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The view from my couch

Winston Cup Race from Phoenix
by Cheryl Lauer

As the season winds down, the viewers seem to be seeing less and less of the on-track action whether the race is shown on NBC or TNT. Granted the Phoenix race was not exactly a barn-burner, but it would have been nice to know if there might have been something those of us at home were missing. Again, this week, I felt like I was watching a highlight show sandwiched between a lot of commercials.

Pit Crew Championship

In order to give a "lead-in" to this weekís race, NBC chose to show highlights of the Pit Crew Championship. It was really old news by this time, since the competition happened a week ago at Rockingham and the winners had already been well publicized elsewhere. I tuned in just because there was nothing else on at 1:00. Two things bothered me about the whole thing. For some reason, this year, the competition was limited to only the top 25 teams in points. I guess this was at TVís request, so they wouldnít have to show all those teams they donít consider worth their effort. I find this disturbing because in past years, there have been teams way down in the points who have outstanding pit crews and have won the championship. Former winners, like the Wood Brothersí pit crew, werenít even allowed to compete this year. Next, although an hour was scheduled for this show, NBC started out with a "Sports Update" of other sports and then ended the show at 1:49. Just so the viewers could be "treated" to a concert from the track by Def Leppard, a has-been group from the 80s. I guess they work cheap, so NASCAR can show us, yet again, how rock and roll is now their partner. Yee-haw....In the 40+ minutes allotted to the show, we didnít even get to see the entire top ten finishers in the competition. NBC seemed to pick and choose the drivers they thought the fans wanted to see (or else those with the highest paying sponsors of TV broadcasts). The fans did not get to see the pit stops of several drivers in the top ten in points, such as Gordon, Wallace or Newman. Jeff Greenís team finished in the top ten in the competition, but never made it to the highlight show. Not an auspicious start to the race day, in my opinion.

Pre-Race

Again this week, the viewers were treated to a longer pre-race show; this time around 45-50 minutes long. Bill Weber came on with a voiceover with championship and season highlights. Next he pointed out that if Tony Stewart left Phoenix with a 185-point lead over Martin, he would clinch the championship. And this would happen if Stewart won and Martin finished twenty-sixth or worse in the race. Weber also illustrated what was wrong with Martinís spring in post-race inspection at Rockingham. This was followed up with an interview with Martinís crew chief, Ben Leslie, who pointed out the spring would have had to be a lot shorter to give them any competitive advantage. Dave Burns showed the checklist that the NASCAR inspectors use for five checks of the cars during the weekend. He also told us that Martinís car passed inspection pre-race, but that the spring had been changed after the inspection. There were also comments about the penalty from Ray Evernham, Steve Hmiel and Robbie Loomis. Matt Yocum had a live interview with Stewart and Dave Burns with Martin. There was a taped feature on Johnny Bensonís rib injuries earlier this year and highlight footage from his excellent run in the 2000 Daytona 500. Matt also had an interview with Scott Wimmer, who won the Busch race on Saturday and was running in the WC race as well. Weber ended the show by telling us that seven drivers were still mathematically eligible for the championship, going into this race.

The Race

I was really getting tired of waiting for some actual racing when the green flag was finally thrown around 2:45. Dave immediately reported that Tony Raines had to come into pit road because his car was leaking fluid, just as the field was going green, but that theyíd determined it was just water from his water bottle.

After only nine laps into the race, NBC went to its first commercial, but not before we got a music video with highlights of the pre-race activities. Why is it that the TV networks think fans really want to see highlights of the pre-race accompanied by music, instead of actual racing? Is this MTV or a race broadcast? NBC returned from break at lap 17, so the fans missed about eight green flag laps.

Wally pointed out how he had used a lot of brakes during the BGN race on Saturday and how this was typical at Phoenix. While I really enjoyed Wallyís run on Saturday, I didnít appreciate that later in the race, the producer chose to show highlights of it while Martin, Wallace, and Gordon had just gone three-wide for second place.

NBC was getting ready to go to commercial just a few laps after returning at lap 17 and chose to stay with the race because of McMurrayís spin. They showed us pit stop action, replays of the spin, and were attempting to break for the missed commercial when Earnhardt passed Newman for the lead. They stayed around to show the pass before going to commercial. I really appreciate this kind of thing, but Allen Bestwick reminding the viewers of the sacrifice they are making to do it every time gets a bit old.

After the first round of pit stops, a cameraman had a shot of the large hole in Kenny Wallaceís door. Someone asked if that would affect the aerodynamics on the track and Wally said "no, but it should make it a lot cooler in the cockpit." This was hilarious! The producer quickly queued up a replay of the Blaney and Busch getting together with Wallace in the pits and causing the damage.

The pit reporters and booth personnel were great in updating us all day long on which teams took two tires or fuel only during pit stops. Marty reported that Newmanís crew chief told him he planned to experiment with only taking two tires during the day.

The pit reporters were quick to interview each driver who fell out of the race, including McMurray, Wimmer, Fittapaldi, and Bobby Labonte.

All day long, we got to see the close racing among the top five, which usually included points contender, Mark Martin. There were some great shots of battles between he, Blaney, and Andretti early, as well as Newman, Jeff Gordon, and Blaney. Unfortunately, it seemed like the only time the viewers at home got to see any of the other drivers in the race was during the numerous "Through the Field" segments. I love these segments, but wish the producer would feature each of the drivers on the track occasionally. During this race, we never saw people like Kyle Petty, Ron Hornaday, Derrick Cope, Ricky Craven or even Bill Elliott. At times, I actually forgot some of these drivers were in the race at all. It seemed like during the middle portion of the race that NBC would be at commercial, come back and do a partial field rundown, and then go away again. This is just not my idea of race coverage. Allen constantly reminded us we were watching "NASCAR on NBC." I hate to fall back on a well-used cliche, but it seemed to me we were watching Nothing But Commercials much of the day. We kept being assured they were just leaving to "get the commercials out of the way before green flag pit stops," but then there would be another commercial before pit stops actually occurred.

Marty told us that because of the choice of pits between turns 1 and 2, Gordonís crew chief, Loomis, had a good view of the track and was able to advise him to move to the high groove because others appeared to be making their cars work up there. Benny pointed out the location of the coil spring for which Martinís team was fined during a shot from a suspension camera on Ricky Ruddís car. After Earnhardt ran out of gas, Allen told us he was running in seventh place and 13 seconds behind the leader.

When the incident happened between Robby Gordon and Scott Wimmer, NBC had several good replays. Unfortunately, the booth personnel seemed to blame Wimmer, rather than Gordon, which I found surprising. It seemed like they just wanted to blame Wimmer because he was a rookie. The replays appeared to show that Gordon hit him and Wimmerís interview confirmed that. The NBC commentators seemed strangely silent after hearing Wimmerís version.

Almost every time, NBC went to commercial, we got a highlight montage, set to rock or rap music, sometimes with fans from the stands lip-syncing to the music. Once when they came back from commercial, they showed a shot of the silly "Pit Cruiser" bus at an empty Homestead Speedway. During all of these times, green flag racing was occurring which the fans didnít get to see.

When a debris caution occurred, NBC never attempted to explain the nature of the debris, but took another opportunity to break for commercials.

Just prior to the last round of pit stops, NBC showed how long since each driver had pitted on the ticker, and Allen pointed out those who pitted last had topped off with gas during the debris caution. This was interesting information.

After the last pit stop, Allen noticed a damaged fender on Stewartís car and wondered if this would cause him a problem. Bill was quick to point out that this had happened much earlier in the race. Marty reported on Newmanís team having a very slow pit stop because NASCAR required them to pull off a damaged side skirt before starting their pit stop. This eventually caused the 12 team to go a lap down. Benny pointed out that NASCAR would probably talk to Fittapaldi about unstrapping and putting down his window net before he was free of danger from other cars.

At the end of the race, Allen quickly told viewers Martin was now only 89 points from Stewart. There were interviews with many of the top ten finishers, but NBC then used the extra time to go back to their Sports Desk and give us football highlights.

I understand that the season is winding down and the points championship is a top story, but it seems like the last few weeks that NBC is focusing too much on the points contenders and only the front of the field. I find this very disappointing. This week they chose to focus on points contender, Martin, rather than Stewart, and since Martin was running in the top five all day long, the fans did not get to see the rest of the field. Unfortunately, NBC didnít seem to realize that other drivers were on the track and there might have been some action outside the top five.

You can send me email at cheryl@speedcouch.com.

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