Somebody, for the love of god, needed to take Darrell Waltrip's microphone away on Monday night.
Waltrip was by far the biggest problem in an up-and-down broadcast of the Daytona 500, once again produced by Fox. While the network's commitment to air the race come hell or high water, showed just how important the event is, a handful of issues (some of which weren't the network's fault) plagued the telecast, leaving room for improvement over the coming weeks.
We'll start with the good, which included just about everything positive you've come to expect from the folks carrying the first half of the season. The production values were high, Mike Joy's commentary was top-notch, the cameras were dead on in catching the on-track action at the right time, and the network showcased its loyalty to the sport when it cleared its Monday night schedule—including new episodes of House and Alcatraz—and put local news teams on hold to show the end of the event.
Their loyalty paid off, as Fox scored the second best total audience of all-time for the race, doubled its typical Monday night ratings and even maintained a 7.3 rating after midnight, as the race came to a late close.
But Waltrip—already a divisive figure as a broadcaster—detracted from some of that coverage with subpar color commentary. Waltrip's biggest mistake came after the second lap caution that claimed the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick, among others. When Johnson let go of the wheel, knowing that the car was un-saveable, Waltrip claimed that Patrick had brought the move over from IndyCar and taught it to NASCAR drivers.
Waltrip also caught fire for failing to jump into the conversation when cued; when Joy, referencing the race's $200,000 halfway leader bonus, wanted to talk about a particular race where Waltrip had battled Ken Schrader for a similar prize, Waltrip was nowhere to be found.
Fans looking forward to promised side-by-side coverage of the race during commercials also found themselves disappointed. Of the 63 minutes of commercials during the event, only four were spent in side-by-side, and much of that coverage came under caution. Meanwhile, fans missed many green flag laps early in the race before this coverage kicked in.
Finally, for all of the wonderful high-definition cameras that Fox had around the track, somehow, none of them were able to capture the biggest (and most important) incident of the night as it happened.
When Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer under caution on lap 160, Fox was at a commercial. As a result, only three cameras picked it up: one that showed Montoya's slide (but not the impact), one whose picture turned bright orange from the resulting fireball, and a very grainy one from afar that was the only one to actually pick up the impact.
It was a one in a million occurrence, and you can't blame the network for powering down a little during commercials, but the fact that no good shots of this accident exist is a disappointment to many.
If you're not a fan of Fox, be warned: they'll be covering the series through June 3rd at Dover. Then again, everybody can use a week or two to get everything in order after a long layoff, and such is the case with Fox. The only thing standing in the way of a good year is Danicamania; the true test will be how much attention Fox gives her between now and Darlington on May 12, her next scheduled Sprint Cup event.
As Fox covers the next three-plus months of Sprint Cup racing, we should see their telecasts reach their typical heights. Let's just hope that Waltrip doesn't drag the quality down.
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