The view from my couch

NBC Coverage of the Mountain Dew Southern 500
by Cheryl Lauer
November 16, 2004

This was an extremely disappointing broadcast for the NBC team for a variety of reasons. As always, I believe the producer, announcers, and pit reporters are trying to do a good job. Unfortunately, their efforts get overshadowed by the increasing number of commercials and the hype over the Chase. This week, even some drivers in the Chase were barely, if ever mentioned during the broadcast, not to mention the 33 drivers not in the Chase.

Pre-Race Show

NBC came on the air with a lot of tributes to the tradition and past Southern 500s. Later when they went to their first commercial, we got to see more highlights set to Bob Segar's Against the Wind, which was a nice touch. Unfortunately, one of the first things Bill Weber said was something like "This is Labor Day" and "a must win game..." Since when has racing become a game? After this the entire day, there seemed to be several baseball analogies when talking about the race, which, as always, baffle me as to their relevance.

Bill provided some interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact Kurt Busch had a mathematical chance of clinching the championship with a good finish in this race. He also reminded us that Jeff Gordon was a six-time winner at Darlington and that Jimmie Johnson won the race here in March. Dave Burns followed this up by pointing out that any of the top seven in points could conceivably leave Darlington with the points lead.

There were nice features on Johnson's rear tire changer, Ron Malec, who has been with him since his ASA days, and a nice feature of Mark Martin's career and scenes from his hometown, Batesville, Arkansas.

Unfortunately, the pre-race show turned into a promotion for some NBC show featuring stunt motorcycles and skateboard show, coincidently sponsored by the race sponsor, Mountain Dew. Please remind me what exactly this had to do with this week's race? NBC followed this theme by having one of the skateboarders do the ride around the track with Wally Dallenbach. Okay, the kid's reactions were really funny, but again I fail to see what relevance he has to stock car racing.

Right before the green flag, NBC showed a good graphic of which drivers failed to make the field and those who had to start at the back of field because of going to back-up cars, etc.

The Race

We got to hear Martin talking to his team on the radio right after the green flag, and also a replay of Busch talking to his team from before the start.

We were only 8 laps into the race when NBC started the annoying pointers. At lap 11, they showed Kevin Harvick slowing and getting passed. We were quickly shown a replay of him getting into the wall the lap before and Allen Bestwick told us that he had now dropped back to 14th position. Unfortunately after this, NBC never mentioned Harvick again until very late in the race. When I saw on the ticker that he was two laps down, I couldn't help wondering exactly what had happened to him.

The first of many commercials began on lap 11. When NBC returned at lap 19, Benny Parsons was yelling, "Kenseth is slow!" As it turned out, there was really not a problem on the 17, but Matt Yocum later reported he was loose and the car was kicking out exiting the corner.

The director seemed to make a lot of bad decisions as to which battle to follow all day long beginning with choosing to show a replay of racing between Mayfield, Earnhardt, and Kenseth and nearly missing when Busch caught Jeff Gordon for the lead. After this, Bill told us that Gordon's car was loose. Allen pointed out that Ryan Newman was off the pace and Matt reported he was pitting with a possible flat tire. We also got to hear Newman on the radio saying he thought it was a right front tire. NBC caught him sliding into the entrance of pit road and followed the pit stop. Afterwards, Benny and Allen told us he was two laps down, which turned out not to be the case (he was only one lap down). Wally pointed out that with two new fresh tires, Newman would be a lot faster than others on the track. Later, Matt told us that the 12 team confirmed that Newman's right front tire had a cut in it.

At lap 25, Allen told us that Busch now had a 6/10s of a second lead. At lap 26, NBC went to another commercial and returned at lap 35. So basically we saw about 6 laps of racing since the previous commercial and then were away for 9 laps during more commercials. This was to be the pattern for much of the day.

While showing Jamie McMurray racing with Busch, Wally pointed out how McMurray could drive on the apron and then he didn't have to slide all the way up to the wall when going into the turns. This was a great observation.

NBC managed to break away from showing the 8 car running alone in 11th place to show Greg Biffle passing Busch who had now dropped back to third.

While NBC was at commercial from lap 42-47, I listened to MRN that covered pit stops by Brian Vickers and Bobby Hamilton, Jr. When NBC returned, they told us that "pit stops were not far away..." so obviously since Vickers and Hamilton were not among the top 10, it was like their pit stops never happened.

NBC did the first of many Through the Fields at this time. For a feature I used to really like, NBC has used it in place of coverage so much this fall that I'm starting to see it as only a gimmick to fill the time between commercials. During this time, Matt told us Kenseth thought he had a tire going down and he dove into the pits right afterwards. NBC broke away from TTF to show pit stops among the top ten in the running order. NBC did a good job of telling us who was leading most of the time throughout this segment of green-flag stops. They pointed out that this would put Newman up front after everyone else went in. Benny acted really startled when Newman decided to pit, but Wally pointed out he'd used up his tires running hard to get back to the front.

NBC told us Biffle was leading after pit stops and when Martin passed him, they went back to commercial. They returned at lap 75 and told us that Martin's interval was now 1.5 seconds over Johnson who had moved up to second.

At lap 80, Allen told us that Rusty Wallace had made an unscheduled stop because of a flat tire and then NBC was off to another commercial (after only 5 laps of racing). Again, I tuned into MRN and heard that the caution was out because Hamilton, Jr. had hit the wall. Finally NBC returned and showed us pit stops before going to commercial. When they returned the second time, they got around to showing what happened to Hamilton.

On the restart, Allen told us that Ricky Rudd would get his lap back via the free pass. NBC was focusing on Robby Gordon, and simply told us that Wallace had gotten by leader, Martin, to get his lap back. I would've liked to have seen that, but I guess it was the "Cingular-sponsored" part of the show.

NBC did at least wait until lap 92 to show us the points "if the race ended now." Unfortunately, they made up for it by showing us the graphic numerous times in the next 275 laps. At lap 95, NBC showed Tony Stewart "off the pace" and Bill reported that Stewart didn't know what was the problem with his car.

NBC was back to commercial at lap 101 (after only 9 laps of racing). As they were leaving, Allen did tell us that Dale Jarrett was coming in for an unscheduled pit stop. As I was listening to MRN while NBC was away, I heard that Johnson passed Martin for the lead and that there was a battle for third between McMurray and Biffle. When NBC returned at lap 108, they didn't bother showing a replay of this lead change, but jumped right into another TTF. Somewhere in there, they mentioned that Casey Mears was "hit by the 31 and 15 earlier." Huh? I guess that happened while they were away.

Bill reported that Busch had possible tire rub after getting into the 01 car, just as Bobby Labonte spun out. NBC showed the damage to Busch's fender and a replay of the end of Labonte's spin, but we never really saw or heard what happened to him, although Allen did point out he was in 12th before the spin. During pit stops, NBC stayed with the repairs to Busch's car and Bill corrected his earlier statement that it was from contact with the 01. NBC played the radio from Busch from before the caution where he said "tell the 77 I lost him in the sun and I'm an idiot." This was interesting and NBC did a very good job of following up on the glare the drivers were experiencing from the sun in turns 3/4 during this portion of the race. They also explained how various drivers were dealing with it, such as using tinted tear-offs on their visors and windshields, or simply putting tape on the top of the windshields.

When NBC went to their next commercial, MRN reported that the 8 car came back in for a second stop as did Biffle who was repairing some damage to his car. When NBC returned, they finally queued up a replay of Busch getting into Brendan Gaughan in the 77 car. Unfortunately, this was another bad decision on the director's part as we missed the restart while watching the replay. I guess maybe if there wasn't a need for so many commercials, NBC might be able to show us replays without sacrificing live racing.

The announcers pointed out the smoke coming from Robby Gordon's fender, but felt it was tire rub. Marty Snider said he probably had low tire pressure and it should go away soon, but Wally pointed out damage on the wheel well and thought maybe Gordon had made contact with someone. Later Marty said he thought he'd made contact with Wallace on the restart. Finally, Bill reported on the second stop for Busch during caution and assured us he had no suspension damage. Marty also told us that Biffle had contact with Carl Edwards on pit road and that's why he had an extra stop. Allen told us Vickers got the free pass during that caution.

The lap 136 points graphic showed that Johnson had moved ahead of Busch by 30 points because of Busch's problems. NBC returned to commercial after showing this graphic. When they came back to racing at lap 143, they told us that Johnson was now the leader and thankfully we got to see the pass in replay. We were told that Gordon had also been passed by Martin and Mayfield as well. (I can't believe I'm actually happy to see a pass for the lead in replay, but with so many commercials, I guess the viewers have to be happy with what they get).

When Michael Waltrip and Todd Bodine wrecked, NBC went to Waltrip's radio where he said his throttle stuck as way of explaining why he kept pushing Bodine's car for so long. When NBC queued up the replays from the in-car, I was impressed that Wally quickly pointed out that the throttle wasn't hung or Waltrip wouldn't have been shifting gears. I'm glad that Wally was not afraid to imply that Waltrip was making up the story about the throttle to cover his anger of being collected when Bodine got loose.

While NBC was away at commercial, MRN covered the pit stop by Biffle before the pits opened, but NBC was back in time to make sure we saw the leaders pit. Again, I guess if it's not the leaders, the viewers at home don't need to see or hear about pit stops until NBC has time or the inclination to tell us.

NBC came back from commercial long enough to "introduce" the 31 pit crew after they had another fast stop for Robby Gordon, and then they went to another break.

After the restart, Allen told us that Jarrett was the recipient of the latest free pass. He also told us that Waltrip had declined to be interviewed. NBC showed the 8 and 24 coming up through the field and at lap 169, we got another graphic of the points now and another TTF through 26th position. As they broke for the next commercial after that, NBC showed a graphic of the top five and I noticed that the 12 and 24 had moved to the top five while NBC was doing the TTF. This is the kind of thing that really annoys me about the recent use of TTF. It really is taking the place showing actual racing and changing of positions such as these changes in the top five. It's like most of the time we're just getting shots of cars running alone and updates on how they are doing, which I do appreciate, but in the meantime we're missing actual racing elsewhere.

We were told that Newman had to come in again with a tire problem; possibly a leak. At lap 193, we did get to see Johnson lapping some cars and were told that the 24 in third was 6/10s of a second faster than the leader. Benny told us that Mike Wallace was behind the wall because the oil pump belt had been knocked of his car. I thought it was nice they were telling us about someone not up front who was behind the wall. I'd already heard on MRN that many cars had dropped out of the race but NBC had yet to mention them. Of course, then I learned that this mention was just a segue to the dreaded Virtual Garage. Fortunately a caution came out and we were saved from sitting through it at that time. Unfortunately the caution was for Dale Jarrett who hit the wall very hard.

Benny pointed out that this caution would trap Newman a lap down because Kasey Kahne was the first car a lap down and would get the free pass. Next we saw a replay of Jarrett's wreck. NBC also showed pit stops before going to commercial, which was good.

When they returned, Matt told us that Johnson's team had a problem on their pit stop and he demonstrated how the lugnut got hung on the hub. Marty told us that Earnhardt made two pit stops and then we heard him complaining about his car and the track on the radio. Allen told us that he'd fallen to 21st position.

Allen also told us that Kenseth stayed out to lead a lap and collect five bonus points, but that Jeff Gordon was leading now that he had pitted. Johnson's bad pit stop had dropped him back to 10th.

At lap 209, NBC told us that track temperature had dropped to 59.4 degrees and Allen pointed out that cooler temperatures should give the tires more grip. This was excellent information!

Back to commercial from lap 215-222 and then another TTF. After this, NBC went away from Martin passing Kahne on the outside for another commercial. This is the kind of thing viewers want to see instead of TTF all the time which is just featuring cars running alone. They returned at lap 238 and told us that Busch was losing positions rapidly because his tires had lost their grip. At 242, someone attempted to play Busch's radio, but the announcers talked over it as well as there being silly chimes for the updates on the screen. Is there no coordination in the production trailer these days?

At lap 246, Dave reported that Martin had told his crew to "Be ready. I might have a tire going down." Wally said the car skating might make it feel like a tire was going down. NBC didn't stick around to follow-up on this story and instead went to commercial at lap 248. I heard on MRN that a caution had come out for debris while TV was away. When NBC returned around lap 250, Allen had the nerve to say "you haven't missed a thing..." I'm sorry, but isn't it up to the viewers to determine what we've missed? Especially since we'd been missing about half of the race so far because of commercials. I also noticed NBC never showed us any debris or even attempted to tell us what brought out the caution. These are the kinds of things that make viewers wonder if NASCAR just calls cautions if they feel the cars are too strung out or something.

After more commercials, Bill told us that Busch had pitted a second time during the caution because he'd lost the handle on his car and Allen told us he was restarting back in 20th position. Bill followed up by explaining that they hadn't gotten the adjustment done the first time he pitted. Allen explained that he'd been talking to Jimmy Fennig before the race and he said that he'd stressed to his team about not leaving in wedge wrench after adjustments, so they might have removed it before the adjustment was complete to ensure they were not penalized. This was a great explanation and the type of reporting where the NBC team really excels.

Unfortunately, this is the point in the race where the commercials got even more frequent (as if they weren't before). NBC went to commercial at laps 264, 278, and 293. This was really absurd!

Sometime after lap 301, Benny yelled that Kyle Petty was in the wall and that Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd had also gotten together. NBC showed a replay of Marlin getting into the wall and collecting Rudd and Allen told us that since pit road was not yet open, "we'll take break..." Gee, I guess those last three commercial breaks every ten laps didn't generate enough revenue for the network, huh? What bothers me even more is Allen's innocent tone like he doesn't know they've been at commercial half the race already. Then they came back to cover pit stops and went away again, came back just to advertise next week's race, and were gone again. When they returned, NBC showed a race recap while MRN told their listeners that Jeff Gordon had cut a tire on the debris from Petty's wreck and he was lucky the caution came out when it did. I don't believe NBC ever mentioned this at all, although Allen did tell us that Kenseth had made a green flag stop just before the caution and was now two laps down. I think this was more important to TV because they could declare that Kenseth was now "out" of the Chase. They seemed to love making drammatic statements like this all day long.

At lap 316, Wally pointed out that Johnson was now 2/10 faster than the leader. We were also told that Biffle was on pit road and shown a replay of him getting into the wall. The next lap, Benny pointed out Gordon had the fastest lap. At 45 laps to go, NBC showed Stewart on pit road and Bill reported he was getting four tires because he was still not happy with the way his car was handling. I think this is when the announcers declared "well, he's out of the chase now." Later Bill reported there had been a loose wheel on Stewart's car.

With 38 laps to go, NBC showed Busch pass Earnhardt for 11th position and Robby Gordon on pit road. Marty reported that they thought it was flat tire on the 31 car. NBC quickly switched to showing Newman's car blowing up on the track and told us he was taking his car directly to the garage. Then they went to commercial while MRN got an interview with Newman.

When NBC returned from commercial, they did have a beautiful view of the sunset over Darlington Raceway. For some reason, I'm a sucker for beautiful skies over a race track.

NBC showed the trail of oil that Newman's car left going into the garage and a sweeper truck cleaning up all the speedy dry it took to soak it up. During this time, Marty got an interview with Newman. Allen explained pit road was still closed because of clean-up which gave NBC another opportunity for commercial.

When they returned, we were told that the 24 team had a problem on Gordon's pit stop and that Busch's team had a great stop (12.6 seconds). They showed a replay of the race off pit road which showed Johnson got out first, with Edwards second. After this, NBC showed a replay of the 24's tire coming down on the airhose and that the wedge wrench fell out of the car as well.

After the restart, NBC showed the 8 car slow on the track and Marty reported that the battery was dead. At this time, the producer cut to the radio conversation between Earnhardt and his crew chief. It was impossible to clearly hear what they were saying, but I heard something about the 29 car and "penalty," then abruptly NBC cut off further scanner chatter. I'm not sure what that was about, but next thing Benny was declaring Earnhardt would lose laps if he pitted and would be out of the points chase. Then we were next shown the 29 car stopping on the track and bringing out a caution, I couldn't help but be suspicious of the timing. It seemed quite coincidental that the 8 car now had time to change it's battery under caution, after they were just discussing the 29 car on the radio and the word penalty. We all know that stopping on the track to intentionality bring out a caution may bring a penalty.

During the ensuring pit stops, the NBC announcers seemed overly excited that Earnhardt was not out of the Chase. The producer cut away from showing us the race off pit road to showing the 8 team changing the battery. Next we were told that the 29 team "had the same problem" with a battery, but no work was shown on that car. I couldn't help but feel that the actions by NBC just added to the many conspiracy theories that the 8 car gets preferential treatment. Add to that that Kevin Harvick is out of the points chase and was at least two laps down in the race, and it seems plausible that Richard Childress might work in conjunction with DEI to help the 8 car get a timely caution. I'm not saying this is the case, but the perception is there based on the unusual way NBC handled the situation. Next thing I saw on the ticker, the 29 car was now numerous laps down. This led me to wonder if that team didn't receive a penalty for stopping on the track. I just found it curious that the 8 team could change their battery and not lose a lap, but apparently the 29 team lost 10 or more laps changing theirs. I've since learned from someone who was at the race that the 29 car had blown an engine rather than a battery problem. I just think NBC should have investigated the situation more and reported on it. This final caution in the race was pivotal for all of the top teams and their lack of follow-up left a lot of questions unanswered for myself and some others I have heard from this week.

When the race restarted with 18 laps to go, NBC told us that the 42 and 9 did not pit and that the 42 was the leader. At 15 laps to go, NBC started using the pointers on the battle between the 97 and 9 cars. This really annoys me, especially late in the race! Viewers want to focus on the racing and not have all this extraneous stuff interfering with their view in the last few laps of a race. Bill reported that Busch took the blame for telling his team the wrong way to adjust his car. This was quite interesting.

In the last few laps, NBC did a pretty could job of covering the battle for the lead and also following Martin and Gordon up through the pack to finish 2nd and 3rd.

NBC showed Johnson's post-race celebration and then Matt interviewed his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Dave interviewed a visibly angry Jeff Gordon and Matt was with a happy Mark Martin. Then they skipped the rest of the top five to interview Chase participant, Earnhardt, Jr. and lastly points leader, Busch. Eventually, Bill interviewed Johnson in Victory Lane.

We got a graphic of the points standings and final running order, but the gushing by the announcers on how tight the points battle had gotten was a bit annoying. It's like the NBC guys can't pat themselves on the back enough for the new points system and the so-called "drama" that it generates.

As always, I really wish I could be less critical of the race broadcast, but this race appeared to hit an all-time for commercial interruptions (1 hour and 16 minutes, I believe). As I also mentioned, I think the producer and director made a lot of back choices on what to cover at various times during the day. I know they are under a lot of pressure late in the season and maybe that's affecting them because I know this team is capable of doing a much better job than I saw this week.

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