The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. An off-day for an elite race team

One of the top crew chiefs in the garage faced reporters after the Bristol race and gave a frank assessment of his team’s lack of speed.

“This was probably about the worst car I gave him to go race with this year,” the crew chief said. “We didn’t make a lot of headway in practice. We weren’t as good as we hoped to be.”

The driver echoed that sentiment, saying the team never hit on the right setup for the entire weekend.

“We just didn’t quite have the speed,” he said. “We just didn’t show exactly what we needed there.”

Added the crew chief: “They had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already.”

Yikes. Clearly, it sounds like a very tough Sunday at Bristol for…(checks notes)…Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens?!?!

That’s crazy. In a season where Busch has already been stellar, the field somehow allowed the No. 18 team to score yet another victory and add to its already-impressive playoff point total. Busch now has 19 playoff points, which is by far the most after the first eight races under this system (12 was the previous best).

We all know there are times when Busch loses races on days he had the best car. On Sunday, he won a race where he clearly wasn’t the fastest. This is shaping up to be a long season for Busch haters yet again.

“Hopefully we can get back on our horse and give him something he can race with a little closer next week,” Stevens said.

2. Odd ending

Bristol was a really fun and interesting race from Lap 1, with all sorts of unpredictable twists (from wrecks to loose wheels) that kept the pace moving quickly. Fears of a dreadful race due to the aero effects of the new package didn’t come to fruition and the traction compound appeared to last throughout the day (instead of wearing out halfway through).

All in all, it was the best race of the season so far.

But it sure ended in an anti-climactic way. One of the Team Penske cars was headed toward victory lane — they’d been the class of the field, leading 344 laps.

And then, strangely, the Penske trio just handed the race to Busch by pitting before a restart that ultimately came with 14 laps to go.

Track position won out, with the top two finishers — the Busch Brothers — pulling away on old tires. Joey Logano went from eighth to third, but wasn’t really a threat for the win.

Later, Logano said he thought the pit decision was a no-win situation for the frontrunners.

“The last thing you want is a caution with 15 to 20 to go at Bristol and you’re the leader, because you know everyone is going to make their decision off of what you do,” he said. “If you stay out, you’ve got to expect half the field is going to pit, maybe more. If you come in, five or six stayed (out). So it’s just part of the game.”

But is it? I’m having a hard time visualizing it. If the leaders stayed out — let’s say it was only the three Penske cars and a few others — they would have been in the same situation as the Busch Brothers ended up in.

Perhaps Logano was just trying to avoid throwing his team under the bus for a strategy decision that clearly cost him the race. And for viewers at home, it certainly made for a weird ending.

3. Race recap from a parallel universe

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As continuous cheers rained down from the stands for 15 minutes following the checkered flag, Kurt Busch stood atop the victory lane building in Bristol Motor Speedway’s infield and shrugged his shoulders with a grin.

“I really wanted to beat him,” Busch said of his younger brother, Kyle. “I decided I was going to wreck him, and if I got close enough when we took the white, I was just going to drive straight into Turns 3 and 4 and wreck him.”

Busch did exactly that, sending his brother’s No. 18 car spinning and crashing as the No. 1 car crossed the finish line. Bristol fans, weary of seeing Kyle win yet another race, responded by erupting in joy as Kurt circled the track with a Polish victory lap.

It also may have sparked a rivalry at a time when NASCAR could use some bad blood.

“I’ll get him back,” Kyle said on the track’s public address system as fans showered him with jeers. “I don’t care if it takes me all season and I don’t care what the penalty is. He’ll regret this day ever happened.”

In related news, Bristol reported ticket sales saw an immediate increase for its upcoming Night Race in August.

4. Yes, we see it

The stands looked bad. Attendance has steadily been getting worse over the last decade. It’s not going to get much better anytime soon. Everyone acknowledges this. No one I’ve seen is trying to talk around this fact, nor appearing to hide it or sugarcoat it.

But given it’s 1) Not anything new and 2) Not going to change … can we please just stop talking about it for awhile? The topic is exhausting.

5. You picked a fine time to leave me

This weekend turned into a celebration of Darrell Waltrip’s career, which is probably the first of many tributes he will receive leading up to his retirement from broadcasting in late June.

Drivers gave him hugs and recorded video messages that left him emotional in the booth, and the track gave him one of its signature gladiator swords following a news conference where he shared many reflections on his time in NASCAR.

Waltrip, one of NASCAR’s all-time great drivers and a uniquely special broadcaster, deserves the fond farewells.

But they’re also long overdue. The moment Jeff Gordon stepped into the FOX booth and brought his current knowledge of the cars, teams and drivers — while Ol’ DW preferred to rely on his old-school experiences — it was painfully obvious a change was needed.

Given television’s crucial role in how NASCAR is represented, it’s absolutely fair to question whether the best product is being shown to viewers. In that sense, it’s also perfectly acceptable to look forward to a fresher voice in the booth.

Waltrip passionately defended himself on Friday, though, and it’s clear many people agree with him.

“People say, ‘He’s not relevant any more, hasn’t driven a car,'” Waltrip said. “I’ve been in the cars. I know what they feel like. I know what it feels like to win a race here. You want to listen to some guy that’s never won a race somewhere tell you how to drive a car? I don’t think so.

“I have the knowledge. I have the experience. Look, I don’t sit at home Monday through Thursday twiddling my thumbs.  I talk to crew chiefs.  I talk to drivers. … I know how they do it. I could build the damn car myself if I had to. Tell somebody else, some of these guys, build a car, see how it runs.

“Nobody shook me and said, ‘Man, it’s time to give it up.’ It’s just that time.  72 years old. I could do this til’ I’m 90.

“This is what I know, this is what I do best. I’ve loved every minute of it.  I think I’m pretty damn good at it, to tell you the truth.”

Heading into the weekend, the controversial Jenna Fryer column was a hot topic, and she got a lot of crap for it. But if anything, Fryer may have done him a favor: Rallying DW’s supporters for a celebration tour while drowning out the previously loud voices of his detractors.

A visit to the NASCAR on FOX booth

Last Sunday at Michigan, I randomly rode up the elevator to the press box level with Mike Joy. Since the press box was right next to the TV booth at Michigan, Joy invited me to watch part of the race with the NASCAR on FOX gang to get a feel for what they do.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it would be like, but there were a few surprises and eye-openers about the experience.

Here are three of them:

1. High level of interaction

For some reason, I pictured Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon standing shoulder to shoulder while broadcasting and staring out the window — not really looking at each other while talking.


As the race unfolds, there’s quite a high level of interaction between them while they speak — eye contact, a hand on the other’s arm, excited gestures or motioning toward something on the screen or track.

Each man has his own chair — one of those tall chairs you’d use to sit at a high top at a bar — but they often would stand up and take a step toward the others while talking or making a point.

It was much more of a real conversation between the three than expected –and at a higher volume as well. Joy, for example, really projects his voice and it booms in the room (but it sounds normal on TV). There seemed to be a good energy in there.

There’s direct interaction between the three broadcasters during the race.

2. Technology is top notch

With the race going on, I figured the broadcasters would either be looking solely at the track or their monitors showing the camera feed. But there’s actually an impressive amount of statistical information at their fingertips.

First of all, the FOX scoring monitor — which you’ve likely seen photos of on Twitter — is even cooler than I thought. Yes, they have information like “biggest movers” on the screen — but they also get data such as the last lap each car pitted. Super valuable! That makes it easier to see what strategies are unfolding.

Another enviable stat: FOX’s scoring monitor shows the position for each car on the most recent restart. I was drooling.

But to me, the coolest piece of technology on the scoring monitor was a yellow box that was the equivalent of a proximity alarm. When two cars would get close on the track, a yellow box would appear around their car numbers on the monitor. That helps FOX’s director — as well as the commentators — identify where the battles are.

On top of that, FOX (like NBC) works with a company called Racing Insights, which takes NASCAR’s feed and puts it into a database which broadcasters can pull from in real time. Larry McReynolds spends a lot of time looking at those stats during the broadcast (he has a separate room on the same level), where he can do things like see a chart that compares lap times.

Jeff Gordon uses binoculars to watch the race off of pit road during each pit stop.

3. TV magic

The TV booth is just a smallish room that happens to have a great view. There’s a camera set up to record the few instances where the trio of announcers need to stand in front of it, a bank of portable TV lights and a small backdrop to the side where they make their mid-race picks.

There aren’t many people in the room aside from Joy, Waltrip and Gordon. There’s a stage manager (Andy Jeffers) as well as a woman (Barb Hanford) who is in charge of the microphones and cameras, plus two guys from Racing Insights and a runner (who brought the announcers things like water, tea, Diet Coke and pizza). On this day, Joy’s son Scott was also hanging in the back of the booth.

Most of the time, it seems like the broadcasters have to react on the fly to whatever is happening; when they’re talking about a replay, they’re seeing it for the first time along with the viewer. That makes Gordon’s ability to break it down in real time particularly impressive.

Once in the room for a few minutes, it all feels so…normal. Since the camera isn’t on and the TV lights aren’t illuminated like in a studio, it just seems like being in a room eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. It’s easy to forget there are millions of people who are listening to whatever is said in the microphones.

FOX’s scoring monitor has an automated system to highlight battles (indicated with a yellow box). In addition, members of the Racing Insights team will write on a whiteboard to help pass along notes (in this case, “Battle for 26th”).