Nov. 15, 2016
TIM BUCKMAN: Thanks, everyone, for joining us today as we prepare for a big weekend down in Miami with both the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series championships set to unfold. NBC Sports is gearing up to present more than 20 hours of live trackside coverage from Homestead Miami Speedway, highlighted by a live presentation of the Ford EcoBoost 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. And on Sunday, NBC presents the main event of the weekend with the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. Eastern with NASCAR America, followed at 2 p.m. with a championship edition of Countdown to Green, which will take us right up to the green flag at 3 o’clock.
As you know, there’s been a steady stream of press materials coming your way, all of which can be accessed at www.nbcsportsgrouppressbox.com. And our press box site will also have a transcript of this call available later this afternoon. With us today as we preview the action ahead, the executive producer of NBC sports and NBCSN, Sam Flood. We also have the vice president of NASCAR Productions for NBC Sports, Jeff Behnke; our NASCAR on NBC announce team of Rick Allen, Jeff Burton, and Steve Letarte; and our Countdown to Green pre and post race analysts Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty.
Now, before we open up the call for questions, our executive producer, Sam Flood, will deliver opening remarks, followed by the head of NASCAR production, Jeff Behnke, who will bring us through some of the production elements that will highlight this weekend’s coverage from Miami.
Sam, get us started, and Jeff will follow.
SAM FLOOD: We’re excited about the championship weekend and race itself. The 7th potential title for Jimmie Johnson gives us a heck of a story line with three worthy drivers battling for that spot. So we’re going to have fun with that. Obviously Tony Stewart’s last ride is another story that we’ll be paying attention to.
It’s been fun this year watching the growth of this talent team, the booth in particular, finding the chemistry, growing, learning, telling more stories, and to see what they’ve become as a best-in-class trio of calling a race and making you care, interacting with pit road, making sure we get more content, more information, and more understanding of why things are happening in the race.
I think really proud of how that’s happened and how the team has developed, and Countdown to Green and the pregame team couldn’t do a better job setting the story lines, telling compelling stories and building features and interactive material with the stars that really help sell the depth and quality of this sport and the athletes in this sport.
So we’re big fans and big partners of NASCAR, and look forward to continuing to move this sport in the right direction as it grows and continue to attract a new audience, which is the biggest opportunity for us is the entertainment value of NASCAR, and making sure the world understands how much fun it is, A, to go to a NASCAR race, and, B, to watch it on NBC with this great group of talent.
With that, I hand it over to the guy who does all the dirty work during the week and puts great shows on the air and leads his team week after week, Mr. Jeffrey Behnke.
JEFF BEHNKE: Thank you, Sam, thank you everybody. Some of those great story lines that Sam mentioned certainly will be around Kyle Busch and will he repeat? Joey Logano, will he overcome and persevere to win his championship for the first time? Carl Edwards, as we all remember from 2011 coming so close against Tony Stewart. And, of course, as Sam mentioned, Jimmie Johnson.
Some of the production items we have, speaking of Jimmie Johnson, we have a Ken Squier essay, legendary voice, will give us a history of chasing seven and will include an editorial and story about Dale Sr., Jimmie, and the King. Also we’ll have Richard Petty live on the pre-race show at a designated time. So just an incredibly intriguing story line there. We’ll be interviewing all four drivers live, either on our set or with one of our reporters, and that’s all on Sunday, along with a wonderful tribute piece that’s being produced by one of our feature producers on Tony Stewart. And most of that piece is in his own words. So some great story lines on the track, and certainly the sub-story with Tony in his final race.
The XFINITY Championship 4 on Saturday night gives us an incredible group of stories as well, with young Erik Jones, to the senior statesman of these four, Elliott Sadler; Daniel Suarez from Mexico and his incredible story; along with Justin Allgaier. We’ll have mini features and vignettes on all four of those personality pieces, and those will all be done in their own words as the voice.
Our NBC Sports studio set with Krista, Kyle, and D.J. will, as it has been all year long, be positioned on pit road, so we’re thrilled about that. And we’ll have a championship version of Blake Shelton in our open. I guess, really it all kicks off tonight with NASCAR America at 5:30 when Carolyn Manno, our host, sat down earlier today with all four of the Cup Championship contenders. So a full slate of items and just incredible stories to be sharing over the next five days. Tim?
TIM BUCKMAN: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Leo, let’s open up the call for questions. As we assemble our queue, I’d like to ask our NASCAR on NBC broadcasters to each give us their thoughts on the weekend ahead, and I’ll set the lineup of Rick Allen, followed by Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett, and batting clean-up, Kyle Petty. Rick, please get us started.
RICK ALLEN: Thank you, and if you’re not as polished, it will help me out as far as job security from here on out. Starting off the XFINITY, the tag line has been where names are made. Interestingly, you’ve got Elliott Sadler who started in what is now the XFINITY, went to Cup for an extended period of time, then didn’t know if he had a ride, and now back to XFINITY, and could possibly win a championship. There’s great stories with every driver. Justin Allgaier and the family race team they’ve grown up with. Daniel Suarez, potentially the first foreign-born champion. Erik Jones, the truck champ a year ago, and potentially win an XFINITY championship this year at the age of 20, and we know he’s moving on to the Cup Series. So we never know what could happen in his career. Then, of course, you look at the Sprint Cup Series and what amazing stories are there. Joey Logano, who wet behind the ears when he got into Cup, everybody thought he was going to be great, but it took a little bit of time before he shone his excellence, but his chance of winning a championship is right there. Jimmie Johnson going for seven championships and could do it faster than the King did or the Intimidator. If he’s able to win it, this would be a ten-year span for him to do that. Kyle Busch, obviously, a great story if he goes back-to-back.
And Carl Edwards, that’s probably one of the better stories. Carl Edwards was a substitute schoolteacher and had a passion for racing. Slept in his car when he was trying to figure out if he’d ever have a chance at becoming a race car driver. Now he’s got a chance to achieve the pinnacle of the sport. So tons of stories to tell, we’re excited to tell them, and we can’t wait for the weekend.
JEFF BURTON: I think for me it’s who can step up in this moment. This Chase format, that’s what it’s all about. Who can step up? Who can handle the pressure? These are all very capable race car drivers, very capable teams, but who can withstand the pressure? Who can be right at the right moment?
I can’t help but think about Joey Logano and Carl Edwards who went to Homestead with a chance to win a championship. Both of them did, and neither one of them were able to execute. I have a feeling that they really have an appreciation for having been there, for what it means to win a championship, because they lost one.
So it’s going to be a great deal of fun watching these guys deal with the pressure.
What I’ve learned in sports is the more pressure filled it is for the athletes, the more fun it is for all of us to watch. It’s going to be a lot of fun seeing who can step up to the plate.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I agree with Jeff about the pressure. I think when I look at this, it comes down to the level of competition. I think we’ve said it before the round of eight that we all felt this was the toughest eight. I think they’ve proved that fact with three of the four winning in the round of eight. Now I think we go to Miami with no question in my mind that it’s going to take a race win for someone to win the championship, and that’s the goal. To have the four teams that — I don’t know how you define most deserving, but four teams that show they have the competitive toughness to be in a championship battle, and I think we have that with those four teams.
Then I think the same goes for the XFINITY in their inaugural Chase. There was a lot of question mark on how it would be received. But I think Blake Koch proved that the younger, smaller teams want a shot at moving on to Miami. Then we have two powerhouse teams in JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing that will race for a championship there. So I think both series have delivered excellent Championship 4s.
DALE JARRETT: Yeah, the guys they’ve pointed out, all the great stories, and we have so much here. But the thing that stands out to me, and I think it’s really piqued my interest is when I retired from driving a little less than ten years ago and got into this side of the business, if you would have told me then that in NASCAR’s two top series, the XFINITY and Cup Series, we’d be looking at two favorites, this is in my opinion, anyway, the two favorites for the championships this weekend in 2016 would be a driver that was born in Mexico in Daniel Suarez as the favorite for the XFINITY Championship, and then an off-road racer from California going for a record seven-tying championships in the Sprint Cup Series. I don’t know that that’s what I would have thought, but it certainly makes for great stories for us to cover this weekend.
KYLE PETTY: Yeah, you guys have pretty much said it all. There are so many different angles. I think Daniel’s story is an amazing story. Joey Logano who has been there twice. You’ve got two guys that basically — you’ve got Jimmie going for seven, Kyle Busch going for back-to-backs, which has not been done in this format, even though it’s been a couple rounds. I think it’s incredibly hard in this format to do back-to-backs. Carl has been there and tied, and Joey who has been there and fell short, and then in the XFINITY Series, like you say, we’ve got Elliott Sadler, and then as young as Erik Jones. All I’ve got to say is this: It’s like going to a concert, if the opening act was Phoenix, I can’t wait for the main band comes on at Homestead, because they’re going to blow it out.
Q. Kyle, I was wondering, I know you’ve raced in that race in 1994 when Dale won Rockingham to tie Richard with the seven championships. I’m curious what you thought that day when Richard’s record got tied and if it was any different, or would you think the same if Jimmie does it on Sunday?
KYLE PETTY: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve heard some of the stuff that Jr. said, and I had an opportunity this past weekend, really, and I talked to my dad about it a million times, but had an opportunity to sit down and do some stuff this past weekend about 7. And, you know, to hear him talk about it, it’s pretty special. When he talked about my grandfather having three, and then Piercy getting three, he was the third guy to three, and they thought that was the top of the mountain at that period of time. Nobody had expanded it and climbed any higher. Then he talked about watching Earnhardt do it, and how Earnhardt had worked hard and come up through the ranks and did it and came out and beat a totally different group of guys than the guys he raced against. Now Jimmie has come along, and this is a totally different group of guys than Earnhardt. It only happens every 20 years or so that you have an opportunity to see it.
As Rick pointed out, Jimmie has done it incredibly fast. My father, when interviewing him, spoke to Jimmie’s five in a row. I think that has just — my father was just mesmerized by five in a row, honestly. He thinks — I think we kind of think the same. That’s the most underrated record in all of sports, what Jimmie did there. But you know what? He looked at it and said Jimmie may be just pausing at seven. He may go to eight. Here’s a guy that has that potential to go on. We’re talking seven, but here’s a guy that’s done it so fast that he can go to eight.
I think it’s great for the sport, I do, at a time when we look at so many things in the sport and we look at how the sport is right now and the starts that are coming in with the Daniel Suarez and the Erik Jones, these may be the next guys that in 15 or 20 years are knocking on that six and seven door. But right now, Jimmie’s there. You know what? I think it’s a great moment for the sport. It’s a great moment. My father has been here when Earnhardt did it, will be here when Jimmie Johnson has an opportunity to do it, whether he does it or not. Hopefully he’ll be here if Jimmie gets eight or nine. That’s the same way I look at it. It’s just incredible for the sport.
Q. I was wondering as far as this year’s foursome, do you feel like the right four guys are in it? Do you wish you had some different guys in there than wound up being there at the end, whoever wants to answer it, in terms of the make-up of the final four?
JEFF BURTON: In looking at this final four, I’ve been wrestling with it since the end of Phoenix, and I don’t know who my favorite is. I think my point in saying that is I think this final four is a really, really good final four because I think they’re so evenly matched. I think each team has a strength, each driver has a strength, and, by the way, they each have weaknesses as well. So this could have gone either way.
But the eight, even start at the 16, I think that within the NASCAR community, a lot of people believed this was the most competitive 16 that had ever been in it. Then it went to eight, and everybody was like, wow, look at this eight. That’s an amazing eight. So I don’t know that you could have gone wrong. I don’t know that we could have looked and said that any of the eight didn’t belong. But if you just looked at performance lately, these four are very evenly matched. And I’ve had a really tough time, and I’ve watched every lap of every race all year long, and I’m having a very tough time figuring out who I think the favorite is. So I think that speaks to how close the competition is.
Q. How about in terms of who made the final four? Is everyone satisfied with the four we have at the end there, or are some people thinking this didn’t get it right because maybe someone should have gotten in that had a great year, like a Harvick or whoever; that this isn’t reflecting the best four of the year? Or is everyone okay with who we wound up with?
DALE JARRETT: I’ll say these are the four that made it. The rules are what they are. If you look at, we’ll use the NFL, the Super Bowl, it’s not always who everybody thinks has the best year that end up the two teams that are battling for the championship. These are the four that stepped up at the right time and made it happen. So as good a year as you may have had, as Jeff was just saying, these were the four drivers that stepped up. Each of them have their strengths and they’re going to have to put all of that to good use on Sunday night.
But to say that somebody else should be there instead of these, you really can’t do that because of the way things are set up. These are the ones that are there and they’re going to give us a very entertaining Sunday afternoon race.
Q. Sam and Jeff, in terms of your main race coverage on NBC, are there any changes to your overall camera complement? And are there any specialty cameras or camera positions that you two are particularly excited that you feel really showcase the speed and excitement of NASCAR?
JEFF BEHNKE: For Sunday we’re going with the same complements that we’ve had for most of the year. So as far as any specialty cameras, again, Mike Wells, our director, does an incredible job with all of the robotic speed-shot cameras that he has placed around the track. So, obviously Mike will have an army of those placed around the track. We’ll certainly have many in-car cameras as well, and certainly all four of the Championship 4 drivers will have in-car cameras. Again, Mike will also have, as far as specialty cams, pit overhead cameras over the four Championship 4 drivers as well. And that will be on Saturday and Sunday as well.
Q. Dale, Kyle, and Jeff, this is Tony Stewart’s last race before retiring. How do you think he is heading into this weekend? Do you think back to any of your memories from your last race when someone significant like this retired?
DALE JARRETT: I’ll just say, I spoke with Tony. I had a little conversation with him last Friday in Phoenix, and he was talking about how since they had been — he had been eliminated from the Chase that things had gotten a little bit tense and they hadn’t performed as well. So he got the guys together and said, hey, we’ve only got two races left, two weeks of my career in Sprint Cup racing. Let’s have fun. If we do nothing else, let’s go enjoy this. He said, I’ve had a great run, and that was the way he was going to view it. And you could see that he was going to do that.
Would we all like to see him have a great run Sunday night and a good sendoff? Yeah, that would be very nice. You always want that for people that are retiring that have done so much for this sport. I enjoyed the opportunity that I had to race against someone like Tony that I consider one of the best race drivers in the world, and especially to come through the sport of NASCAR racing.
JEFF BURTON: Yeah, listen, I think that it’s easy to say that I’m ready to go do something else. I’m ready to move my career in a different direction. It’s another thing to get to the last race and the reality of that situation kind of slaps you in the face. Tony has had a tremendous amount of success. He is just a hard-core racer that gives 100%, puts 100% into it. Will race — I think you’ll see him race a tremendous amount or different variety of vehicles in the next several years.
But it will be interesting to see Tony’s emotions come Sunday, because, from personal experience, it is a difficult day. It’s a fun day, but it’s a difficult day because you’ve invested so much of your life into this. It’s a passion, it’s an occupation, it’s the very being of you, really, for a great deal of your life. And so I think it will be interesting watching Tony’s emotions, see how he deals with it. Because it is much more difficult than I think people anticipate it’s going to be when that moment comes.
KYLE PETTY: Yeah, I agree with both what Jeff and Dale says. I will say this. Tony is a little bit different probably than the three of us, and I’ll speak to my dad, too, and a little different from that. When you’re a kid or a little boy growing up or little girl and you’re growing up and you want to be a race car driver, when you close your eyes at night and dream, you dream of hanging on that steering wheel. You dream of racing Jeff Burton, racing Dale Jarrett, of racing Tony Stewart, and being there wheel to wheel with them. You don’t dream about being on TV. You don’t dream about a shoe deal or all the PR and all the junk that comes with it. You dream about being a race car driver, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s your dream.
Tony’s had that opportunity, and we all had that opportunity to live our dreams. Tony’s going to continue to race; he’s just not going to race at this schedule. So Tony’s dream lasts a little bit longer as he steps away. The dreams of running in the Cup Series and winning the Daytona 500s and winning these races at the Cup Series, yeah, you have to put that away, but I’m going to say this too. When that’s been your dream your whole life and that’s all you ever wanted to do and that’s what you were able to grow up and do, then one day somebody taps you on the shoulder and slaps your head and says, hey, it’s time to hang it up, you have to put a piece of yourself in a little box and put it on the shelf. And that’s a part of you, that was a part of you that you have to walk away from. And that’s the sad part of being a driver, knowing that’s who you used to be but that’s not who you are. That’s a part of you don’t take out of that box again. To put that in storage and turn away from that is a hard thing to do.
But Tony, we all know he’s going to continue to drive the dirt cars and some different things. As Dale said in the beginning, he’s just going to continue to have fun the rest of his career.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think what makes Tony’s last race interesting is he’s still in the sport. He’s owners of other cars. He owns that dirt track in Eldora, and he has a major influence in racing in general. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how he reacts to his final race.
But I think just like when Tony left open-wheel for NASCAR, there was a lot of question mark on what the next chapter looks like. And I had the same sort of question marks. His legacy in NASCAR is phenomenal, what he’s been able to accomplish behind the wheel in all of these top series. He’s found a championship in both open-wheel and in Stock Car. So where does he go next as an owner, as a promoter? What’s the next chapter of his racing career? It will be interesting to see what he decides to write.
Q. Jeff or Steve, what are you guys focused on in kind of studying or looking ahead to this weekend? What do you think might be a key aspect in this? So many different things can happen in a race, but what’s been the one thing that you’ve focused on looking ahead to this weekend that could be a key point that you want to bring out even more to the audience on the broadcast?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think the big thing when I look at it, the four competitors all have different approaches or different strengths. Jimmie Johnson, while this is his first time in this format, he has the experience of six championships to lean on, and he has experiences of going to Miami and losing to Brad Keselowski in the championship run. Kyle Busch obviously was just here a year ago, so he understands it probably better than anyone.
I don’t think anyone had any idea the drive and determination that Carl Edwards had to get back to Miami, and we saw that instantly after he won that race at Texas, how to the point his answer was of he’s been thinking about this race ever since he was beaten by Tony Stewart in 2011. So he has this drive. Then Joey has been well documented. He’s been in this type of format twice, once made it to the final race, and had an issue on a pit stop last year, was taken out before he had a chance to get there. So I think he’s looking for ways to showcase his talent in a pressure-filled situation.
I look at the situation with each team. Joe Gibbs has to manage two teammates. Joey Logano has one teammate, but he’ll be the only Penske car. Then you have Jimmie Johnson who has all of Hendrick Motorsports behind him. I think that’s the key. Looks like in my mind is going to take a win as competitive as these four have been. It’s just how they approach the weekend. I think the story lines can be decided now about the players and teams involved, but the story lines of Miami, a three-day weekend, it can be a complete roller coaster. And I expect to go down there and watch and cover all the practices and qualifying and how they prepare for the race.
JEFF BURTON: I think when the race is over and the champion is crowned and the guy that finishes second, the guy third, the guy fourth, when the race is over, I hope that we have done a really good job of explaining how everybody got to where they got. Because big moments don’t always happen at the end of the race. A moment can happen on lap 30 that affects a team’s race, a bad restart, a great restart, a really good pit stop, good strategy that allows them to do something later in the race, that puts them in the correct line on a restart. Little things matter. Even though it’s early in the race, something can happen that doesn’t look big, but it affects what happened later.
Really getting into these four guys’ races and understanding that from the time — as Steve said, from the time they unload and practice starts on Friday to the time they put the cars in the trailers Sunday night, all the things that happen to them that affect their ability to win or lose a championship. Because in doing that we can explain the complexity of the sport. We can hopefully make people better understand that everything matters; that competition is so tough that if you make a small mistake, it hurts you badly. If you have a small gain, it can help you in a great way.
Watching the roller coaster ride that they start on Friday and end on Sunday, and having a chance to explain that, is a great opportunity for all of us, and it should be really exciting.
RICK ALLEN: Sure, they touched on it, and I think Joey Logano probably knows it better than anyone that one bad pit stop can take the championship right out of your hands. I think we have such an incredible team. Everybody on pit road does a great job of finding the stories and letting us know the details of what’s taking place on pit road, and I think it’s going to be very important. I mean, we’ve seen penalties the past couple weeks on pit road that have knocked people out of contention for the win. As these guys have both said, we think it’s going to take a win. It’s taken a win the last two times in this format to win the championship, so I don’t think why it would be any different this year. I think it’s going to take a win to win this championship. You just can’t make a mistake if you want to win the race and the championship.
TIM BUCKMAN: Thanks everyone for joining us today, especially Sam, Jeff, Rick, Jeff, Steve, Dale, and Kyle.