For the NASCAR Cup Series, Darlington Raceway is the beginning of the 2022 playoffs. That sheer fact often means that the mentality around covering the races begins to change, and that change is not necessary for the better.
When coverage began from Darlington on Sunday (Sept. 4), there was a heavy focus on the playoff contenders. All of the pre-race interviews were with playoff drivers and a significant amount of time was spent talking about who was going to be in the Championship 4 and waltzing out of Phoenix with the title. That’s two months away from now.
That situation is one of the things that is wrong with having a playoff scenario. It becomes the only thing that matters. Even the race itself doesn’t matter. Instead, it simply becomes a means to an end. It’s why I preferred the Southern 500 to not be part of the playoffs.
There was really not all that much of a preview for the race itself. They did infer that someone like Martin Truex Jr. could possibly rain on the parade of playoff drivers in the race, though. Sure enough, he was right up there in contention until his car threw a belt.
There wasn’t a word about Erik Jones the whole pre-race show, despite his excellent track record at Darlington. It was a pretty bad move, especially in hindsight. Darlington is Jones’ fifth-best track on the Cup calendar, behind World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (only one Cup race there to date for Jones), Kentucky Speedway (no longer on the schedule), Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway with an average finish (after Sunday night) of 10.7.
In all seriousness, Jones being up front at all seemed to come out of nowhere. He was decent during the race, but nothing really special. What happened was that the Petty GMS Motorsports team decided that Jones should run a little longer under green. Then, Kevin Harvick’s car burst into flames and brought the yellow out in a middle of green-flag pit stops.
The race itself showed off a number of relatively recent issues and rule changes that have come about with the Next Gen. The first of these was the crash that took Chase Elliott out of the race.
Ahead of Darlington, NASCAR updated the Damaged Vehicle Policy to allow for up to 10 minutes for repairs on pit road after wrecks. Elliott needed every bit of that and more after that crash, ultimately ending his day.
In recent weeks, NBC Sports has shown some computer-generated footage to visualize what is necessary to fix toe links. It’s well-done, but what that footage represents is the best-case scenario in that particular situation.
In Elliott’s case, the control arms were broken. There was excellent footage on the broadcast of the broken parts being discarded from Elliott’s car, which gave the viewers the perfect idea of what needed to be replaced.
It also goes to show that the DVP rules have had to be changed significantly with the Next Gen. With the Gen 6 car, or even in the Xfinity Series or Camping World Truck Series, teams wouldn’t be able to replace a number of things that they can on the Next Gen. Heck, adding screws was more or less banned under the policy.
Going forward, a little more should be done to explain how the DVP policy applies with the Next Gen car. This is not just on NBC Sports’ race broadcasts, but also with FOX Sports and on NASCAR Race Hub. It appears to be radically different, and it’s clear that the new 10-minute rule is a reaction to that. At least NASCAR listened to the teams about the issue.
Later on in the race, Harvick’s car went up in flames. The broadcast booth thought that Harvick had blown his engine. It turns out that wasn’t the case.
Sadly, Harvick’s fire was another instance of a rocker panel catching fire. Probably the starkest example of that this year was Chris Buescher’s fire at Indianapolis.
After that, NASCAR issued a technical bulletin to try to prevent that situation from happening again. The fix was never succinctly displayed to the general public, since technical bulletins and literally anything having to do with race cars is considered proprietary by NASCAR. It is the reason why the general public cannot see the rule book (which I generally don’t agree with).
NBC Sports had a graphic ready to go that showed exactly what the new piece was and how it was supposed to prevent these fires. It was a good one. Unfortunately, it seems that NASCAR needs to go back to the drawing board here.
Racing for position in Darlington was pretty good, but there was less of it than in 2021. NASCAR’s loop data indicates that there were approximately 2.2 fewer passes per lap than last year, despite having more lead changes (21 to 18).
Viewers got a fair amount of decent action for position. The battling was fierce at times, but the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Truex and Kyle Busch really did stink the show up at times. The duo combined to lead 203 laps Sunday night and Busch was at points seemingly untouchable. Then, his engine just turned traitor at 55 mph.
As is the norm for Darlington, they like to change things up during the race. Once again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. teamed up with Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty to call stage two of the race. Having those three together in the booth results in a different feel to the broadcast. Last year, I noted that the three actually do work well together, and this past Sunday night didn’t make me think otherwise.
What I did see is that it was cleaner than last year. That’s mainly because Earnhardt Jr.’s gotten more time on play-by-play in the past year. He’s more comfortable as a play-by-play man than he likely thought possible. Being comfortable has always been a big thing with the Earnhardts. Dale Jr. is no different.
Seth Sharp, who runs the NASCAR Memories Twitter page, is a big fan of this booth configuration and wants to see more of it. During the race, he tweeted this:
This is meant with absolutely no disrespect towards anyone else but Dale Jr, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty is the perfect TV booth.
It gives me that relaxed, “hanging out w/ my friends” vibe that Bob, Benny and Ned always gave off.
It just feels right.
— Seth Sharp (@SethSharp35) September 5, 2022
Do I agree with Seth’s statement here? Partially. I definitely agree that it was a more relaxed feel than what you normally get on NBC or USA NASCAR broadcasts. That said, I don’t think I learned any more with this booth than I did with the regular booth in stages one and three. I still stand by the three-person maximum rule that I noted in last year’s Southern 500 critique, though. You get more than three people up there and it starts getting busy and potentially detracting from the race.
Engine issues were a big story Sunday night. However, they’ve always been an issue in the Southern 500. Darlington is in a rather sandy region. In the days before wraps, cars would get seriously sandblasted during races. The sand could cause cooling issues. With teams not being allowed to run any tape on the grille by NASCAR edict, that could be partially to blame.
On the broadcast, it’s really tough to figure out a lot of these issues, especially since so much of the engine is now shrouded under the hood. If you talk to the drivers about it, they might not even know. Kyle Larson was at a loss to describe his problems early on. On the other hand, Truex was able to figure out his woes under the hood pretty quick.
The race broadcast ended up running long by 40 minutes or so. I have no idea why USA thought this race was going to be over in 220 minutes, but they did. At the actual running length (nearly 250 minutes), it ran 20 minutes shorter than I thought it would.
Despite running late, there were a decent number of post-race interviews. Aside from race winner Jones, they were all with playoff contenders, including a taped interview with Kyle Busch, who was forced to retire with 23 laps to go. There was also some post-race analysis before USA left Darlington.
Overall, there needs to be a rethink in how the playoff drivers are handled as compared to those that are not in the playoffs. You can’t just ignore the non-playoff team and you definitely can’t treat the race as a means to an end. That’s how you end up with a situation where Jones seemingly wins out of nowhere. While yes, it’s rather surprising that the No. 43 won, something that’s only happened five times in my lifetime (I’m 38 and was born after Richard Petty won his 200th race), it’s something that should have been noted. I think it would have been during NBC Sports’ Tuesday conference call.
That’s all for this week. Next week, Kansas Speedway will host a quadruple-header. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be back in action Friday (Sept. 9) night in the final race for the Round of 10, while Saturday (Sept. 10) is a doubleheader for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the ARCA Menards Series. Sunday (Sept. 11) will have Cup teams racing for 400 miles.
Outside of Kansas, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be decided Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Formula 1 will be at Monza for the final European round of the year. The FIA World Endurance Championship will also be in action at Fuji Speedway. TV listings will be available here.
For next week, we’ll take a look at the broadcasts from Kansas. We’ll see if it can be more inclusive.
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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.
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