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NBC prepared to give NASCAR fans coverage they deserve

Sprint Cup races shifting from FOX to NBC beginning Sunday is a much-welcomed change.

As NBC Sports takes over broadcasting duties of the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series this weekend, analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte received a mandate from executive producer Sam Flood that is to be the fulcrum of the network's NASCAR coverage.

Flood instructed Burton and Letarte, who are broadcast newbies, to emphasize storytelling and not "bells and whistles." He wants them to continually ask themselves, "Why something is happening?" From that starting point the pair are then supposed to break down the answer and explain it to the viewers sitting at home in way that is neither overly simplistic nor full of inside jargon.

"I think that's our No. 1 objective, to tell a proper story and take advantage of this talent team to tell you what's happening and why," Flood said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. "‘Why' is the most important question I've asked Jeff and Steve to have in front of them. That's the magic word, and if we answer the ‘why' question, we're going to make (viewers) care."

Flood explicitly stating that NBC will be avoiding "bells and whistles" will be a welcomed contrast to how FOX approached its television coverage of the first half of the Cup and Xfinity schedules.

"The show is not the guys in the booth or the reporters."-Steve Letarte

Featuring an over-reliance on clichés that even 15 years after it began airing NASCAR races are still nonsensical (Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!), inane banter, disjointed production where images frequently didn't align with what announcers were describing, trite comedy bits, blatant favoritism and conflicts of interest, FOX's broadcast too often resembled how Saturday Night Live would've written a sketch had it chosen to skewer NASCAR television coverage.

The multitude of issues surrounding FOX's coverage became more apparent as its portion of the schedule neared its end date.

One of the feel-good stories this season is the emergence of Martin Truex Jr. and single-car Furniture Row Racing as a championship contender. In three consecutive races Truex had led the most laps, only to have victory slip away either because of strategy or cautions falling at inopportune times.

This run of near misses elicited Darrell Waltrip, FOX's marquee analyst, to refer to Truex as a "good friend" and say "we're pulling for you" during the May 31 race at Dover International Speedway. (Truex wound up finishing sixth.)

The next week at Pocono Raceway Truex again put himself in position to win, and again Waltrip left no doubt who he was rooting for, saying that it would "break his heart" if Truex didn't snap a nearly two-year winless streak. Why it would break Waltrip's heart FOX never explained. Regardless, it's a comment a supposedly impartial national broadcaster shouldn't utter.

Truex ultimately won the Axalta 400, bringing about another awkward moment and further exposing Fox's superficial coverage.

In addition to being a co-owner of a multi-car Sprint Cup team, Michael Waltrip (Darrell's younger brother) also serves as a FOX studio analyst during Cup races. Often these two roles intersect, with Waltrip regularly touting sponsors of his own team instead of offering insightful commentary.

But Truex's breakthrough win offered FOX a perfect chance to delve into the specifics of what made his victory so special. Two years earlier, Michael Waltrip Racing unceremoniously released Truex after the team incurred record penalties for conspiring to fix the finish of a race. The plan was to ensure that Truex, who had no knowledge of the machinations, qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.

The fallout of the scandal saw Truex's sponsor leave MWR, which subsequently cost him his ride. That day at Pocono, FOX was presented with the opportunity to provide real insight into why Truex's career was in peril. Instead, the network punted. There was no mention of MWR's transgressions or why Truex no longer drove for Waltrip's team.

Waltrip's true allegiances became further apparent Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, FOX's final Cup race of 2015. An incident involving Truex and MWR driver David Ragan saw Ragan turn Truex, sending him crashing into a stack of tire barriers.

Ragan's actions were obviously deliberate, as he was angered Truex had body-slammed him a corner before. While these moments of vigilantism are commonplace in NASCAR, Waltrip made sure to absolve his driver.

"It's tough to pass judgment on what happened there," Waltrip said.

If you had never seen a NASCAR race on FOX, what you heard was an analyst explain why one driver had justification to wreck another. Yet what the national television audience didn't get was a disclosure by Waltrip or FOX regarding Waltrip's conflict of interest and why his words should be taken with skepticism.

This is the incredibly low bar NBC must ascend as it assumes coverage of the Cup and Xfinity races for the remainder of the season. While FOX's broadcast often felt akin to watching a NASCAR race with your hackneyed uncles, NBC's presentation should have a much more professional feel.

"I think the most important thing is staying true to the sport and growing the sport," Flood said. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel.

"We have a great group on pit road that's going to take you inside the race, tell you why things are happening down there. I think the booth with the fresh-from-the-pit-box, fresh-from-the-car-perspective is going to be a nice listen for the audience."

In Burton and Letarte, NBC has a pair of lead analysts who've been active competitors in NASCAR's premier division up until this season. Burton owns 21 Cup victories as a driver and finished fifth or better in the championship standings four times. Letarte has 15 wins serving as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and played a prominent role in reviving the career of Earnhardt.

Neither Burton nor Letarte are shy about voicing an opinion or maintaining direct ties to a NASCAR organization. The same applies to Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who sit in NBC's infield studio and handle pre- and post-race duties. Calling the races is Rick Allen, the former voice of the Camping World Truck Series.

"There's a tremendous amount of stars and great stories in the sport, and I think that is our key in putting on the show," Letarte said. "The show is not the guys in the booth or the reporters. Our job is to bring the sport home, which are the drivers and the crew chiefs. That's our goal."

Constructing a broadcast team is no different from building a roster in stick-and-ball sports. It takes time to develop cohesiveness -- among the announcers and between the on-air talent and the production crew. Flood stresses that the product viewers see during the Coke Zero 400 on Sunday will be different from what he hopes evolves into an acclaimed product.

Said Burton: "There's two ways you can approach this: You can approach it as a part-time job or you can approach it as a full-time job and want to be really, really good at it, and that's the way we're all approaching it. I owe it to everyone that I work with to do the very best job I can, and everyone that works with me owes that to me. That's the accountability in this thing."

NASCAR fans can be extremely critical if they feel a network isn't serving their interests. But NBC's record of producing a high quality telecast, be it NFL and NHL games, English soccer, Formula One or the Olympics, instills great confidence.

This much is evident before NBC even airs a race: NASCAR fans are finally getting the standard of coverage they deserve.