NBC banks on Earnhardt as start of NASCAR coverage arrives
Heading into its fourth season airing NASCAR under its current deal, NBC Sports Group is counting on a big dose of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to bring energy and attention to its coverage.
NBC won a battle with Fox Sports last year to land Earnhardt and the network has been unabashed in its heavy promotion of the former driver-turned-analyst as a way to draw in avid fans and lapsed or casual viewers.
It also has drawn up a somewhat unique plan to experiment with five different booth setups this season as it works to determine the best way to utilize what will now be a four-person booth.
NBC takes over coverage this weekend with Xfinity Series and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races that are both sponsored by Marcus Lemonis’ marine-and-watersports brand Overton’s. It will be working to avoid the double-digit ratings declines that Fox Sports incurred this year with its portion of the schedule.
“What’s best about Dale is his desire to work hard,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. “He wants to be great, he wants to push every day to get better, he pushed us to do a number of rehearsal shows. He was thrilled to be part of the Super Bowl and be on a big stage like that. He loved going to Korea and being part of the Olympics and understanding the industry. He wants to be in the control room to understand how each part of the telecast comes together.”
Earnhardt will be joined by announcer Rick Allen and fellow analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte.
Flood said Earnhardt’s strongest trait as a broadcaster is that he “speaks as an everyman; he speaks with the knowledge of having done it at the very highest level and won at all these racetracks, but he also talks like your buddy at the bar — and who would you rather share a beer with while watching the race than Dale Jr.?”
NBC Sports will promote Earnhardt using its “persona plan,” which it created in 2016 when announcer Mike Tirico joined the company from ESPN, according to CMO Jennifer Storms. The plan involves cross-promoting a given talent across NBCUniversal’s portfolio, including in entertainment programming. On top of his appearances at the Super Bowl and the Winter Games, Earnhardt was on air during the recent Washington Capitals-Vegas Golden Knights NHL Stanley Cup Final. Earnhardt also will do the “NBC Universal car wash” schedule of appearances this week including the “Today” show, “Tonight Show,” “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen” and E News. He’ll also do hits with NBC Sports’ affiliates and regional sports networks.
“This transcends NASCAR, and I can say that because we have spent six to eight months with him, and he … wants to be the best broadcaster; I can’t tell you how hungry he is to be so good for the fans and give the fans what they want,” Storms said. “More importantly, he’s such a good fit for our company because he actually is a huge NBCUniversal consumer. If you look at his Twitter, he and his wife watch a lot of the shows that we have on.”
Earnhardt was not available for comment last week.
Letarte, who is close with Earnhardt after having served as his crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, said Earnhardt has asked the different talent members how they prepare.
“What I’ve encouraged Dale is he needs to have his own preparation — he can’t do it like me,” Letarte said. “More than anything, we were the most successful on the racetrack when we spent time together away from the racetrack, and I expect the same when it comes to the coverage on television: The more time we spend together away from the racetrack, the more fun it’s going to be to listen to us on Sundays.”
The five booth setups that NBC will use include a conventional option of all four members in the same room, while others will see them split up, whether in different rooms or possibly even having some of the analysts calling the action from places such as pit road.
Other elements that are new this year include a new custom pitbox that NBC worked on with NASCAR in order to get it a slot on pit road. The 14-by-12.5-foot pitbox, which is a couple of feet longer and higher than a typical pitbox, will be used for everything from pre- and post-race coverage to possibly a spot for analysts to call races.