The view from my couch

TNT Coverage of the Sylvania 300 from New Hampshire
by Cheryl Lauer
September 19, 2004

I usually chide everyone else for allowing their frustrations with the number of commercials during a race broadcast to overshadow the rest of the broadcast, but this week, I can't help but feel that way myself. I guess TNT already counts the Chase for the Championship a success based on the amount of advertising revenue they generated for this one broadcast. Frankly if I hadn't been trying to write a review, I would have turned the TV off around 3:00 and just listened to the race on XM Radio. If you can get beyond the precious little of the race TNT showed us, I guess the announcers and pit reporters did their usual good job. I do think there was way too much emphasis on the Championship "Chasers," a term that I was sick of hearing after about an hour into the broadcast.

Pre-Race Show

When Bill Weber came on the air, we had the predictable over-dramatic prose concerning the championship contenders. But what was up with all the Hogans Heroes references by Weber? That one was really lost on my husband and I.

Weber tried to do a good job of not making the viewers think the other 33 teams now involved in the Chase were irrelevant. I thought the line about how they were "racing for pride and the most precious thing: a win" was a bit much. Aren't all 43 drivers supposed to be racing for the win every week? Then there was something about everyone outside the top 10 being 'the Chicago Cubs of Nextel Cup" which I failed to understand. I could only guess it meant they were losers or always playing catch-up? As usual, mixing sports analogies really annoys me. But I'm sure "casual fans" of racing probably understood it. Later Bill called the drivers competing for the championship, "the Chasers" and the other drivers something like "the rest of the field." I wasn't too crazy about that designation either.

Each of the pit reporters had live interviews with several of the top drivers. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was being interviewed, he mentioned NASCAR was planning a competition yellow early in the race (I found it odd that the TNT announcers didn't explain this until many laps into the race).

TNT showed Michael Waltrip and Rusty Wallace briefly and reminded us that Rusty won the first Cup race run at NH. Then we had the president of Nextel on the War Wagon with Bill Weber and they showed us the championship trophy. I know this was a PR opportunity for the new series sponsor, but it really added nothing of substance to the pre-race show in my opinion.

As if to help justify the new points system, Bill told us that in the 29 years under the old system, only 11 times did a driver race his way into the top 10 in points during the last 10 races. and then he only got as high as 8th. Bill also told us that Kurt Busch moved up from 12th to 3rd in points in 2002. For those highly coveted "new fans," Dave Burns showed us how many points are awarded for each finishing position in a race and told us how important bonus points could be as well.

Bill's lead-in to Wally's World this week was "telling the good guys from the bad guys" which I thought was a little too dramatic as well. Wally did make some good points about how a driver could get caught up in someone else's mess and it could cost someone the championship. Of course, this could have happened in prior years as well. He also talked about how teammates might help someone by letting him by.

There was a feature tabout Jimmie Johnson who led the points for eight weeks, but was really more a human interest story about he and his fiance and how she helps him through the hard times. Following this was an interesting feature on the NASCAR engineer at the track for General Motors, Alba Colon.

As Bill closed the pre-race show, he said something about "10 guys in a jailbreak for the championship" and then something else about Hogan Heroes. Okay, I know that show was about a prisoner of war camp, but what jailbreaks and racing for a championship have to do with each other is still lost on me. Right before the green flag fell, Bill said something about the Chase being "a twist on any other sport tournament." It just seemed like TNT tried to coin too many cute phrases to draw our attention to this year's championship system. To me, it would have been better just to let the racing speak for itself.

When TNT went to the booth announcers, we were shown the entire starting grid, but the announcers pretty much ignored it until about row 12. Instead, Benny was talking to Elliott Sadler on the radio.

The Race

At lap 3 in the race, Allen Bestwick told us that the 10 in the Chase would be highlighted in yellow on the ticker and "everyone else" would be in blue.

At lap 12, Allen told us we were not missing anything up front as Jeff Gordon was still first and Tony Stewart was second. Then all of a sudden, TNT cut to Stewart passing for the lead. I guess someone in the production trailer realized we were missing something up front. After this they covered a battle between Earnhardt and Johnson for third position.

Numerous times during this broadcast, TNT played some loud jingle to alert us to a second ticker across the bottom of the screen to tell us what we were watching or advertising next week's race. Many times, they already had a graphic on the screen showing a driver's speed and rpms, so this ticker covered some of that up. Isn't there already enough on the screen with the scoring ticker on top as well? Why do viewers need an annoying sound to draw there attention to a scroll telling them what they are already watching?

TNT went to their first commercial of the day at lap 15, but appeared to break out of it a bit early to tell us that Robby Gordon had spun. They showed us several replays showing he was going three-wide with Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle when the wreck occurred. At this time, TNT finally told the viewers NASCAR planned a mandatory caution around lap 35. Allen said that because of this, many teams might not pit during this caution. He told us that the third, fourth, fifth and many cars further back were coming in to pit. After covering these stops, TNT went back to commercial.

When they returned, Allen told us that nine cars stayed out and that Johnson, who took fuel only, was the first off of pit road, and all of the others who pitted only took right side tires.

After the restart, TNT covered some hard racing in the field, such as when Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray made slight contact and the announcers speculated on whether or not McMurray's fender damage might hurt or help his car on this track. At lap 29, TNT switched to the front just in time to catch Jeff Gordon passing Stewart for the lead. I still don't understand why the networks can't show us what leads up to a pass for the lead. This type of thing should be followed in split-screen with other significant battles on the track.

Throughout the race, TNT felt they had to start telling us how the top 10 were running "as of now." The first of such graphics was at lap 31. They also showed us current points standings for the drivers racing for 11th position. I've never been a fan of the "If the Race Ended Now" graphics and this one was repeated so often during this race it was ridiculous. The next update was at lap 122, with another one at lap 186, one at lap 213, lap 266, around lap 278, and again on lap 290. I didn't like this type of floating update when ESPN started it years ago and I like it even less now that TNT feels they must update us every few laps. The race isn't ending at that point, so it's just plain irrelevant until the race is over!

When the mandatory caution came out at lap 36, Allen told us it was a "strategy smorgasboard" during pit stops, but they'd "sort it out when we come back." It's becoming a common theme on TNT broadcasts that they can't stick around long enough to thoroughly cover pit stops, but have to string the viewers along through another round of commercials first.

Throughout the broadcast, the TNT producer provided interesting radio communications from teams, such as when Sadler was having some brake problems around lap 50. But I noticed that TNT neglected to ever tell the viewers which drivers got the free pass during the race.

After only showing 10 laps of racing, TNT went back to commercial on lap 51. During this time, MRN told me that two drivers had already taken their cars behind the wall.

TNT returned at lap 58 to do their first Through the Field of the day. As I always say, I like this feature, but this season, producer Sam Flood, seems to have begun relying on the feature for much of the race coverage in between frequent commercials. This time they covered the top ten drivers in the race and Allen told us there were 39 cars on the lead lap. (I noticed that TNT never bothered telling us about when drivers retired unless they were title contenders.) Before they could continue going through the field, TNT was interrupted by the major incident of the day on lap 64. This involved Jeremy Mayfield, Biffle and Stewart. Wally quickly pointed out that this was an example of getting caught up in someone else's mess. TNT had several replays that showed Robby Gordon had caused the wreck. Someone in the booth speculated that this was payback to Biffle for getting into him earlier. TNT covered pit stops and pointed out there was fluid under Stewart's car. Benny alerted us to Mayfield stalling on the track. The producer showed us a replay of the earlier incident between Gordon and Biffle and then what just happened, which was excellent. As TNT was going to commercial, Allen told us that Stewart's team was taking his car behind the wall.

While TNT was away, I switched to MRN which told me that Michael Waltrip had stayed on the track and was now leading, Mayfield had also taken his car to the garage, and that Robby Gordon was being given a two-lap penalty by NASCAR because of his actions. When TNT finally returned, Allen told us that this was "the first twist to the plot" which was a lead-in to an ad for next week's broadcast. Is this a Championship battle or a mini-series? Finally, they returned to this race and showed another replay of the contact between Gordon and Biffle. They showed a NASCAR official holding Gordon's car on pit road and Allen told us it was for rough driving.

It wasn't until the race was restarted that TNT told us that Waltrip was leading the race and Kevin Harvick was second. TNT showed the repairs on Stewart's car and told us about Mayfield's repairs, but they never mentioned how Biffle's car was doing. I finally saw that he was still on the track (via the ticker) and still on the lead lap at that point. Bill had an interview with Mayfield while his car was being repaired.

The announcers had an interesting discussion about whether of not one bad race would knock a driver out of the Chase, with Wally and Benny arguing different sides of the issue.

Around lap 92, Bill interviewed Richard Childress, car owner for Robby Gordon, about what happened and the penalty. Next they showed Robby Gordon's car smoking and Benny said he was blowing up, but Wally said it looked like a brake problem to him. The producer played a comment from Gordon's radio after the first incident with Biffle where we heard him say, "I'm gonna get him!" This was great! Benny pointed out if you wanted to do something like that, you ought to do it on a clean race track, not near other cars. Allen reported that Mayfield and Stewart were now 30 and 32 laps down respectively and still behind the wall.

During the next commercial, Scott Wimmer spun, but TNT did not break out of commercial to cover it. When they returned, they had a replay which showed he was apparently hit by Jeff Green. Allen said that Wimmer had been running 20th when the spin occurred.

During this round of pit stops, Allen told us that Kahne was the first off of pit road. The viewers could see that Casey Mears was behind the pace car, but TNT went to commercial before explaining he was the leader. When they returned, they gave us a "Nextel Fact" which was just another commercial. Finally Allen told us that Mears was leading and the next two behind him took two tires, with Harvick in eighth being the first driver to take four tires.

After the restart, Wally alerted us to someone getting sideways and told us it was Sterling Marlin. Around lap 110, TNT covered some good racing around Marlin with the cars going four-wide at one time with Newman and Marlin both getting sideways, but saving it.

TNT showed Stewart returning to the track in an inset. They followed Busch coming towards the front. Marty Snider reported that it took about 30 laps on new tires for Busch's car to start feeling good to him. We saw Robby Gordon spinning and then TNT showed us a replay that Marlin had gotten into him. Bill reported that Robby had radioed in just before this that he was loose. Allen told us that Mayfield was back out on the track now, but was 49 laps down and running in 39th place, while Stewart was in 38th place. It sure would be nice to hear when other non-Chase drivers come back out after spending time in the garage.

Sometime after the lap 117 restart, Wally told us that Jimmy Spencer was in trouble and may have a flat tire. Dave followed up by telling us that his team changed all four tires.

For the next seven laps, TNT showed some good racing in the pack where Mears had fallen back in the field, and then they were away to another commercial at lap 124. When they returned around lap 130, Benny remarked that it looked like Johnson was good on fresh tires and struggled on older ones while Busch was better on older tires. I enjoy this type of obsevations.

At lap 134, Allen told us that Stewart had been blackflagged by NASCAR for failing to keep up the minimum speed. TNT was showing a Cingular poll/commercial on-screen and some racing in the distance and missed Sadler catching Kahne for the lead. When he did pass him, we got to see their wonderful "NEW LEADER" splash on the ticker as well. They went to commercial again around lap 137 after another seven laps. I guess seven was the viewers "lucky" number, as we were lucky to see that many laps most of the time.

TNT returned to the race at lap 142 with Bill now telling us "this Chase is a lot like the World Series." Why do the TNT guys constantly try to convince the viewers that the Chase is the best thing that has come to racing and comparing it to other sports? At this time, TNT started a TTF of the top 20 cars, which was briefly interrupted for an interview with Stewart by Matt. Allen commented "What an eventful race so far." I guess I wasn't quite convinced by Allen's declaration.

At lap 158, Allen told us that Busch was leading by 3.3 second as they broke for commercial. TNT returned at lap 163 to an on-screen commercial and finally got back to showing us a little bit of racing. At lap 166, Allen pointed out that Busch was lapping Dale Jarrett and his lead was now up to 3.7 seconds.

TNT played the radio from Jeff Gordon where he was describing his handling problems and Allen said "He's fallen back to 4th..." I thought well that's not bad if he's having so many problems and then I realized that TNT meant 4th in points "if the race ended now." Do we really have to hear about the Chase standings so often???

TNT went to commercial at lap 171. Oh goody, we actually got 8 laps of racing this time! When they returned, rather than immediately telling us the field was under caution, TNT showed a race recap. They finally told us that there was a caution because of debris and that the cars had already pitted. They did show us a replay of the race off pit road and then someone said Kurt Busch was "holding serve." Another annoying mixed sports analogy favored by TNT. After this bit of information, TNT was off to their next commercial. There was never a shot of the actual debris either.

Before the lap 182 restart, TNT did one of their video "introductions" of Busch's team, which I always enjoy. It's nice to see the team members get some TV time as well as the driver. We got six laps of racing before TNT went to commercial again on lap 188. They returned around lap 196 and showed Ricky Rudd taking his car behind the wall and Dave reported that the motor had locked up.

TNT went to commercial again at lap 200. TNT returned at lap 206 and did another TTF for fourteen of the twenty cars left on the lead lap. It appeared TNT only went back to 14th position to ensure they covered all the remaining Chase drivers left on the track. They also gave us an update on Mayfield and Stewart. Then they updated us on the points and went back to commercial at lap 213.

When they returned at lap 220, TNT showed a pylon of the fastest speeds among the top ten in the race, which I always enjoy. At lap 223, we got the annoying duck question and the obligatory prelude to it by the announcers. Then Bill had another human interest story on Kenny Francis, crew chief for Mayfield. I guess human interest stories are more important than actual race coverage these days.

After only four laps back at the race, TNT was off to another commercial. I felt like I wasjust been watching a highlight show or race updates, rather than any real coverage of the actual race during this time. When TNT returned at lap 234, they had one of those annoying pointers on the leader. I guess they figured we'd forgotten who it was since they'd been away so often over the last 50 laps. They also told us that Busch had increased his lead over Newman in second place.

At lap 241, guess what? TNT broke for another commercial. They returned at lap 248 and told us there was a close call for Busch while they were away. They did show us a replay of his brush with Ken Schrader and there was speculation that he might have a fender rubbing a tire. Allen told us that Schrader was running in 17th position and was about to be lapped when the contact occurred. Allen also said that Busch had asked his team if his tire was okay, and that his interval over second place had dropped to 1.5 seconds after the incident.

Next we got the return of the feature Inside the Field. I haven't watched the last two races, so it may have returned before now. This week the feature was a little more informative than ones I'd seen in the past. The feature was still mostly human interest stories about Jeff Burton, Ricky Craven and Terry Labonte, but the pit reporters did update us where the drivers were running in the field. Next was a mention that a crew member on Joe Nemechek's team, Pete Wright, was making his 1400th start in NASCAR. Then there was some silly inside joke by Allen about being a "card holding" member of his fan club. Meanwhile, I'm sure there might have been some actual racing going on somewhere on the track.

At lap 252, TNT was away to another commercial. When they returned, they did cover the leader pitting as well as several other runners in the Chase. Bill reported that they all took four tires. Allen told us that Waltrip had taken only two tires and that Newman had inherited the lead when Busch pitted. Next, we hear the radio of someone telling his team that his car was blowing up and Benny let us know that it was Newman. TNT covered Newman pitting and going back out on the track, but eventually showed us that he had to retire the car. During the sequence of green flag stops, TNT also kept us informed that Gordon took only two tires and Johnson stayed out to lead a lap and get 5 bonus points. Matt reported that the 48 team was hoping for a caution when Newman blew up, but it didn't happen. After all stops were completed, TNT told us that Busch was leading again and now had a 3.8 second lead over Matt Kenseth, who was now in second.

TNT returned to commercial at lap 267 and took a break for a bit of racing at lap 273. Allen updated us that Busch's lead was now up to 4.5 seconds. At lap 275, we heard that there was another mysterious debris caution, but we never saw the cause. During this time, Bill had an interview with Newman and TNT went to commercial again at lap 276. Before they left, Allen said "we'll see if there are any takers on pit road," and "we'll see when we get back." This was a key pit stop sequence in the waning laps of the race and TNT couldn't tell us who pitted before they broke away for yet more in a long string of commercials? MRN covered all pit stops while TV was away. The good news is TNT was only away two laps (but then they were very slow laps since it was under caution). When they returned, Allen told us that most of the front runners didn't pit; that of the 16 cars on the lead lap, only Sadler, Martin, Wallace, and Schrader pitted. I was surprised to hear Schrader was back on the lead lap, but then again, TNT never told us which drivers received the free pass during this race. Wally pointed out these four drivers had a lot of cars to get through, but they were on new tires, so that should help.

TNT played a radio conversation the 42 team had with McMurray where they told him that the two drivers in front of him were in the Chase and if he put some heat on them, maybe they would let him by. This was interesting. The pit reporters talked to the crew chiefs of the drivers running 1st and 2nd. The announcers reminded us that Busch was not fast on restarts. I thought that was just on new tires, which proved to be the case as he pulled away from Kenseth on the restart.

At lap 285, TNT did show some good racing between Johnson, Harvick, and Sadler. Unfortunatly, in the middle of it, the director briefly switched to a speed shot for some reason. Matt reported that there appeared to be a problem on Johnson's car and we heard Johnson's radio where someone on his crew advised him to let Bobby Labonte go by since he was not on the lead lap. We also got to see a battle for fourth between Kahne and McMurray. Benny pointed out this was a battle for 11th in the points.

In the waning laps, Allen was working up to one of his big finishes for the end of the race, which started with "things we've seen today..." My response to this was, "a lot of commercials and very little racing?" Right after this we got yet another promo for next week's race. If the Chase is as exciting as TV would like us to believe, why did they have to keep reminding us there was also a race next week?

At 4 laps to go, TNT showed Sadler passing Waltrip for 8th position and someone pointed out that he had moved up from 12th since getting new tires, so the tires paid off for him.

As has become the custom for TV, we watched the leader running alone on the track for the entire last lap. This never excites me, but I guess some TV executive thinks it's cool. TNT did show the top 10 car numbers on a pylon as they crossed the line, which is very good. Allen told us the top five finishers and reminded us of where the "chasers" had finished, lest we forget.

TNT showed Busch's burnout and then went to a long string of commercials by the series sponsor, while MRN started interviewing the finishers, such as second place, Kenseth. Finally, TNT returned to the "Nextel Post-Race Report." I guess they figured we hadn't gotten the message they were sponsoring the series by all the previous commercials.

During Bill's interview with Busch, he pointed out that he was tied with Earnhardt for the points lead, but because Earnhardt had more wins, Earnhardt was considered the points leader at this point. That was a good bit of information that I hadn't thought of and appreciated the reminder. The top five finishers in the race were interviewed as well as Jeff Gordon, who finished 7th and had been the prior points leader and Martin who finished in 13th. What about Joe Nemechek who had an excellent run? Matt also pointed out that Gordon was now nine points behind Busch and Earnhardt - another good bit of information.

Before signing off for the day, TNT showed us a graphic of the finishing order in the race and the points update. They made sure and showed us the competitors for "that coveted" 11th position in points as well.

As usual, I really wish I could give a more positive review of this broadcast; however, the commercial breaks mid-race really destroyed the continuity of the race for me. If I had not been committed to taking notes for this review, I really would have turned TNT off about midway in disgust and just listened to the MRN broadcast instead. I probably won't be watching next week's broadcast from Dover since it will again be relegated to TNT and I don't feel like sitting through 400 miles of commercials again so soon.

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