ON NASCAR: Nothing Beats First Place: Just Ask ESPN, Dale Jr., Danica, Jeff and Kyle

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Sometime around 2 a.m. during a recent bout of insomnia, I happened across a rebroadcast of “The Dan Patrick Show.” In a stroke of good luck for me, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of the guests. Patrick, never afraid to ask the goofy questions, hit Junior with a real politically incorrect gem. He posed a scenario involving a gorgeous girl with a Jimmie Johnson tattoo; would Junior date her? 

“Heck no,” replied NASCAR’s most popular driver. “That would be a deal breaker.” 

I had a couple more sports epiphanies that night. First, radio shows should definitely be heard and not seen, and second, while I may be envisioning Ryne Sandburg, Brad Daugherty and Tony Stewart in my mind’s eye, the voices I hear belong to Harry Caray, Woody Durham and Barney Hall. 

Broadcasters bring sports to life. As surely as star athletes are the faces of their respective sports, broadcasters are the voices. We grouse about them sometimes, but remember a few years back when an NFL game was broadcast without the benefit of play-by-play announcing or color commentating? It was – let’s see, how can I put this nicely – BORING. 

Even when you know full well what’s going on, it just seems more exciting when you have an expert or two to tell you about it. When those experts are the same people week to week, it’s even better, and that’s one of the cool things about NASCAR. Rather than being moved around from sport to sport – a baseball game today, a golf tournament tomorrow – race announcers stay put. 

The mid-season shift change has just taken place, as the FOX and TNT networks, which handle broadcasting duties during the first half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, have turned the job over to ABC/ESPN. Beginning with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 31, the final 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races will be televised on ESPN networks, with 14 airing on ESPN and three Saturday night races airing on ABC. 

The on-air broadcast trio of Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree and Allen Bestwick is fired up and ready to race. While commentators are often referred to as “talking heads,” these guys are more like talking brains. With a former Cup Series champion, a championship crew chief and a veteran broadcaster in the booth, all the bases are exceptionally well-covered. 

These guys couldn’t wait for the Brickyard 400 to weigh in on the 36-round boxing match known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. They have been listening to their able counterparts at the other networks since February, and now they’re ready to talk, about anything and everything. The ultimate NASCAR insiders, they are willing to tell us not only what they know, but what they think. 

In other words – spoilers. Cool. 

There’s something about the term “spoiler alert” that makes me revert back to the days when my mom told me to stay away from the cupcakes. Even if I didn’t want a cupcake (like that would ever happen in this lifetime), suddenly they represented the most delicious snack imaginable, the absolute pinnacle of culinary bliss. 

Nowadays the term “spoiler” is used to describe an advance revelation of critical plot elements in things like TV shows or other entertainment media. Spoilers usually include information that would surprise viewers if they just waited and watched things unfold naturally. Sports are unscripted and nearly impossible to predict – did anyone out there really think Trevor Bayne would win the 2011 Daytona 500? – but that doesn’t keep us from trying. 

We can look at these guys for hours on end, but it’s when they open their mouths that things get really interesting. So as they waited for the Brickyard 400 weekend to arrive at last, the ESPN broadcast team happily offered their opinions and predictions on several popular NASCAR subjects.

Can Dale Jr. halt his current downward turn in the driver standings? 

“At some point Junior is going to have to step it up a little bit, and he has, at the beginning of this year,” 

Petree says. “But he's got to continue that … There are still a lot of races left this year.  We'll see what they can do with them.” 

Can anyone unseat five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson? Jarrett says … maybe.

“Kyle Busch is certainly a very formidable foe for Jimmie Johnson. They’ve shown they can win and challenge on every type of racetrack. That’s what you have to do,” he says. 

Can Danica Patrick live up to her hype?

“If she came over here on a fulltime basis I think we would see what kind of talent she really is. She needs a full season without any distractions and all her eggs in one basket to see what she can really do,” says Petree. 

As Jeff Gordon’s 40th birthday approaches, is he ready to trade his Chevy seat for a front-porch rocking chair? 

“My career pales in comparison to his, but a lot of my career didn’t even start until I was right at the age of 40,” Jarrett says. “We’ve seen great things from Jeff Gordon, but I think we still have the opportunity to see really good things to come from him … possibly even a championship this year.”

Can NASCAR’s so-called “young guns” live up to the high standards of their predecessors? 

According to Jarrett, "These are the best drivers in the world. It takes a special talent to come in here and be able to beat them … but it also takes character. The young guys come in fast, but they have to learn how to do it for the long haul.” 

So Jeff Gordon is still a contender, the young drivers have a lot of potential, Danica Patrick is talented, Kyle Busch can drive the wheels off of most anything … and if you have a No. 48 tattoo, Dale Jr. will not be calling you up for a date. None of this is exactly breaking news, but it sounds more official when the experts say it. So while everyone is eagerly watching to see how the second half of the 2011 NASCAR season will unfold, I intend to balance my peeled eyes with a set of wide-open ears. 

I can’t wait to hear what happens next. 

(To hear the complete Dale Earnhardt Jr. interview, visit www.danpatrick.com.)

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Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100423-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html). Contact Cathy at.cathyelliott@hotmail.com


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