- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

Well, that was quite an opening to the NASCAR Nextel Cup season. It looked like Mark Martin was going to hang on to win his first Daytona 500 until Kevin Harvick turned on the turbo in that last, fireworks-filled half lap. Of course, it also looked like Tony Stewart was going to run away with it before he got tangled up with Kurt Busch about 30 laps earlier. But that’s NASCAR for you.

I, for one, was focused on how the race came off on television. Fox had the main broadcast this year, but for the first time fans could also tune in to five dedicated channels on DirecTV that focused on specific drivers. Dubbed NASCAR HotPass, it costs about $100 for the season but was offered for free on Sunday. Yesterday, viewers got to choose between channels devoted to Harvick, Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip.

For a new service that one would assume is still a work in progress, NASCAR HotPass was a very nice supplement to Fox’s main coverage. Whether fans will pay extra for the service is still unknown; I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to the NFL Sunday Ticket or MLB Extra Innings. But it’s easy to see how a die-hard NASCAR enthusiast or a fan of a particular driver would find it useful. The dedicated race announcers, extra camera angles and live feeds of radio communication from teams to cars were, for lack of a better phrase, pretty darn cool.

I began the race by tuning in to the channel for Earnhardt, flipping over to Stewart when he took the lead. (I never thought to spend much time watching the Harvick channel, which gives you an idea of how surprising his finish was.)

The HotPass channels did a better job than Fox, in my opinion, of explaining certain key moments of the race. The announcers on Stewart’s channel,for instance, explained precisely why Stewart fell to 40th place following his pit stop on Lap 82. Fox’s main broadcast was late in pointing out that Stewart got a penalty for speeding on pit row.

It seemed as if having announcers tied to specific drivers gave the HotPass the edge over Fox in a handful of instances, though I would advise against watching a HotPass channel by itself because it’s too easy to lose a sense of the race as a whole. The usefulness of the HotPass is diminished, too, if none of the drivers with channels are in contention.

One nice advantage of the HotPass channels is that they continue to show live race footage (without sound) during commercial breaks in a small window in the bottom left corner of the screen. This proved helpful at one key moment when Fox cut to commercials mere seconds before a multi-car crash that knocked out Dale Jr. and several other drivers late in the race. HotPass viewers saw the crash live, while Fox viewers were left to watch the crash on replay and hear announcers attempt to explain it after the fact. (Advertisers may balk, but Fox and other NASCAR broadcasters may want to consider showing commercials in a split-screen format with live race footage. ABC did it with the Indy 500 last year and it made sense, as anything can happen during a two-and-a-half-minute commercial break.)

As for Fox, it’s clear they take their NASCAR seriously and have invested a lot in making the race look good. I don’t have HD, but the broadcast looked sharp even on my 32-inch standard definition set. I suppose we could criticize the crew of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond for failing to predict that Harvick could have pulled it out in that last lap, but that would be nitpicking. The network did have one bust - it’s much-hyped 3-D animations of crashes, supposedly created with the help of GPS technology, failed to provide any additional insight into how any of the crashes happened.

One other comment about Daytona: wow, what a long day. The Daytona 500 checked in at just under 4 hours, stretching way past the dinner hour. For loyal fans of NASCAR, this is not a big commitment, but fence-sitters may be a little reluctant to dedicate that amount of time each and every Sunday. Nobody’s suggesting cutting Daytona to 250 miles, but don’t be surprised if the issue of race length becomes a topic of discussion as NASCAR tries to figure out how to attract new fans.

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