The 11 Oclock News

When the TV deal with NASCAR’s new “network partners” was announced in 2000 it was done so with great fanfare and the company line was it was going to “grow the sport” to new heights. This weekend race fans got a slap in the face that bought to light where we really stand in NBC’s pecking order.

It was NBC that wanted more prime time races and in this case a chance not to have to go up against the 800 pound gorilla of television sports, the NFL. But the move appeared suicidal this season. The Winston Cup broadcast went up against not one but both MLB championship games. Last year MLB had been seen as a ratings weakling after one of the least watched World Series in the history of the sport. But this year two perennial underdogs, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, made it the league championships and ratings have been soaring. Last weekend’s Kansas race broadcast was beaten not only by both NFL broadcasts (as expected) but by once moribund baseball ratings and even a few college football games. And NBC was not unaware of those numbers. Even as Tony Stewart drove his mud-caked Chevrolet to victory lane in most, if not all, markets NBC was switching to their affiliates’ cash cows, the eleven o’clock news.

The experiment to hold the Charlotte fall races under the lights seemed to be a dismal failure. Plenty of empty seats were in evidence Saturday night. The network and the track could never come to an agreement on what time to run the Busch race so the coverage of that event was supposed to be shown via tape delay Saturday at noon. Rain postponed the Busch race Saturday night so it was actually aired live at 11 AM. Doubtless many casual fans and those fans without Internet access tuned in at noon Saturday only to find that they’d missed the first half of the race. Yes, indeed, there’s a lot of angry race fans tonight and my guess is that NBC gets an earful from them. (For the record you can email them at )

Tony Stewart became the first driver in recent memory not to be interviewed live after a Winston Cup race. That might have been for the better since in his post-race radio interview Stewart (here’s a surprised) muttered a profanity. Stewart has been on a roll as of late with four straight top 5 finishes but the victory was his first since Pocono in June, the defending Winston Cup champion’s only other victory in 2003.

Ryan Newman is the hottest driver in the sport right now. While this year’s title is beyond the 12 team’s grasp, they say their focus is preparing themselves to run for the championship next year. Saturday night was a classic example of how a championship team responds to adversity. When Newman radioed in he had a severe vibration the team asked him to stay out a couple more laps until they entered their pit window. (The point at which the driver can make it to the end of the race without stopping.) In pitting before the other front runners Newman went a lap and a half down but was able to take the lead as the race stayed green and the other leaders pitted. Both Newman and the team had to know that the other drivers on fresher rubber were going to be coming late in the race and in the end just one driver was able to pass Newman. Taking a race that could have been a potential disaster and turning it into a second place finish is the stuff that makes for championships.

Jimmie Johnson suffered his second pit road mental miscalculation at Charlotte in only four career points race starts at the track. While monitoring his pit road speed Johnson drove straight past his pit stall. (Last year he overshot his pit during the 600 while leading the race.) In the end the miscue wasn’t the disaster it could have been. With most other teams electing not to pit at all under that caution Johnson only gave up a few spots. He was able to forge his way forward to third spot but had to survive a near spin while racing hard with Bobby Labonte for position.

Bill Elliott once again led a bunch of laps and seemed to be driving with fire of old. His bid for victory came up a little short for the second straight week, but at least this time he wasn’t beaten by fuel mileage.

Jeff Gordon finished fifth for the fourth straight race rebounding from a terrible stretch of races this summer that eliminated him from serious title contention.

Bobby Labonte had a hot streak that lasted from April through June but the wheels fell off his wagon through July and August. His top 10 finish at Charlotte was his first top 10 since Richmond back in September.

The postponed Busch race meant that Jamie McMurray had to face 800 miles on Saturday. He did so in fine style finishing in the top 10 in both races. McMurray’s star has been rising in the Winston Cup division as of late with top 10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Normally for a rookie that would exceed all expectations but McMurray won this race last year in only his second career Cup start.

When Matt Kenseth and the 17 team faltered the last two weeks some of his competition for the 2003 title smelled blood. While Kenseth’s car clearly wasn’t up to speed for most of the race Saturday night, he was able to stay out of trouble (as hard as Kevin Harvick tried to lure him into it) and come away with yet another top 10 finish. The power steering pump cover that was left loose was however another curiously sloppy bit of work by a championship contending team. But for Kenseth the good news is his two closest points challengers finished behind him. (Directly behind him as it turns out.)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished ninth but seemed to fade late in the event after a strong start. Earnhardt said after the race his car was bottoming out too hard throughout the entire event.

Kevin Harvick finished tenth and lost a few points to Kenseth. If this had been the May race at Charlotte that wouldn’t be any big deal but with five races to go, it was another nail in the coffin of Harvick’s rapidly fading title hopes. As aggressively as Harvick raced Kenseth Saturday night one might want to keep a close eye on the 29 and 17 at Martinsville next week. It wasn’t that long ago Harvick purposely wrecked another driver at that track.

NASCAR management likes to bluster that Winston Cup racing is second only to the NFL in fan interest these days. Which makes one wonder why NBC treated racing this weekend like women’s golf. (NBC cutaway quickly from an LPGA tournament Saturday so local affiliates could air their 6 o’clock news.) Outside of the Deep South most local network affiliates aren’t too well informed about our sport and it’s fanatically loyal fans. If they were a lot of those newscasts at 11 would have started with; “In breaking news, NBC pissed off a ton of race fans with their shabby coverage of NASCAR racing this weekend. Film at 11.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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