The view from my couch

NBC Coverage of the Tropicana 400
by Cheryl Lauer
July 13, 2004

I'm sure it's no surprise that I'm happy to have NBC back as the network presenting the races. Now that's not to say that I won't try my best to be objective and rip them if I don't like something they have in their broadcast. But generally, I prefer NBC's more professional approach to showing the races. Overall, their first race back was a success. Announcers Allen Bestwick, Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach continued their focused and informative style of calling the race. The pit reporters led by Bill Weber included Matt Yocum (pulling double duty), Dave Burns, and Marty Snider, continued to provide updates about teams handling issues, problems during pit stops and tire strategies. I was also pleasantly surprised that the race was presented in wide-screen, something that NBC has not done in the past (except for their high definition presentation of this year's Daytona 500). While the picture for this race was in standard definition, it still had a good quality picture.

Pre-Race Show

NBC continues to start their race coverage with an "Update from the Allstate Sports Desk," a feature that personally I don't enjoy. I tune into see a race, not news and highlights about every other sport but racing.

When they finally got to the actual pre-race show, NBC showed a few video highlights from the first part of the season narrated by Bill Weber. I wasn't real crazy about his comment that we'd seen "a rekindling of flickering light" from some drivers, meaning some strong runs by some of the sport's veterans. I guess I get real tired of everyone being so quick to discard drivers over the age of 40 these days.

NBC relied a lot on talking up the Chase for the Championship. Not that I am surprised since they were supposedly the ones who asked for something to spice up the latter portion of the season. NBC dubbed the remaining nine races before the playoffs, "the Race to Richmond" and reminded us about the top 10 or those within 400 points of the leader being eligible for the Chase.

Next, Bill had a feature on how difficult it is to win these days. He started this off by pointing out that 70 drivers had competed in Cup races this season, but we had only seen nine different winners so far. This feature had taped interviews and comments on the subject from several drivers.

I have to confess I didn't watch the entire pre-race show as we'd come back from a trip and got home just 30 minutes before the green flag dropped. At this point, I stopped watching the pre-race from the TIVO buffer and flipped over to the live broadcast to catch the start of the race.

When NBC went to Bestwick, Parsons and Dallenbach in the booth, they questioned whether the tires might present a problem based on what they saw in the Busch race on Saturday. After this, they also had to remind us about the nine races remaining between now and Richmond.

I was happy that NBC chose to show us the entire starting grid and the announcers walked us through it, making comments about several drivers as they went. This graphic provided not only the driver's name, but his crew chief as well. This season, NBC has new "colors" to all of their graphics. I wasn't too fond of the silver and blue as it was kind of hard to read, but I don't care what color it is as long as they continue showing the starting grid. I'm not quite sure what those shapes surrounding the drivers' pictures were, but I've heard viewers describe them as everything from dog collars to toilet seats.

During the pace laps as they usually do, each of the pit reporters gave us a tidbit of information concerning a driver. I really like that NBC showed the reporter in picture-in-picture while showing the driver he was describing in full screen on the track. This was a nice touch when there wasn't actually racing going on yet.

The Race

As the green flag fell, Allen Bestwick made a great comment, "I guess that roar [of the fans] is the only thing you need to know the race in underway." Bravo, Allen! It's good to have commentators who don't try to detract from the start of the race every week by drawing attention to themselves instead.

As the race began, I was dismayed to see that NBC had chosen to switch the way they show their scoring at the top of the screen. Instead of the way they've done it for the past three years showing 4-5 drivers a page at a time, they have gone to the constant scrolling "ticker" used by Fox. I think this is a terrible move! As many fans have pointed out, anything moving at the top of the screen distracts you from the racing. Also, NBC has lowered the ticker, just like Fox and SPEED have done, so that the space above it (which is empty sky in most cases) and the 3-4 lines of information are taking up more and more of the TV screen. This reduces the visible area of the race even more! Also, NBC now has a huge "NASCAR" banner in the corner of the ticker, so that you can barely see 3 drivers positions at a time. Whatever network executive made the decision to make these changes needs to rethink that move. I understand the ticker is just really a vehicle for advertising most of the time, but why must it constantly compete with the race to get the viewers' attention?

Also, NBC has now switched to using pointers just like Fox does and they were used way too often during this broadcast. I did like that NBC used a triple split on the pits with the overall view of pit road on the right of the screen. Unfortunately, at least once, I saw that they put a giant bubble of the 38 on top of Elliott Sadler's car in that overhead view. This pretty much obstructed not only the car they were trying to highlight, but many others as well. Why do the network people feel they have to force so many graphics down the viewers throats? So much so that they end up spoiling what they are trying to highlight.

Throughout the day, the announcers and pit reporters worked hand-in-hand in providing useful information about the cars, drivers, and various things happening in the race. This began early when they told us that Mike Bliss was running an R&D car for Joe Gibbs Racing in this race. Someone said that he was faster than the other Gibbs' cars in qualifying and Wally pointed out that you can try different things with an R&D car that you can't do with teams running for points. This was an excellent observation.

At lap 9, Allen told us that Chad Blount had taken his car to the garage. At lap 12, NBC went to their first commercial break and came back around lap 19. The first things we heard was that there was a new leader and they showed us a replay of Jeff Gordon getting passed by Greg Biffle. During this replay, someone said there was trouble in turn 2 involving the 97 and 12 cars. It seemed like the timing of the commercial caused them to be behind on everything that happened for a while. Next, NBC showed Newman's car and Benny said the tire came off of the rim. Allen said that he'd noticed him losing several positions on the last lap before the crash. NBC showed several replays of the incident. There was one shot from the in-car of Scott Riggs that really didn't show anything as it was way before the tire problem on the 12 car. After they came back from another commercial, they had the right in-car shot queued up for replay, this time from the 97 car.

NBC continued their feature of introducing the pit crews to us during this caution. This time we got to meet the crew from Elliott Sadler's team.

Through most of the day, NBC made sure to tell us which cars were pitting and which stayed on the track. During this first caution, Bill reported that Jeff Gordon had told his crew that his car was "major loose" and needed tightening up.

There was another caution immediately after the restart for a problem on Brendan Gaughan's car. After they returned from commercial, Marty had an interview with Ryan Newman while his car was in the garage being repaired. On the next restart, Allen pointed out that someone appeared to miss a shift, bunched up several cars, and Biffle's car was smoking, perhaps from contact. NBC gave us a couple of replays of the restart and one in slow-motion that was really good.

Beginning at this time and throughout the race, Allen and the team tracked for us which cars took four tires and which took two and their progress though the field. They played radio chatter between drivers and their teams beginning with Brian Vickers kidding around with his team after this restart. Most of the time, the announcers were quiet and let us hear the radio conversations.

When the caution came out for debris off of Ricky Rudd's car, the producer made sure and showed us a replay of how Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick ran over it. The announcers told us that Rudd had gone behind the wall to repair the damage from the cut tire. After a commercial, NBC showed a replay of when the tire came apart and tore off the sheet metal.

NBC did several of their trademark Through the Field segments during this race, with the first one on lap 48. It's great to have the pit reporters talk about so many of the cars in the field and actually see them on the track as well. After the first ten cars, Allen told us the interval between the leader, Tony Stewart and second place was 3 and 3/4 seconds. Then they returned to feature the next ten cars. When they got to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s car in 16th position, the producer used radio chatter between the driver and his crew about how his car was running. Next, NBC showed an in-car shot from the 8 while Wally pointed out how he was trying to compensate for the bad handling by where he was running his car on the track. They followed up with an in-car shot from Mark Martin whose car was handling much better and the announcers said to notice how much more relaxed he was in the car. This was an excellent use of the in-car cameras to actually illustrate the differences between the two situations!

NBC cut away from Through the Field only briefly to show us an unscheduled pit stop by Casey Mears whose car was overheating because of a tear-off from another car getting stuck on his grill opening. Allen told us that Mears would lose a lap because of the stop.

Around this time, NBC showed us a graphic called "As They Run" that showed you the change in positions among the cars running 11th to 14th in points. This was a follow-up to NBC tracking those trying to make it into the top 10 for the playoff races at the end of the season.

It was also around this part of the race (between about 4:30 and 5:00) that I noticed quite a few commercials with NBC coming back from commercial at lap 71 and then going to another commercial again at lap 75. A few laps later, they were gone again and back around lap 82. They told us that there had been "some trouble on the track" and several cars were pitting early. I wasn't really sure what they meant by the "trouble." I also noticed that NBC didn't really mention that the pole sitter, Gordon, had fallen back in the pack during this time. But eventually, Bill told us that he had radioed his crew that the changes they had made to his car on pit stops had not helped it at all and he was "just hanging on" and "afraid he would hit the wall." During the normal segment of green flag stops, Allen noted that points leader, Jimmy Johnson, had stayed out to lead a lap and get five bonus points. Allen also mentioned that the ten cars who pitted were the ones who did not stop during the lap 40 caution.

Unfortunately, we got the return of the stupid Aflak duck and the announcers having to drawn attention to it. This time, it was sponsoring a question which had already been overtaken by the events of the race. I think it had something to do with Ryan Newman who had already been involved in a wreck and was out of contention.

The NBC crew made sure and told us which lapped cars were the recipient of the free pass back to the lead lap. Unfortunately, they had to resurrect their silly "Lucky Dog" name for this rule.

NBC went away for commercial again at lap 92, but they returned on lap 98 in time to cover the leader at the time (Martin's) pit stop and that of Earnhardt. They told us that Earnhardt had been caught speeding entering his pit and would have to serve a pass-through penalty. Allen later told us that Ricky Craven had gotten a speeding penalty as well. Though there seemed to be quite a few commercial breaks during this part of the broadcast, they were placed pretty well, except as noted below.

Allen made a interesting observation that the latest generation of Goodyear tires wore more quickly and a driver would lose a lot of speed if he stayed out while others were on fresher tires.

Right after this, NBC showed us a replay of Stewart getting into the side of John Andretti. Since it seemed deliberate, the producer searched for any prior contact between the two. They replayed an earlier incident where Andretti passed Stewart, but I couldn't really see the relevance of that. Benny asked if Stewart was slowing down and Wally said maybe his fender had been damaged in the contact and aerodynamics were so important here. This led into Allen's discussion of Stewart's recent probation and fine for his altercation with Brian Vickers. He said there was a lot of talk in the garage and asked what probation really meant. Wally joined the discussion saying he thought you stepped over the line when you came through the door of a car at somebody. Benny said that what concerned him was NASCAR's credibility in these matters, especially on top of coming up with the new points system and taking races away from Rockingham and Darlington. He said that he talked to Mike Helton and he told him that they had already warned Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch last year before their altercation, so that was the difference from the Stewart situation. Benny said the fans needed to be made aware of how NASCAR saw the differences in the situations because otherwise their credibly continued to suffer. Allen said that with the popularity of today's NASCAR, the press are around all of the time and a new code of conduct among drivers might be warranted. I think this was an excellent discussion and I'm glad that none of the NBC announcers shied away from voicing their opinions on the problems the fans see in NASCAR this season.

Though there seemed to be quite a few commercial breaks during this part of the broadcast, they were placed well for the most part. The exception was when the controversial wreck happened involving Stewart and Kasey Kahne. NBC barely got back from commercial in time to catch the wreck. In fact, it appeared to me that they were going to miss the restart entirely and only broke away from a commercial when the accident began.

NBC did tell us immediately who was involved in the wreck and quickly queued up a replay of what happened. Someone said that Stewart made an "incredible" move on the outside on the restart. Just about this time, the director cut away to show us an altercation occurring in the garage between Kahne's crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, and Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. We got to see the aftermath where several crew members got involved and several officials were knocked to the ground. Back to discussing how the wreck transpired, Wally said that from his point of view Kahne couldn't charge into the corner as well as Stewart did. There were some great replays of what happened, including an excellent slow-motion shot. Dave Burns interviewed Jeff Burton who had been taken out in the wreck and asked what he saw. Matt reported that Scott Diehl, the car chief on Stewart's team was slightly injured in the scuffle and was being taken to the infield care center to be checked out. We also got to see a shot of Scott in the pits. Allen said he felt fines and suspensions would be coming out of the pit road incident. Benny pointed out that he thought the on-track incident occurred because Stewart was being impatient. Wally said he'd done the same type of thing before himself. Matt reported that Stewart said he'd tried to roll out of the throttle without someone behind him getting into him. Allen concluded that the result was that several cars were in the garage and several had bent sheet metal and Stewart ended up with the lead of the race. I felt the announcers seemed to give Stewart the benefit of the doubt a little more than was necessary since he was now the leader.

As the race restarted, NBC showed a graphic of the drivers collected in the wreck. They also told us that Jeff Gordon had made several pit stops under this caution. They also told us that Dale Jarrett got his lap back since he was in front of the leader when the caution came out and that Robby Gordon got the free pass back to the lead lap.

Marty interviewed Kahne who said he was just shifting into 4th gear when Stewart got into the back of him. Marty pointed out that the two of them had a history and asked Kahne if he was aware of the pit road altercation. Dave interviewed Tommy Baldwin and asked him what was his intention was when he went to talk to Stewart's crew chief. After this, Benny said that NASCAR needs a rule like other sports have that you couldn't go near the other team's coach. Next, the producer showed us a replay from Darlington where Stewart wrecked Kahne earlier this season. Both Wally and Benny agreed that they didn't think Stewart intentionally took out Kahne in this instance. Allen told us that NASCAR had invited both Baldwin and Zipadelli to the NASCAR hauler after the race.

The NBC crew pointed out that Mears was a lap down, but was able to stay between the leader and the second place car of Johnson who was 2 seconds behind Stewart at that time. Next, there was some discussion of whether or not Stewart had an aero push because of his contact with Andretti earlier in the race. I found it quite interesting that the announcers seemed to be trying to elicit some sympathy for Stewart after he was the one who caused his own problems. Matt confirmed that there was some damage on the valance of Johnson's car from the wreck making it tight.

As the race progressed, Allen told us that it was a little time before green flag pit stops, so they were going to take a break now, then that they would stay to see if Stewart lapped Jeff Gordon. The producer seemed a little indecisive at this point, but then we were told they were "confident" Stewart would lap Gordon, so they were going to break anyway. I guess I'm strange, but I think I'd rather see racing than green flag pit stops.

When NBC returned, the field was under caution and we were told it was because of a piece of metal in turn 4. They quickly told us that Gordon would get the free pass and get his lap back. Benny pointed out that Gordon has said he didn't believe in this rule, but he felt he might change his opinion now. Next they showed a replay of of Stewart passing him to put him a lap down in the first place.

During this time, we were treated to the dreaded Virtual Garage with the obligatory explanation of "tight" for the new fans. Benny also showed us how the teams made changes to a shock by "clicks" which made the shock softer and was comparable to changing the spring rate on the car.

On the restart, Wally pointed out that every restart so far, there had been a problem and this time it was the 88 because the 4 car did not get up to speed. Bill showed us the shredded tires off of Terry Labonte's car after only 50 laps. We were also told the track, set-up, or the tires themselves might cause this type of problem. Wally thought it might be an air pressure issue and later we were told that the team didn't know the problem existed until they got the tires off the car and so they were not able to change the air pressure during the last stop.

NBC showed us an "Improvers" and "Snoozers" graphic. It was a listing of who had improved their position the most or the least during the race. Unfortunately, the "Snoozers" list included three cars out of the race or involved in accidents, so it wasn't really meaningful.

At 198, NBC did their third Through the Field segment of the race. Allen told us that Johnson had a 1.5 second lead at lap 206.

NBC broke out of commercial when Mike Bliss crashed. The producer tried to play his radio, but Benny was talking over it this time. Allen told us that Bliss had been two laps down at the time. We were shown a replay of what happened and were told that Bliss was out of his car and okay. Benny pointed out that the SAFER barriers reduced the impact from such crashes by 20%.

Wally told us that Mears would finally get his lap back under this caution. Allen pointed out that the teams would have time to get four tires since they had to take on two cans of fuel during these pit stops. Afterwards, Wally and Allen wondered if everyone got enough fuel. They reminded us of the problem Mike Wallace had the day before running out of gas on the last lap. When NBC went to commercial, I switched to MRN and learned that Bobby Labonte stayed out to lead a lap, possibly so he could come in at the last minute to top off and ensure he had enough gas to finish the race. NBC never mentioned this move at all. When NBC returned from commercial, they had other things to discuss, one of them being that Jeff Gordon's team had finally discovered that he had a loose jack bolt and that was why his car had been handling so poorly no matter what changes they made to it.

Bill told us that NASCAR had waved off the restart and so they would take this time to start their new feature Inside the Field. Now I was really excited when I heard that NBC had made a commitment to show more of the drivers in the back of the pack. Unfortunately, what they did in this instance was only tell us general stories about several drivers: Rudd, Schrader, Petty, and Gaughan. I was very disappointed that they didn't even tell us where any of them were running in the race. Instead we got to hear about Schrader participating in a ball game and the fact that Kyle's son, Austin, had been injured in a motorcycle accident. Yes, the injuries to Austin Petty was something I didn't know about and was interesting in knowing, but what did this have to do with the race or how these drivers' day was going? These type of human interest stories belong in the pre-race show, not masquerading as coverage of how these drivers were doing in the race. I sure hope NBC refines this feature in the coming weeks and makes it more relevant to the race. I'm sure fans of these drivers were very disappointed with the nature of this coverage.

On the restart, the leader, Sterling Marlin, had a problem and Benny thought it might be vaporlock and later Bill told us that he had missed a shift. NBC also told us that as a result Earnhardt was on the tailend of the lead lap since Jeremy Mayfield had inherited the lead when Marlin has his problem. Wally gasped and said that Brian Vickers had a close call in turn 2 and later the director went back and showed us a replay of Rusty Wallace getting loose and almost getting into Vickers. As a result, we were told Vickers had dropped to 14th position and Wallace was in 11th.

We heard that Mark Martin told his crew that his engine was "big" and Marty told us later that this was the first race where all of the Fords were running the new D3 engine. The announcers said that the engine had approximately 20 more horsepower, 400 more rpms, and more throttle response. NBC had a graphic of the speeds at the line and Allen said it showed that Martin was 3/10s of a second quicker than the leader at this point, but he was 5 seconds behind him with only 28 laps to go.

NBC made a valiant effort to get their last break of the day in at lap 239 with Allen telling us that they would come back and stay with the race until the checkers fell. Unfortunately for the viewers, while they were away, they missed a pass for the lead. As they were showing us a replay, the caution came out for debris in turn 4 which the cameras showed us. The team speculated on whether anyone would come in for tires this late in the race. Someone told us that Earnhardt probably would since he would be getting the free pass back to the lead lap under this caution. We were told that the 88 came in for two tires and Dave Burns was trying to tell us exactly who pitted, but the producer decided to break away for another commercial instead.

When they returned, Matt interviewed Greg Zipadelli and the other pit reporters talked to Mayfield and Martin's crew chiefs on their chances to beat Stewart. Allen told us that now that Jeff Gordon's problem was fixed, he would be restarting in 16th position. We were told that Nemechek and Jarrett each took two tires.

After the restart, we saw some heavy racing between the 31, 15, 25 and 17 cars. NBC showed us some replays just as the 31 hit the 43 car and he spun. Someone speculated that the 43 car must've done something before that, but when the replays didn't show anything, someone said the 31 was just impatient.

At the restart, Allen told us there were 11 laps to go. It was pointed out that the 38 had lost several positions and fell from 8th to 12th right after the restart. Then someone told us that Martin had fought back from a bad pit stop plus having to "take to the grass" to avoid a wreck. I don't remember seeing or hearing about either of these things earlier. At lap 255, Benny told us that Martin had just run his fastest lap of the day, but he didn't think there was enough time left for him to catch Stewart. Next thing, Martin slowed down and the team speculated if he had scraped the wall or blown up. Eventually, Dave reported that Martin said the car had blown up.

As the checkered flag flew, NBC showed a "pilon" of the cars as they crossed the line. This is a great feature that the fans really love to see and I'm happy that it is back. I was very impressed that NBC stayed with the post-race celebration and interviews without going to commercial. Matt interviewed his crew chief while Stewart was making his way to Victory Lane. Bill filled the time it took Stewart to talk to his crew chief and take his time getting out of the car. When he finally got to talk to Stewart, Bill didn't shy away from the tough questions. He asked him to explain what happened with the 9 car. He also asked if Stewart was aware of the two teams getting together on pit road. Various pit reporters interviewed the second, third and fourth place finishers. Dave also interviewed Earnhardt who finished in 22nd position. Allen said he had wondered what reception Stewart would get in Victory Lane and described it as "mixed at best." Again I was impressed that the NBC team did not try to sugarcoat this issue since you could clearly hear the number of boos Stewart received. Only after all of this did NBC take a break for commercial.

When they returned, Dave interviewed Mayfield and we were shown a graphic of the entire finishing order (no silly tickers thankfully), and the championship points before NBC went off the air.

I'm sorry this review is so lengthy and it took me so long to get it finished, but there were so much good information provided by the NBC team, I wanted to mention as much of it as possible. Overall, I think this was a great first effort for NBC. There were only a few things that I wasn't happy with, but the positives of this broadcast certainly outweighed the bad. Keep up the good work, guys!

If you are interested in rating this race or just discussing the coverage of it by NBC, please check out the new Speedcouch Fan Forum at www.SpeedCouch.com/forum! Read the RULES, sign up now, and jump into the discussion to let the networks know your thoughts about the race coverage.

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