As we move closer to the weekend and upcoming Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, all eyes remain on the third place finisher of last week’s race: 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. During the Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400 at Pocono Raceway, Keselowski was penalized for unapproved body modifications made to the #2 Miller Lite Ford during a pit stop. The act was broadcast on Fox Sports‘ NASCAR coverage as follows: “TV replays showed a crew member slamming his shoulder into the side panel while the car was being jacked to change tires. Theoretically, the move could help create side-force“. Keselowski rallied to an impressive finish, but was primarily angered by commentator and former driver Jeff Gordon‘s analysis. Gordon mistakenly compared the incident to one in a previous race in Las Vegas which Keselowski won. Keselowski perceived this mistake as an intentional bias against non-Hendrick cars; a team in which Gordon is an owner. Regardless of whether or not this accusation against Gordon is true, Brad Keselowski’s comments beg the question: Where should the line be drawn between NASCAR media and sport involvement?
Brad Keselowski vs. NASCAR Commentator Bias
Brad Keselowski’s response to Jeff Gordon’s mistaken analysis was in direct relation to his role as an owner. When the comments were brought to his attention, Keselowski stated: “That’s because Jeff Gordon is in the booth. They need to get some people in the booth who aren’t inbred to the sport and own teams and have internal knowledge, because that’s pretty crappy“. Gordon took exception to Keselowski’s comments, tweeting:
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) June 6, 2016
Gordon followed up with another tweet: “I will admit I am biased in the booth….to anyone making it interesting and exciting for all the [NASCAR on Fox] viewers!“. As fair a point as it is for Keselowski to point out that Gordon has internal ties to the sport, Gordon is also fair in pointing out that it is his job to point out and explain the details of what is happening in each NASCAR race. If NASCAR hadn’t have taken notice of Keselowski’s modifications, then Gordon would have nothing to draw on. Although, Gordon was wrong in comparing the incident to the Las Vegas race as that was a different issue altogether. However, Gordon owned up to his mistake, albeit after Keselowski had his say on Gordon’s position. In this particular situation, Keselowski appears to be lashing out against Gordon’s involvement with both the Hendrick team and the Fox NASCAR coverage as a whole, rather than the singular incident. This brings up the issue of bias-free analysis without experience vs. experienced analysis with inherent bias.
Regardless of how one feels about him, no one can deny the experience and expertise of Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. Having been a regular NASCAR on Fox commentator since 2001, Waltrip has had as many iconic moments in the booth as he’s had on the track. Whether it be openly cheering his younger brother Michael Waltrip on to victory, or his not-so-subtle coaching of Ricky Craven in 2003 at Darlington (with Craven sharing Waltrip’s old Tide sponsor), Waltrip’s presentation is full of passion and excitement. With such a long and illustrious career in NASCAR, there is no doubt that drivers-turned-analysts such as Waltrip are going to have strong opinions for and against certain aspects of the sport. On the one hand, this can be problematic, as it can amount to the commentator treating teams and drivers unfairly in their coverage. However, if that experience were to be removed entirely in favour of completely unbiased coverage, the analysis would prove lacking. It is commonplace in other sports, such as NESN using former Boston Red Sox player and Massachusetts native Jerry Remy in their coverage. It undoubtedly has an element of bias, but also an invaluable element of wisdom and experience that is nearly impossible to replicate.
Jeff Gordon is simply the newest in a long line of former athletes who have taken to commentating as a career after competition. Despite his experience and success in NASCAR, it is easy to forget that this is his first year as an on-air personality. His mistake concerning Brad Keselowski’s track record of penalties was simply that: a mistake. Keselowski would later be interviewed by Gordon, saying in a press conference: “I don’t want someone who’s invested in another team talking about my race car in a derogatory form… I don’t think that’s right, and I’m gonna defend my team in those situations no matter who it is“. This stance against those with stakes in the sport partaking in on-air analysis is interesting considering the recent news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is to make his commentating debut with Fox at the Michigan XFINITY race this weekend. Earnhardt is the co-owner of JR Motorsports, a team that runs in the XFINITY series for which Keselowski drove from 2007 to 2009. Earnhardt has a similar sprawling fanbase and marketability to Jeff Gordon, and would be easy to see sliding into an on-air career after his time on the race track has also come to an end. Keselowski also shares these qualities and would make a fine commentator. With his own race team in Brad Keselowski Racing, it will be interesting to see what the future holds concerning Keselowski’s stance on the matter.
Ultimately, bias in NASCAR’s analysis (or any sport’s analysis for that matter) is a difficult subject to tackle. Brad Keselowski brings up excellent issues in the fact that those who are spreading the information directly to the audience have a stake in what is happening and how it is perceived can be an issue. That said, it is also easy to take the side of Jeff Gordon, that he made a simple mistake, and his experience is invaluable to the presentation of the sport. Regardless of the stance, the fact of the matter is that sports need these former competitor personalities in order to fully flesh out the most minute details of events. Having someone already inside an organization could be beneficial for insight, so long as their involvement does not get in the way of that insight. However, in this situation, to say that Gordon’s involvement with Hendrick Motorsports influenced his coverage of Keselowski’s penalty is a stretch. Brad Keselowski’s point on commentator bias may have been a good one, but his timing was definitely off.