One of the more unusual broadcasting approaches in a while is what Fox has done for the primary broadcast booth for their NASCAR package this year. Last year saw that booth comprised of play-by-play voice Mike Joy (in that role since 2001) and analysts Jeff Gordon (there in a full-time role since 2016) and Clint Bowyer (who joined the team for 2021), but Gordon left after the season to take on a larger role with Hendrick Motorsports. Instead of replacing Gordon with a full-time second analyst, though, Fox has brought in different guest analysts to join Joy and Bowyer each week, including former Fox figure Darrell Waltrip, NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., and more. For this week’s throwback Goodyear 400 at Darlington (3:30 pm Eastern, FS1, coverage beginning at 2 pm Eastern), they’re taking that even further, using three different guest analysts (all former Darlington winners) across three stages of the race : Richard Petty, Bobby Labonte, and Bill Elliott. Ahead of that, Joy, Labonte and NASCAR on Fox lead race producer Barry Landis spoke to AA about both this race and the season-long approach, with Landis saying Gordon’s exit prompted them to try some different things:
“We had Jeff Gordon and Clint, and Jeff moved on to Hendrick, which I would say is a sound business move,” Landis said. “He loves being part of the day-to-day. And I think it was very careful by our management not to jump into something just to jump into it. We have a lot of great pieces and parts; we have Larry Mac [Larry McReynolds] in his role in the studio, we have Jamie McMurray, who’s also part of the pre-race, two guys that we really love to work with but also at the same time have other duties. The idea of kind of spreading our wings a little bit and bringing some other options in became pretty appealing. …The overwhelming desire to want to try some new things and give some other people an opportunity to speak about the sport is the driving factor.”
Landis said the week-by-week approach has let them bring in names who wouldn’t be available on a full-time basis.
“We saw this as a great opportunity to work some people who, typically, their schedules wouldn’t allow a full season, but we’d love to give them a crack. I think the fans are the big winners in the end. And it’s been a ton of fun.”
He said it’s also allowed them to show off a wider range of perspectives and expertise than viewers might normally see.
“The best part about this has been being able to see, whether it’s a former crew chief like Chad Knaus or Larry Mac who I’ve worked with for years as a booth analyst, to drivers that kind of span maybe a couple generations, with Tony Stewart, and getting Jeff in there, and Danica Patrick, it’s been really cool to get inside their heads a little bit and pull out of them what they find interesting in racing. Because all too often, if you keep working with the same people, it may be a great avenue to go down and everybody’s kind of in lockstep. Occasionally, somebody from the outside says ‘Hey, why don’t we take a little closer look at this?’”
Landis has been working on the NASCAR on Fox broadcasts for decades, but he said this approach has been educational for him as well.
“It’s been really knowledge-gaining for me, quite honestly. Some of it has affirmed what I’ve suspected all along, and other [moments] have been like ‘Wow, that wasn’t even on my radar.’ So it’s been a phenomenal experience, getting ready for these races, getting the thoughts, and then trying to get them out on the air during the broadcast. It’s been challenging, but it’s been a ton of fun.”
And it’s a thrill for some of the guest analysts, including Labonte. Labonte does regular studio work for FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub and drives part-time in the Superstar Racing Experience, but he said he loved getting the call to the main booth for this week’s race.
“I’m excited. I didn’t see this coming, for sure. There’s a lot that goes into the weekend, doing the RaceHub shows and sometimes RaceDay on Sunday, obviously in my ear I can hear some of what goes on sometimes. When [Fox Sports senior vice president, production and talent development] Jacob [Ullman] called and said something about Darlington, it worked out to be here this weekend, and to me, it’s cool that it’s kind of like a relay. I get the relay from Richard, I’m going to hand it off to Bill, and I think it will be fun to have a little bit of everybody up there. I hope, and I feel like, it’s not going to put too much pressure on any of us, because we’re just going to be up there for a short time and we’ve got a lot of great stuff to talk about, so hopefully that makes it easier. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m very appreciative of the opportunity. ”
He said he’s enjoyed watching these guest analysts as a fan as well, especially Matt Kenseth in the Wise Power 400 in California in February.
“I paid attention to the California race probably 110 percent because of a. him, because I knew he was going to be in the Hall of Fame, and b. because I knew that race was going to be exciting. And watching those guys helped prepare me. And talking to Clint Bowyer too, getting in his ear about it, it seemed like a lot of fun. It seemed like everybody enjoyed it. I’m hoping that’s going to be my story at the end of the night.”
Landis said a big part of what’s made this guest analyst approach work has been Joy and Bowyer preparing for each analyst and figuring out how to get the best out of them.
“When they write the book about this afterwards, that will be the key component. Mike Joy, we all know, comes with a ton of experience at every level of motorsports, and is the consummate pro. Clint, people forget he’s new to this, just from last year. He did one year, and we were all up and running [before that], so he was the component we brought in. The amount of time they put in to get to know who’s in the booth with them, to help them out, to also listen to their thoughts, it just goes on and on how gracious they’ve been.”
Landis said it’s also crucial that Joy and Bowyer are staying true to themselves and making sure they make their own points, which makes the final telecast a good blend of perspectives.
“They’re not compromising their thoughts either. And I think that’s the hard part that people don’t understand; when you have these varying personalities join you in the booth, it’s one thing to put out the welcome mat and say ‘Hey, we’re going to enjoy this,’ but there’s also that human connection of seeing things in different ways. And both of them have been extremely graceful in that, for sure.”
Joy said he initially wasn’t sure how well this would work, but he’s pleased with how it’s played out.
“At first it seemed like it would be a little like herding cats. But it’s become a lot of fun, and I think Clint and I have gotten ourselves into a rhythm to be able to accommodate the different personalities and different levels of experience. And what I didn’t quite expect at the start was the difference in the levels of involvement with the new car and with the series today. We’ve had a wide range of that from the guest analysts we’ve had. So that was probably the only curveball, but we’re used to it so much so that the execs in LA have said ‘Okay, this week, you’re going to have three analysts, one for each stage!’ And it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s go, let’s try it!’”
He said part of what’s made it work is the guest analysts’ passion and eagerness to get their thoughts out.
“A lot of it is trying to gain the sense of who is joining us, not so much from their competition record but from their personality and willingness to engage. And everybody we’ve had has pretty much been a self-starter, in the sense that they don’t need to wait for a question to develop a thought and run with it, they can just jump up and we can discuss off of it . So that’s been a lot of fun, especially when you have such divergent personalities and even divergent senses of humor across the people we’ve had and the people we’re going to have. It’s made it fun for us, and it makes it fresh; every week is something different.”
Joy said one of his favorite surprises so far this season was the anticipatory commentary veteran crew chief and current Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus brought to the Martinsville booth.
“One was just the level of detail that Chad Knaus did in drilling down in what to expect in each stage of the race and how to anticipate different situations that develop. Sports commentary is largely reactive. When it can be predictive, it’s so much better, when you can give the viewer a sense of something to key on, or something to watch for, for a sense of how things could develop. And that’s something that Chad, having been in that business of having to anticipate throughout his entire career, was very good and conveying and communicating.”
Read on for Joy’s thoughts on working with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Landis’ comments on using three analysts this week, Labonte’s take on the Darlington track, and more.