol in back-to-back-to-back weeks before a trip to Talladega. Good times?

Toyota Owners 400

In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that pre-race coverage for races on FOX or FOX Sports 1 have not done the best job in actually previewing races. They’ve usually spent a lot of time talking about previous races or the championship.

However, there’s usually one thing that really marks a pre-race show that goes awry. That is when Chris Myers says something along the lines of, “We kid because we care.” You had plenty of that on Sunday.

I’m not going to go into too much detail since Daniel McFadin was so offended by what we saw Sunday that he’s ranting about it as well today.

See also
Dropping The Hammer: Why Fox Sports' NASCAR Pre-Race Show Needs Fixing

That said, that pre-race show Sunday took me back to when I took over this column (then called Talking NASCAR TV) in 2009.  Back then, FOX was airing a Digger cartoon prior to races and banking on zaniness.

In between faux seeds and so on and so forth, I got to thinking: Does FOX Sports really not know anything about Ross Chastain other than the fact that he grew up on a watermelon farm? This isn’t even a pre-race rant. It’s more like the notion of ever learning anything else about him has never crossed their minds. They act like he still lives there in Alva, Fla., commutes to races and works the fields during the week. He hasn’t lived there full-time since at least 2013, when he was driving for Brad Keselowski Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

See also
Ross Chastain: Beyond the Watermelon

The whole situation agitates me at times. It’s a known fact that the TV partners have conference calls where they consider potential storylines for the race weekend. Obviously, Chastain getting his first win is a storyline that was discussed last week prior to Richmond. I guess Sunday was the first time they ever chose to look deeper on the man. It’s years overdue.

Sunday’s race was the cleanest race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season to this point. That meant long green runs, rounds of pit stops and people charging through the field. This was never any more apparent than at the end of the race.

I went back Monday morning while setting up the Frontstretch Newsletter (which you can sign up for at the bottom of this page) and checked out the final run of the race. Denny Hamlin was five seconds behind William Byron when he made his final pit stop with 46 laps to go. He took four tires and a little fuel. That stop, plus his time on pit road at 35 mph, meant that he rejoined the race the better part of 40 seconds behind Byron (a lap and the better part of a second one behind). In 40 laps, he went from 35-40 seconds behind to taking the lead from Byron.

It sounds ludicrous just typing that out. Yes, fresh tires meant a bunch on Sunday. But gaining a lap and a half on someone in 15 minutes is crazy. FOX did a terrible job relaying to viewers just how substantially faster Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were than everyone else. It was only really in the final 10-12 laps that they realized that they were even going to be a factor. Prior to that, the coverage was focused on whether Byron had made the right decision with his pit strategy (probably not) and if Martin Truex Jr. could catch him (turns out, no, he couldn’t).

At the same time, there was a lot of racing for position that viewers really couldn’t see both Sunday and Saturday during the ToyotaCare 250. Honestly, it’s coverage like this that makes fans believe that racing at certain tracks is boring. Remember, not everyone can just drop what they’re doing and hustle their butt cheeks to Virginia for a Sunday afternoon race. I’ve personally never been there (considered going to this race in 2020, but you know what happened there).

My understanding is that there was plenty of good racing to be had on Sunday in Richmond. It’s just that viewers at home, who are the vast majority of the fans that are watching the race, aren’t seeing this.

Pointing out the issues with race broadcasts is just one aspect of what Couch Potato Tuesday is. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be much more than a nicely-formatted rant. We need to discuss how this can be alleviated.

It’s one thing to state that FOX needs to spread the love and not keep their broadcast so focused on a couple drivers. Heck, I said that just last week.

To that, we can look to INDYCAR for help. Today, Brian Barnhart works for Andretti Autosport as the race strategist for Alexander Rossi. He’s probably best known to race fans as the former race director for the now-NTT IndyCar Series. That tenure was marked by some not so great officiating. For instance, a draconian rule where even defending one’s line could be considered blocking. That resulted in Helio Castroneves infamously being stripped of a victory at Edmonton in 2010 and Castroneves blowing his volcano top.

He was also responsible for restarting the race at Loudon in 2011 with rain falling. That led to a multi-car crash and the double middle finger salute heard ’round the world.

Why am I rehashing these rather dark days in the history of INDYCAR race officiating? At the end of the 2011 season, Barnhart was dumped as Race Director, much to the relief of most of the paddock.

However, he didn’t leave INDYCAR. He was reassigned to a number of posts within the organization over the next six years before he left to help run Harding Racing. At one point, one of Barnhart’s roles was to watch timing and scoring and help guide the TV producers toward interesting battles on track. INDYCAR broadcasts on NBCSN in this time period tended to have a lot of action to cover, in stark contrast to what you saw in the ABC races.

Could FOX Sports use somebody in a role like that in order to show that NASCAR races aren’t boring? Absolutely. In addition to the action being more exciting to watch, it could make the series healthier at the same time. Expanding focus will allow more teams to get airtime. As a result, it would be easier for smaller organizations to get sponsorship if they know that if you’re in the mix somewhere, you’ll get covered.

That person would have to have the ability to get through to those making the final decisions in the TV compound. Such a setup sounds nice on paper, but if there is someone there that had veto power, it would be all for naught.

Sunday also saw the Cup booth debut of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion crew chief Chad Knaus. A race like Sunday’s event is pretty much the best possible race for Knaus to debut in. His analytical mind was at work all day, working through the various scenarios that were in play with the pit strategies. He was able to explain the situation surrounding Kurt Busch’s issues quite well, even if he made the task of getting Busch back out there sound quite arduous (it made me think they would have had to drain the fuel cell to be able to fix it, and I’m not sure what NASCAR’s rules surrounding that during the race are).

Knaus’ approach more or less drove Clint Bowyer nuts. I feel like he would have felt that way had Knaus ever been his crew chief when he was still driving. It just shows that certain drivers work best with a certain type of crew chief.

There were a series of complaints based around the coverage of the wreck that put Cody Ware out of the race. FOX had only one replay that had a reasonable approximation of what happened. That was from Busch’s roof cam. It was hard to see, but it appeared that Ware was hit by Erik Jones, which put him into Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then into the wall.

The main complaints seemed to be that there were a lack of cameras and that there was no reason why there shouldn’t be a clear shot of the crash at a three-quarters of a mile oval. Problem is, there has actually been a decrease in cameras at races in recent years. In 2009, ESPN would have a minimum of 60 cameras at every race, including eight cars with in-car cameras (I have documentation from ESPN that states this). While in-car camera usage appears to be up a little this year, I’m sure the total number of cameras in use is lower now than it was during the first year I wrote this column. Therefore, it is more likely that you won’t get a clear shot of something. Doesn’t make it bite any less.

With the long runs on Sunday, the race ended more or less on time. Despite this, viewers got only a small amount of post-race coverage. Viewers only heard from Hamlin, Harvick and Truex before they left Richmond.

Overall, Knaus did fairly well for his first Cup race broadcast. The only real gripe I had was him going on and on at the end about the race being a great race. Not really necessary. Also, there are quite a few Richmond races that were better than Sunday’s race. The 2008 spring race at Richmond was not one of them, even though it’s pretty infamous.

Outside of Knaus, the race broadcast itself had some good moments, but it seemed like FOX was too wrapped up in their own grandmaster plan to look at the whole picture. I crave knowledge. I want to know everything. FOX didn’t help me get there. And the less said about the giant seed, the better.

ToyotaCare 250

Saturday saw the Xfinity Series teams go for 250 laps at Richmond. This was the Ty Gibbs and John Hunter Nemechek show as the teammates combined to lead all but one lap.

The race will be best remembered for the bump-and-run that Gibbs executed on Nemechek on the final lap. Given the camera position at the entrance to turn 3, you couldn’t really make out just what the heck Gibbs was doing.

However, the replay shown from the camera on the roof of the broadcast booth showed it clearly. Gibbs got on the inside of Nemechek, then washed up the track into Nemechek. This sent Nemechek into the upper lane, but not into the wall. Meanwhile, Gibbs scampered to the win.

This is different from the tactics used in the past, like when Matt Kenseth nudged Tony Stewart out of the way to win at Rockingham in 1998.

On Saturday, Gibbs probably had the pass made cleanly, then decided to body slam his own teammate. That doesn’t jive well. At the minimum, it would make for a tense post-race meeting.

Nemechek was not pleased and said that Gibbs “drove through him.” He has every right to be ticked. That said, there were plenty of people thinking back to the time he drove himself and Cole Custer off the road to win the Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2016.

Outside of the end of this race, Saturday’s race really didn’t have anything stand out. You had the same high tire wear that the Cup teams had to deal with Sunday, but without as many sets of tires available for changes. As a result, you saw a lot of movement up and down the order late in the race.

However, since the broadcast was focused mostly on Gibbs and Nemechek (and to a lesser extent, on AJ Allmendinger and Sam Mayer since the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash was in play), viewers really didn’t see the movement that happened in the final laps. Why did Justin Allgaier fade out of the top five to 14th? Tires, mostly. How did Brandon Brown get himself to eighth at the finish and tie with Sheldon Creed for the last spot in the playoffs (at the moment)? I guess he saved his stuff a little better.

Parker Retzlaff was something of a revelation on Saturday. Yes, he qualified well in Phoenix as well, but he dropped like a rock last month and ultimately drop out with mechanical issues. Saturday saw him maintain his pace all day. Imagine if he didn’t have so much trouble on pit road. Maybe he could have finished better than 10th. Retzlaff, like Brown, apparently saved his tires better than his immediate opposition.

This race ended with a good 15 minutes left in FOX Sports 1’s timeslot. In addition to the aforementioned Gibbs and Nemechek interviews, we got quite a few other drivers on-air in what was likely the most substantial amount of post-race coverage in 2022 to this point.

Overall, this broadcast suffered from a lot of the same issues that I talked about in the Cup section. It was too focused on a couple of drivers, resulting in viewers missing out on a lot of action. If you can get to the race itself, you’ll likely enjoy it more than watching on TV. While that might be great for the on-site experience, not everyone can do that, or feel comfortable doing that. Those people need a top-notch broadcast to cover as much as possible, and I just don’t think that viewers have been getting that in recent years.

That’s all for this week. We have a busy week coming up. NASCAR’s three National Series will be at Martinsville Speedway for a tripleheader that starts on Thursday with the Camping World Truck Series. Xfinity teams will be racing Friday night, while the NASCAR Cup Series races Saturday night. Might be a bit chilly if you’re making the trip.

Meanwhile, the NTT IndyCar Series travels to Long Beach for one of their marquee events, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. They’ll be joined by the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Formula 1 will also be back in Melbourne for their first race in Australia since 2019. TV listings can be found here.

For next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch, we will cover the Cup and Xfinity races from Martinsville. The Frontstretch Newsletter this week is currently undecided, but we plan to have something interesting to whet your palette there as well.

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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As always, if you choose to contact a network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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.

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DoninAjax

Phil, you and other posters at this site and others have been writing the same thing for YEARS and YEARS. The networks don’t seem to want to change the way they televise Brian’s product because NA$CAR hasn’t had a real “race” for YEARS and YEARS. It is decided in the morning meeting what will be shown and talked about during the telecast and they follow the script to a T.

Christopher

Brian France is long gone and has been for years. He has zero involvement in the sport.

DoninAjax

But his sycophants are carrying on his brilliant ideas almost like he is still feeding them. No one will convince he is not still influencing the decisions of the Brian trust. NA$CAR should be at least attempting to undo Brian’s damage. We are still seeing Brian’s product. I also can’t believe that Brian uses the same letters as brain.

Bill B

Good article Phil.
I think most serious fans could do a better job of deciding what to show viewers than whoever is doing it now for FOX.

A few times this year I’ve noted that whenever they do the “crank it up” segment the running order on the left hand of the screen disappears. This week during that segment the same was true only this week they displayed the running order at the top of the screen (which took up a substantial amount of screen space). It really does seem like, for some reason, they cannot keep they running order up in it’s usual configuration when they do the “crank it up” segment. I’d love to know why that is the case. It seems like one should have no effect on the other, but every week it is the same.

Charlie

Thanks.
I DVR both races, but listened. I like the fact that there were few cautions. It makes these steriod-charged pit crews earn their money and brings strategy into more focus. I don’t like wrecks, and want to see the skill and focus. Now, they do need to show the racing through the field, but they will not. Probably because the people in the trucks may do well at a football telecast, but don’t know or care about racing working in “the truck.”
Thanks again for the column.

Jeremy

That’s one thing about the stage breaks, it really messes up any long term overall race strategy and reduces it to only that last segment. I would prefer if they just awarded stage wins/points at those lap markers and kept racing (like they used to do with the mid-race leader bonus). It provides the incentive to get up front and stay there without impacting an overall race strategy.

I think it would add another layer of interest to the races as you would have teams racing for stage points since they are already in the dreaded playoffs, and others looking at whole race strategy to log that win to make the final 16.

Until we figure out a way for them to do this AND squeeze in 3 more commercials per hour, this is what we’re stuck with.

Bill W.

The director of the infinity race is a idiot ,during the final laps of the race when JHN and Gibbs were battling for the lead , using split screen, he showed JHN in the car and the other view of Gibbs on the outside. You really could not tell what was happening. To many in car camera shots period. He knows nothing about televising a race.

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