FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
NBC SPORTS 2017 NASCAR CHAMPIONSHIP MEDIA CONFERENCE CALL TRANSCRIPT
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
THE MODERATOR: Thanks everybody, and welcome to our 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship conference call. In just a moment we’ll be joined by NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood, and NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, and Steve Letarte.
This is the third straight year that NBC Sports will televise the Monster Energy Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Championships. NBC Sports Group will surround NASCAR’s Championship Weekend with more than 22 hours of trackside coverage from Homestead-Miami Speedway. Live race coverage from Miami begins Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with the XFINITY Series Championship, and continues Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
One quick reminder that there will be a transcript of this call available in a few hours on NBCSportsGroupPressBox.com. Let’s begin now with some opening remarks followed by the Q & A. First we’ll hear from NBC Sports Executive Producer, Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thanks for joining us today. We’re very excited about this race, and have four great drivers battling for the championship. These playoffs have been everything we could ask for in terms of drama, a little bit of spice with a little bit of anger. On-track anger means more people pay attention, so we’re happy with that. And during our coverage, which begins at 1:30 Sunday with a green flag a little after 3:00, you’ll hear from all four of the championship drivers. We’ll also have “This is Us” actor Justin Hartley do a voiceover for a very special pre-race Dale Earnhardt Jr. story, which his career and his impact on the sport.
And Bob Costas is going to join us and bring us on the air at the top of the day, and he will do a live interview with Dale prior to the race as part of our coverage as we emphasize the two big stories here. The most important story is who wins the championship between these four drivers, and the secondary story is the most popular driver since time began, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his final race being on NBC.
And obviously we’re excited about what we’ve accomplished this year in terms of viewership. We are up this year, and up in the current climate is a huge statement about all that the sport has done, the drivers have done, and the on-track product has become… that we’re ahead in the ratings from where we were a year ago. We are very, very excited about that.
And on the digital side we’re up a massive 32 percent, so a really nice story there that we’re not being able to tell all that often in other sports right now.
This season we’ve tried a number of new production elements which we think have made it a better viewing experience. From having Ato Boldon show up as a fish out of water learning the sport of NASCAR, getting to the point where he zipped around the track in Jeff Burton’s car, which was a sight to behold; the What Why booth where we took a different approach to breaking down why things were happening in a race; On The Box, where we got Steve out of the booth and sent him down to pit road back to his old home sitting atop a pit box, which was a lot of fun; and then obviously the Bat Cam traveling 100 plus miles an hour down the backstretch showing the speed and capturing the intensity of this sport.
A lot of good things going on. A lot of positive momentum for NASCAR. And our weekend begins with a number of shows on Friday. But the XFINITY championship gets crowned on Saturday, with the race starting at 3:30, with our air coverage beginning at 3:00 p.m. So it’s an exciting stretch for us.
On that note, I’ll hand it off to the Mayor and a guy who has beena big part of helping work with NASCAR to get the racing to the point it is this year with stage racing and all the energy that went into that, Mr. Burton.
JEFF BURTON: Well, I’m so excited about this weekend. Like Sam said, the racing that we have seen in these playoffs has been really, really good. I’d venture to say great. The racing the entire year has certainly been what I think NASCAR fans have come to expect and deserve, and it’s fair to say that this year has been exceptionally good as far as what’s on the racetrack. What’s made it so fascinating is that there’s so much on the line, and the drivers, the teams, everybody has this intense pressure on them to perform every lap, every race. It matters, and it matters — all the work done now comes down to this one race, and you take these four drivers with the personalities that they have, the teams behind them, and it’s just going to be an incredible experience to watch someone come out of there with a championship. As we’ve seen, you’ve had to win this race to win the championship. They all have to go down there with that mindset, and it’s — we have Martin Truex, Jr., who everybody believes is the favorite, but he’s battling against guys that have been there, done that, and have achieved it, and he’s going to have to knock them off to get it done, and it’s going to be fun to see if he can do that.
XFINITY race on Saturday, that’s been fascinating. We have two young drivers, William Byron and Daniel Hemric, trying to take out two veterans. This entire weekend is going to be exciting from the time they roll the cars on to the racetrack for practice. Every lap is going to matter, and that’s what race fans deserve, and by the way, that’s what the competitors like to be part of, and it’s going to be great to be there to cover it and bring it to the fans that can’t be there in person.
DALE JARRETT: It’s hard to believe and think back to the nine previous weeks of everything that has taken place for these four drivers to get there. The body of work that they did in the first 26 weeks and then trying to carry that through and make it to be where they are now, the four drivers that have survived everything that you have had to go through, a tremendously different year than what they’ve ever encountered really with the stage racing, which has just been phenomenal, the ability to go through each of the different rounds in the playoffs, and then to be a part of this.
I had the opportunity to sit down with the four drivers yesterday in the Cup Series in New York City, and it was very interesting to see and get their take on the 35 races previously they were — their job was to beat 39 other competitors and to ask them about now focusing only on three drivers. As Jeff just pointed out, they’re probably going to have to win the race, and they know that’s what they’re going there to do, but actually it’s only about beating those other three drivers, and that’s what you have to do to win the championship, and the thought process is a little different as they go into that.
I’m really excited to see this. I’ll be a part, as Jeff and Steve and Rick and the pit reporters call the race from their vantage point. Leigh Diffey and myself will be on NBCSN. Jeff is covering the four championship drivers and what their days entail. It’ll be a lot different coverage. It’s not going to be the all-time — the commentary of the race and everything that Jeff and Steve and Rick will be doing. We’ll kind of let things play out. But just bringing the viewers that just want to see what’s happening with those four teams.
I’m excited about doing that once again with Leigh Diffey. It’s going to be a great, exciting weekend. Couldn’t be a better racetrack to host this on because of just how much real estate you have there as a driver to race on, and we saw that come into play last year, and we literally saw that you have to watch this to the very end because we know that anything can and possibly will happen. Really looking forward to Sunday evening.
STEVE LETARTE: They mentioned how wonderful we expect this championship battle to be. I think I’m most pleased; the format changes all year I think have delivered us not only a great regular season but a great playoff run, and I think because of those formats and because of this playoff system, we have four outstanding competitors racing for a championship, three former champions and undoubtedly the favorite Martin Truex, Jr., who will be going after his first championship, and as Jeff mentioned, the XFINITY Series has a great mix, as well, of drivers that will be going after a championship.
But I’m excited to get to South Florida, to get to Miami and see how the teams adapt. I can’t wait until practice starts, how they interact. Something very special about NASCAR is even the way the teams are situated in the garage area. It’s kind of like two Super Bowl teams practicing on the same field, and that is what we’ll be watching, and it starts Friday morning. It’s been a fun year and exciting year, and I would expect the championship race to be no different.
I think a win without a doubt is going to be necessary when you look at these four, and the story lines are too numerous to mention that we’ve had over the last 20 weeks. I’m just ready to get down there, and it’s been an enjoyable year. I’m also thankful to have the opportunity to call my good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race from the booth. I’m excited for him to be joining the NBC team next year, but the first matter is for him to finish up his storied career behind the wheel. I’m very excited my first ever race in the booth was a win for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the July race at Daytona, and I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to call the race with Jeff and Rick and see him run his final race.
Q. Steve, when you’re looking at this race and with the addition of stages and knowing when the cautions come, as a crew chief does that add to the challenge, and is there anything you think the crew chiefs are relishing about it, or is it just something that will make their heads spin even more?
STEVE LETARTE: So I think that it adds to the challenge and also presents more opportunities, so it depends on who you are. If you have a dominant car, you have a fast car, then I don’t think you’re a fan of the stages in this race because you want this race to play out as green flag as possible. The stages are just two guaranteed yellows that let your competitors make their cars better. As a race fan, I think you should love the stages for that reason. I think it gives the trailing cars an opportunity to catch up to improve their cars, depending on when the yellows come before the stages, strategy becomes questionable. Even at Miami with the tire fall-off, what we expect with the tire limit, drivers are really — and crew chiefs really in this race are going to have to pay attention. They just can’t continue to put tires on and run out when it matters the most.
The only interesting part is in February we talked about how the crew chief has to adapt to the points that will be awarded at the end of these stages, and I think the crew chiefs and specifically these four did a wonderful job. That’s why they’re in the position they are. Well, now at race 36 they’re going to have to forget all of that because there are no points. The highest finishing driver, the highest finishing team will be a champion. The stages are no longer a time to be rewarded, it’s really just a guaranteed break in the action and how can you use that break to help your day.
So I think it is one more kind of layer to the race, but these four crew chiefs are to the level where I think they’re going to try to use it as an opportunity to help them, but so will their competitors, as well.
Q. Sam, you mentioned the addition of Bat Cam to your production this year. How has that really added to your race coverage this year, and are there any plans to change up how it’s used in the championship this weekend?
SAM FLOOD: We think it just adds an element of speed to the coverage, and to be able to go along 100 miles an hour and still see the cars go flying past, especially on the backstretch at this track. I think it’ll be pretty dramatic, and the way the backstretch is laid out with the trees and the fencing, I think it’s going to accentuate the speed even more.
We’re going to use it the same way we’ve used it all year. We’ve worked it into the coverage as a true enhancement and plan to use it for years to come. Hopefully it can get even faster because it can’t keep up with the cars yet.
Q. For Sam, how are you planning to balance the coverage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race with the Championship 4 given that obviously it’s going to be a huge story with his final race, and at the same time he is not one of the Final Four had a has a chance to win the championship?
SAM FLOOD: Well, here’s the cool thing: We are able to cover two great stories, and the four drivers are the headline. The four guys that are racing for the championship, this is their moment. This is what it’s all about. But in the pre-race before Dale climbs into the car for the last time, that’s a story that impacts the audience and will not get in the way of our race coverage, but Dale will certainly be someone we check in with throughout the race. We’re going to have NBCSN Hot Pass throughout the race, so we’re going to have a second outlet to watch the race, and on the Hot Pass, Leigh Diffey and Dale Jarrett will be covering it, you’re going to have the four championship drivers on the screen at the same time, so you’ll be able to follow what those four drivers are doing, and we’re working it in right now to add a fifth driver, so Dale Jr.’s entire race will be on this screen, as well. So if you want an isolated feed of the four championship drivers and the fifth driver of special interest in this race, that five pack is going to be available on NBCSN. If you want the incredible regular coverage we do, stick with NBC and we’ll have the entire race covered the way it is, and obviously focusing on the battle for the championship, because at the end of the day, that’s the biggest story, which one of these four gentlemen can raise the Monster Cup.
Q. Is there any disappointment on your end to not have a younger driver in their 20s to make the Final Four after there was success from some of these guys all season?
SAM FLOOD: Hey, you’ve got to work to be a champion, and it doesn’t come overnight. I think one of the great things that happened is they’re learning. This sport gives nothing, regardless of last name, pedigree, skill, car. You’ve got to fight for every inch of the track. I think it’s added a whole new dimension to it, and the battle testing that went on with Larson, with Blaney, with Elliott, I think it’s going to pay off in the future, and I think it’s great that they all got in the story line this year, and now they’re going to want it that much more going forward. It couldn’t be a better situation for the sport because Busch, Harvick, Keselowski and Truex all deserve to be there, and I think the sport couldn’t be better positioned for the future.
Q. Given Martin Truex’s dominance on these mile-and-a-half tracks this year, just kind of handicap — this is for Jeff but for everybody else, as well. Could you handicap everybody’s chances on Sunday? Like I said, Truex has been so good, but kind of taking a look at it, who do you think has a chance to beat Truex on Sunday?
JEFF BURTON: Well, Truex has been exceptionally good, and they’ve been fast not just on the mile-and-a-halfs, they’ve been fast everywhere. You know, it’s hard for me to imagine that Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are not going to have fast enough race cars and that they’re not going to find a way to get themselves in position to make it extremely difficult on Martin Truex. For a long time Martin — people have said he’s the favorite, and I think he is the favorite, but again, like I said earlier, he’s got to find a way to take the championship from people that are accustomed to being champions, and that’s a major step. In all other sports we’ve seen that process take place. It took Michael Jordan years to figure out how to get it done. It has taken — you go back and look at some of the greatest athletes, and they had to figure out how to win championships. That doesn’t just happen.
So Martin has that opportunity. His team has that opportunity, but he’s going to have to take it from three people that have been there and done that.
I don’t know how to separate the 4 and the 18. Those teams seem very similar to me. I’d say the 18 has been a little bit quicker for the majority of the year, but since the playoffs have started, looking at laps that Kevin Harvick has led, they have definitely brought their best to the playoffs. The team I think is definitely going to be the most challenged is Keselowski, and that’s coming directly from his mouth and the things he’s said about their mile-and-a-half program and the speed that they have. They’re going to have to bring something to Miami that they have not been able to bring yet. But we have seen in the playoffs and every form of sport, we have seen teams step up and find a way to bring their very best when the chips are down, and the chips are down this weekend.
I think Martin is the favorite, but very closely behind are Kyle and Kevin, and then a little behind them I think would be Brad and his team.
DALE JARRETT: Yeah, I’ll add to all of that that Jeff just said, and certainly you have to make Truex that favorite, and the others have to go take it from him. But there’s two underlying factors. There’s probably more, but here are the two that stand out to me that they encounter in a one-race high-finisher-takes-all, and that’s basically going to be winner-take-all, that there’s other people involved. You have a great driver in Martin Truex with a great race car and a very fast race car, but you have pit crewmen, you have these people going over the wall that have to do their job at 100 percent level. If they don’t, then that could be the difference in the good drivers and fastest car not winning the race, and the other and to me the most important thing is pressure. We don’t know — it’s hard to measure how pressure affects a competitor and an athlete, and you don’t know that until you get into the most difficult situations, and this is — the 35 weeks leading up to this, Kevin Harvick said yesterday that was the hardest part, but you’re literally getting to the hardest part here. Yeah, you’ve made your stand and you’ve done all the work to get there, but who handles the pressure of trying to win a championship?
Three drivers are trying to set themselves apart. There’s only been 15 others in this series that have won multiple championships. Who’s going to — there are three drivers that can set themselves apart by getting that second. The other is trying to get the first. To me whoever is able to handle that pressure the very best. We saw the fourth best car running on the racetrack last year win the race, and I realize that’s now a seven-time champion that did that, but anything can happen, so it’s easy to sit and look at the numbers and think what should happen, but who handles the pressure best is going to be the champion.
STEVE LETARTE: And the only thing I’ll add is I agree with Jeff’s assessment on speed, but if I’m Adam Stevens, Rodney Childers or Cole Pearn, Paul Wolfe racing from behind can be very, very scary. If the race plays out on a green flag run that needs to be split up or a bunch of quick yellows, I consider Paul one of the strongest strategists in the garage. He understands how to not only call a race, but he also knows how to get off sequence, off people he’s racing. So if those three are basically racing each other at the front and Paul is back a little bit and there’s an opportunity to do something to put pressure on the other three, Paul will know how to do that. He’s probably one of the most dangerous crew chiefs on top of the pit box because how many races have we seen where the 2 is out there running when he should have pitted or pitted when he should be running, and it takes a sharp calculator and some smart minds to keep up with what Paul Wolfe is doing. So I think that perhaps because he isn’t the favorite and hasn’t shown maybe the dominating speed that maybe the other three have at times can make that 2 car more dangerous in a one-race championship.
Q. DJ, you were there yesterday when you guys — when you sat down with all four of these guys for the NASCAR America roundtable, and I know they spent the entire day in New York with each other yesterday doing all sorts of media activities. What did you take from seeing them and from talking with them? We all know that Kevin Harvick loves being in the middle of things and stirring things up. We’ve seen him do that in past championships, media activities and trying to get in the heads of his competitors. Did you see much of that yesterday, and are you expecting any more of that the rest of this week?
DALE JARRETT: Yeah, I think that it is getting ready to ramp up. I think when they arrive tomorrow — I really — from what I saw, they’re all very loose and very talkative with each other. But willing to talk about anything, and the past certainly, and I think if there was one thing that I took away from, Harvick is basically all business, but he’s ready to throw things out there. Kyle Busch seemed to be ready to accept any challenge that anybody wanted to throw. Truex was very loose, and it seemed that Keselowski was a little more reserved yesterday. I’m not sure that he’ll continue that, but I think — yeah, he’s trying to figure out how they’re going to make this happen because as Jeff was just pointing out, their car hasn’t been the fastest, so they’re going to have to come up with something.
But the thing that I found interesting is I tried to get into could a past rivalry or rivalry and past things that happened between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, could that be something that they even thought about in certain situations Sunday evening. Martin Truex was quick to jump up and say, why are you just asking them; Kevin Harvick wrecked me at Homestead on the straightaway last year, and Harvick looked rather perplexed like he didn’t remember that or didn’t want to remember it, one of the two, or didn’t want that to factor in. So it was very interesting to hear that take, that there are things between all of them that could come into play. You don’t know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to think there.
But I also saw that Harvick said that talking about the things that went on between drivers at Martinsville and Phoenix, how that literally, they took themselves out of the competition by letting their emotions affect them, and you have to keep that in check, and I think that speaks volumes about who Kevin Harvick is and how ready he is to make this happen once again.
Very interesting, but I think that things get ramped up tomorrow as they start getting more questions and are around each other more.
Q. Steve, this year you guys have been recognizing a lot of crew members throughout the season with your Pit Crew All-Star series. Can you talk about the motivation for it and how you’re going to ramp it up this weekend in Miami?
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I mean, basically the concept between Jeff Behnke and myself, Burton, we all kind of had conversations of just ways to try to highlight the men and women that make up these teams because while we do focus on the Championship 4 drivers and they deserve a tremendous amount of the focus, there are so many men and women behind them that get the car ready, call the strategy, change the tires, whatever it may be, and as somebody who is lucky enough to work up through the organization from sweeping the floors to a crew chief, I’ve done about every job there is to do, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think there’s so many people that make it happen, they needed to be recognized, and Jeff Behnke supported the idea, Sam supported the idea, so basically we picked two or three names and stories and highlighted them all throughout the season, two or three a weekend.
The idea is it’s more than just All-Stars. It’s not just performance. It’s about perseverance. Every one of these people have a great story. It’s about how their peers look upon them, it’s what their value is in the community, whether it’s the NASCAR community or their community at home. It’s kind of the All-Star mixed with the Walter Payton Award. We wanted to just highlight what type of people make up these teams. We’ve nominated over 60 team members throughout the first 19 races, and actually today on NASCAR America at 5:00 I’ll name the 10 that are the final. They are the NBC first annual Pit Crew All-Star team, and we’re going to bring them together on Sunday morning and present them with a helmet that’s decaled up, hopefully they’ll sign each other’s helmet as a memento that they can bring home, put on their trophy case. We’ll take a group picture on the championship stage before the race in Miami, and just it’s a small way us at NBC, and me specifically, are very thankful for not only what they do but the stories they provide and the access they provide in and throughout the garage, the pit crew members, the mechanics, the engineers. They’re always more than accommodating when we either need access or help with a story line, and basically this is our way to kind of give back and tell the stories of these people that should be told. So that’s basically the idea. Today at 5:00 we’ll announce on NASCAR America the 10 finalists, and we’re going to present those 10 with a little memento, a helmet, down in Miami Homestead this weekend.
— NBC SPORTS GROUP —