|Your 12th-place finisher yesterday.|
PHOTO: NASCAR Media
This is a critical season for NASCAR. The biggest names of the last two decades are all gone, including Dale Jr., Edwards, Stewart, Kenseth, Gordon, and now Danica. The sport and its teams have responded by advancing several young stars into top-flite, ready-to-win rides. So many, in fact, that young guns from a decade ago like Logano, Hamlin, and Kyle Busch are now the old guard against the likes of Blaney, Byron, and Wallace. The result is the youngest, healthiest field in decades, which in spite of the Charter system’s effect on overall depth, still has the very real potential of producing some of the best competition in years.
But all this is utterly meaningless if the media fails to inform the audience about who these people are, and why we should care about them. And this is where Sunday’s starting lineup comes in.
FOX had the opportunity – no – the responsibility to calm the concerns of old fans of retired drivers and attract the interest of people who had no understanding of the sport. This is actually much easier than it sounds because both groups are on equal footing: they both need to be given a reason to watch. The simplest and best way to do this isn’t some misleading ad campaign, but just take the time to tell us about each and every one of the forty starters. Not just Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch – everyone. Make a case why you should cheer for each and every person climbing behind the wheel. Tell us something interesting about each one of them, like the fact that Jeffrey Earnhardt is driving for the guy who beat his grandfather in the 500 in 1990. Or that a 66-year-old Mark Thompson is making just his second start since 1992.
Did FOX do this? No. In fact, their starting lineup didn’t even mention most of the field by name. And those who were named, we hardly learned anything about them. The more it played, the more I got the impression that whoever was in charge of the segment – whether the production team or its on-air talent – didn’t do their homework over the offseason. As I wrote in my article last year about the “Junior Singularity,” this was a trap that was waiting for them. With a fan favorite gone and no clear successor, you can’t just talk about the big names who are left. You need to talk about everyone because anyone can become the next Junior. FOX’s failure to prepare for this was completely avoidable and inexcusable.
The effect of FOX’s failure was felt through the rest of the broadcast as, once again, only a small circle of drivers received any real attention. This was particularly noticeable with each field-clearing wreck, as each brought a new group of drivers into contention, but few new stories. To his credit, Mike Joy has continued to keep an eye on small teams exceeding expectations, as he did with Brendan Gaughan and Matt DiBenedetto in the final stages. However, the task is too much for Joy alone. Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon were no help, choosing once again to simply react to things happening rather than reporting on developing stories. This problem is by no means limited to FOX as NBC’s group is just as guilty. Consider “throwback weekend” at Darlington, and how few of those paint schemes you actually saw during the race.
I do believe there’s time to right the ship, but only if immediate action is taken. The production staff needs to put more effort on producing driver profiles and, during the race, help the booth stay appraised of stories they may be missing. The announcers need to each take on different roles in the booth, focusing on a different aspect of the action, and stick to it. In doing so, they need to stop reacting and start reporting. The overall tone of the broadcasts needs to be turned away from entertaining the audience to informing them. Cars going around the track is entertaining enough – your job is to tell us there’s more going on. The result will be a leaner, more enjoyable, and more successful broadcast for all involved.
This isn’t asking too much. As I’ve said in the past, we should demand more of professionals, and not let them rest on their laurels. Because if we don’t, we will not only miss out on key moments in one of NASCAR’s most important seasons, but miss out on the chance to capitalize on them.