NBC and NASCAR made memories in last stint, with new ones to come

4 Comments

MotorSportsTalk’s two U.S.-based writers, Tony DiZinno and Chris Estrada, take a look back on NBC’s last stint featuring NASCAR Sprint Cup races from 1999 through 2006. In both instances, these were formative years of their racing fandom.

Tony DiZinno:

For 2013, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network became your official home of open-wheel racing with the acquisition of Formula One to go along with IndyCar coverage.

Now, we can amend that to say, it’s your official home of almost all racing.

In 2015, NASCAR will be back on NBC. The re-acquisition of North America’s number one form of motorsports brings together all three major motorsports championships under one roof. And it has the potential to reignite memories from NBC’s last stint with NASCAR, from 1999 through 2006.

Besides his role on NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams is one of NASCAR’s most dedicated fans. He opened the coverage at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999, a race won by a then-unheralded rookie out of Indiana named Tony Stewart.

In 2001, we were treated to one of NASCAR’s most emotional victories, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway – the first Cup race at the track since he lost his father in that year’s Daytona 500.

The 2004 season featured two dramatic moments to open and close the year on NBC. Earnhardt Jr. took his first, and thus far only, Daytona 500 win on February 15, six years to the day after Dale Sr. won his only ‘500. It was also the first high-definition race aired in Cup history.

To finish off the season, Kurt Busch edged Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin to capture the first title in the Chase for the Nextel Cup era. Busch beat Johnson by eight points after a thrilling battle at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, in a race won by Greg Biffle.

All the moments were captured by an announce team that included Allen Bestwick, and later Bill Weber, calling every lap. But it was the late Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach Jr. who did it for me. “BP” and Wally’s banter was a nice counter-balance to the lap-by-lap coverage, and their analysis added valuable insights for viewers.

Having started watching racing in the late 1990s, I’d seen “BP” on the old ESPN Wide World of Sports coverage and when he joined the NBC crew when they took over the coverage, I was thrilled. It’s a shame he won’t be around for this newest incarnation, but I’m optimistic we’ll see a number of familiar faces returning to the broadcasts.

Chris Estrada:

For myself, the return of NASCAR to NBC is almost like going back in time to my formative years as a motorsports fan. I’ve learned to follow the series from a proper, objective standpoint in recent years, but when NBC had the rights from 1999-2006, I was still at the point where I had my favorites.

Above all of them was Dale Earnhardt – the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the man that got me hooked on this sport. I was 14 years old when we lost him in the 2001 Daytona 500, and I was crushed. So when the series returned to Daytona that summer, I (along with many others, I’m sure) was pulling so badly for his son.

I will never forget that race and the call from NBC’s Allen Bestwick that brought him home: “It’s going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.! Using lessons learned from his father to go from sixth to first and score the victory in the Pepsi 400!” And then, the late, great and dearly missed Benny Parsons, chiming in with what we were all thinking: “Yes! Yes!”

That, along with seeing Earnhardt Jr. and then-teammate Michael Waltrip (who finished second that night) embrace afterwards on top of the latter’s car, was cathartic for me and the rest of the sport’s faithful. Junior had delivered one of the sport’s greatest wins, and Waltrip, who had won the aforementioned ‘500’ that February, got to have the celebration he richly deserved.

We all know life goes on through good times and bad times, but we needed to see that affirmed before our eyes. And it was. That wasn’t the only memorable moment we saw during NASCAR’s recent run on NBC, of course (see my colleague’s thoughts above). But it’s probably the one most fans remember fondly.

I’m willing to bet we’ll see a few more of them upon NASCAR’s return to NBC in a year and a half.

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
Leave a comment

You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski