Monday morning NASCAR recap: Front Row pulls mammoth surprise; Fox’s coverage missed mark

Sean Gardner

Analyzing David Ragan’s surprise victory and how Fox’s Talladega coverage missed the mark.

It's easy to call Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway an upset. And, in a lot of ways, it was. After all, it wasn't a Hendrick or Gibbs car in Victory Lane, nor was it a Roush, Penske or Childress car.

Instead, it was the upstart Front Row Motorsports organization, led by a pair of resilient Davids in Ragan and Gilliland, finishing first and second and celebrating its first-ever win.

The small, plucky team taking it to the sport's big boys is a story that doesn't occur too frequently nowadays, which is why when it does happen, it always makes you appreciate the Cinderella-esque nature of NASCAR.

With just 70 employees and funding primarily out of the pocket of owner Bob Jenkins -- Gilliland estimates that 80-90 percent of the team's budget is self-financed -- this, in a lot of ways, hearkens back to an era when a strong-willed group could overcome deficiencies like money, speed and overall resources with grit and determination.

"I wouldn't say it's nickels and dimes, but I will say this: in the racing graveyard, my epitaph won't be I won the most races or championships, but I want to be known as a team that did the most with the least," Jenkins said. "Every year we try to get better. We work within ourselves."

This can-do attitude is what made Front Row's triumph a popular one.

Twitter was filled with accolades for NASCAR's new favorite underdog, with Kevin Harvick tweeting "And that's what @NASCAR is all about!!! What a win for that team and @Davidragan!!" Jeff Gordon also expressed similar sentiments.

Even Carl Edwards, who was leading on the white flag lap and appeared to have the race in hand, couldn't bemoan his third-place finish as he continually raved about how happy he was for "two better guys and a hard-working team."

But if there is a track and a form of racing where Front Row can better -- though not equally -- compete with the powerhouse teams that have a stranglehold on the keys to the winner's circle, it would be Talladega and the great equalizer known as the draft.

Because restrictor-plate races often feature the "Big One" -- a multi-car crash that usually knocks out a host of prominent names -- smaller teams enter every race at Talladega and Daytona knowing a top-ten finish is attainable.

It's a formula Front Row knows all too well.

In the crash-marred 2011 Daytona 500, Gilliland was able to drive through the carnage to score a third-place result -- the first time ever a Front Row car had finished better than 14th. Seven races later when the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega, he did it again, this time placing ninth.

Ragan himself followed this gameplan last year when in both Talladega races he posted finishes of ninth and fourth.

And when two separate accidents occurred Sunday consuming 23 different drivers, the door was left ajar for Front Row to capitalize again, just as it had done previously in these situations.

But no one expected them to do so quite like this.

The pair of Davids working in tandem charged through the field on the final lap, squeezing through holes that otherwise appeared nonexistent, powering by Edwards and into a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

In workmanlike fashion, Front Row had emerged victorious under the darkening Talladega skies as the team everyone else wanted to emulate.

"It's a huge, huge deal for us to be sitting here right now, and it makes it even more special to get a one-two finish," Ragan said. "Can you believe that?"

No, and that's what made it so special.

Fox's coverage missed mark

Broadcasting a NASCAR race is a lot like being a referee: regardless of how excellent your coverage might be, more often than not the focus from fans will be on what you did wrong rather than what you did right. And make no mistake; Fox does plenty right in its coverage.

However, Sunday at Talladega was not one of those days.

With rain rapidly approaching and the Aaron's 499 already past halfway and considered official, there was a noticeable increase in the intensity on the track.

Drivers were no longer content to be patient; the time to go was now as it was apparent to all that the clouds were going to open up and there was a distinct possibility that the race would be called.

Frequently Fox stressed this, urging viewers to stay glued to their televisions because "the race could end at any moment."

Yet, instead of guiding viewers through the action that was unfolding as the field sliced and diced for position with the ferocity normally seen in the final laps, Fox did the unthinkable.

The network went to commercial.

Numerous times.

Compounding the disjointed coverage, each time Fox returned from break, viewers were treated to a recap of what was missed all the while not showing what was currently happening. It was the television equivalent of a cat chasing its tail.

As to be expected, it was during one of these breaks that the rain began falling and NASCAR displayed the yellow flag. And wouldn't you know it, when all this happened Fox was in commercial break with viewers missing Edwards seizing the lead from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

At the time, it was easy to think that the subsequent red flag would signal the end of Talladega with the forecast grim, the skies dark and the track not having lights.

If this would have happened, it would have meant the fans sitting at home would not have seen the winning pass live. It was the NASCAR equivalent of missing a game-winning field goal in football or buzzer-beater basketball.

In an era where everything is instantaneous, Fox's coverage had suddenly reverted to the bygone era of tape delay.

And that can't happen.

It goes without saying that because of the cost associated with broadcasting sporting events, there are no ways around commercial breaks. Call it a necessary evil if you will.

But there are alternatives.

While NASCAR has ratings in line with the big-four sports in the United States, in terms of format and structure, it is most comparable to soccer. This is in large part because neither sport has natural stoppages in play that allow for the networks to air ads without interrupting the game flow.

In soccer, the only commercial breaks occur pre- and post-game and at halftime.

As fans are all too aware, this isn't the case when it comes to covering NASCAR, especially pertaining to how Fox handles its portion of the schedule.

Commercial breaks are common and habitually come at the expense of whatever action is currently unfolding. This isn't even taking into account the other transgressions that plague Fox's coverage that have left many a fan hitting mute and dialing up MRN to supplement their NASCAR viewing experience.

But if Fox won't cover NASCAR the same way it covers soccer, there is another viable solution: use more common sense.

When there is an important story developing dump the prepackaged interviews and scheduled commercial breaks and cover the news as its happening.

This lack of focus was obvious last month at Texas when the Penske Racing cars failed pre-race inspection and were scrambling just to make it to the grid on time.

Instead of opening its broadcast with the breaking news, Fox basically ignored the issue altogether. It wasn't until almost 30 minutes into its pre-race show that Fox informed viewers of what was going on with the team of the defending Cup champion.

The use of common sense at Talladega would also have prevented viewers from missing the enthralling madness that ensued with drivers determined to get to the front in an effort to beat the rain. There would have been no need to recap a potential race-winning pass because it would have been seen it live.

Unfortunately, sound judgment and uninterrupted coverage were both noticeably absent Sunday.

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