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Editor James Bennett's column: TV viewers scramble, just like drivers at Talladega

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin got his second win at Talladega on Sunday.

President Donald Trump’s hospitalization after testing positive for the coronavirus made me think twice about watching Sunday’s Talladega race in person.

The prospect of mixing smoke, airborne particles, noise from high-powered engines and the smell of Jack Daniels was an unappetizing cocktail for me.

I got a hangover just thinking about it.

About 15,000 other fans made it to Talladega Superspeedway under strict coronavirus protocols, proving “The Fastest Show on Earth” is a powerful lure even during a pandemic.

Denny Hamlin won the race, which turned out to be one of the wildest, crash-filled spectacles in Talladega history. There were 58 lead changes in the YellaWood 500, which went about 32 miles, or 12 laps, longer than scheduled because of 13 caution flags and trouble for every NASCAR playoff contender.

I decided to watch from the comfort of my living room, deciding not to throw caution to the wind at my age, 59, and focus on NBC’s portrayal of NASCAR and our region to the world.

Unbelievably, NBC cut off coverage of the race before it was over. The decision sent viewers scrambling to find the NBC Sports Network, whatever that is. NBC wanted local affiliates to have a window for local news before going to Sunday night football, so it switched the final laps to its all-sports cable channel.

I called the NBC affiliate in Birmingham to find out how outraged viewers were. Station Manager Susana Schuler of WVTM, Channel 13 said the station and audience were given one minute’s notice.

“They (NBC) needed to give the audience more time to adjust,” Schuler said. “I told the network that it was unacceptable. A lot of viewers did not know where to go and probably missed the end of the race."

I suspect viewers were as devastated as Matt DiBenedetto, who finished second before being penalized to the back of the field (21st place) for forcing Hamlin below the yellow line.

NASCAR was once as important as the NFL to networks. TV coverage turned NASCAR into a billion-business that once rivaled the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball in popularity.

The sport has fallen from its perch because of cookie-cutter racing and boring personalities. It desperately wants to rise again, but it can’t by cutting away from races like in Talladega, its crown jewel.

Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with the NBC Sports Network.

NASCAR needs another Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon. And, boogity, boogity, boogity, it could use another free spirit like Darrell Waltrip in the broadcast booth.

Jimmie Johnson, for all his success, wasn’t enough to reel in fans. Danica Patrick, despite her sex appeal and driving potential, crashed and burned, failing to live up to her hype and potential.

More than 3.3 million watched the June race from the Talladega Speedway on Fox. They tuned in amid a backdrop that featured Black driver Bubba Wallace leading a charge for racial equality and fellow drivers backing up in a dramatic show of unity before the race.

The comforting images did more for NASCAR’s reputation than its overdue decision to ban Confederate symbols from all tracks.

Since then, NBA great Michael Jordan and his buddy Hamlin have committed to joining a racing team that includes Wallace. Maybe that’s the breakthrough in diversity and infusion of star power that NASCAR has needed for a decade.

I was curious if NBC would turn the page in coverage from politics to the playoffs. Diehard NASCAR fans care more about lap speeds and pit times than the average viewer, who tunes in for four-wide racing and the prospect of “The Big One” at Talladega.

NBC’s coverage barely acknowledged Wallace until midway through the race. He led for 10 laps, forcing play-by-play voice Rick Allen and analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton to weigh in.

“They have said they want Bubba Wallace in equipment than can win a race,” Allen said of Jordan and Hamlin.

The first time we heard about Wallace was when NBC went to a live shot from his No. 43 Chevrolet before the green flag. Later, Wallace was uninjured in an accident, with his onboard camera catching dramatic footage and showing how new technology keeps drivers safe.

NBC’s “Countdown to Green” was a postcard from Talladega. Aerial views of the track on a sunny 75-degree afternoon subtly told viewers: “Wish you were here.”

Only about 15,000 were allowed through the gates. NBC’s studio show was live from Charlotte, far from the impending carnage in the round of 12 playoff race.

“It’s going to be intense all day,” former Cup series champion Dale Jarrett said. “You’re not going to get a break.

“For every driver, it’s stressful. For the playoff drivers, it’s especially so.”

The three-time Daytona 500 winner’s words were prophetic. Two wrecks in the first 10 laps brought out caution flags and set the stage for insane racing strategies.

Driver safety has been a priority since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500. Head restraints, SAFER barriers and safer cars have seemingly given drivers a sense of immunity from accidents and injuries. Just ask Ryan Newman if that’s the case. A head injury at this year’s Daytona 500 left him in a medically induced coma sidelined him until June. He was sixth Sunday at Talladega.

Despite the speeds in excess of 200 mph, few drivers drove with caution Sunday. Most of the drivers were trying to bump and shove their way into the top 10, as though begging for the “The Big One” was somehow strategic.

Hamlin was the winner and the smartest driver on the 2.66-mile track. He deliberately waited until the final laps, steering clear of trouble, before moving toward the front. Let everyone else wreck, he reasoned. His car was unscathed as it slipped across the finish line, and he advanced in the NASCAR playoffs.

“I hate to say it,” he told NBC after the race, "but you have to play the game. You have to get to the next round. To win the championship, you have to get to the last race. For us, we played the numbers to make sure we got locked in.”

James Bennett is Executive Editor. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or jbennett@annistonstar.com.