We weren’t at Talladega for last weekend’s crazy race, so we talked to someone who was: NBC Sports’ pit reporter Mike Massaro. He’s been covering NASCAR at the national level for 17 years—since TNN was a thing!—and surprisingly, he doesn’t think ‘Dega’s drama will affect today’s race and beyond too much.
Remember TNN? The Nashville Network, long before it morphed into Spike? From getting his start there with the “Inside NASCAR” show and on MRN Radio, Massaro went on to spend 14 years at ESPN. He’s covered everything from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first Daytona 500 win and Jimmie Johnson’s sixth championship win to the exact opposite. Massaro’s first assignment with ESPN was the 2001 Daytona 500, where Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away. This season marks Massaro’s first full year with NBC, but to say he’s been around NASCAR for a while would be an understatement.
“I’ve been to Talladega so many times that you can almost anticipate something like that happening,” said Massaro of controversial crash at the end of last weekend’s race. “You can never predict exactly what happens, but I’ve seen a lot of crashes at the ends of these races.
“When you get down to the last 20 laps or so, you can always feel the tension. You can see it on the track—the way that the lines are forming, how much tighter the competition is getting. Knowing that it was an elimination race, and that every position was going to mean something, you almost had to expect that there was going to be contact racing.”
Perhaps the style of contact racing — where Kevin Harvick was accused of causing a wreck with his failing car to advance into the next round of the playoff-style Chase for the Sprint Cup — wasn’t anticipated by all. Still, Talladega — one of the few superspeedway tracks that limits the cars’ speeds using restrictor plates, making it vastly different than much of the schedule — had the perfect storm of driver stress to contend with at the end of the race.
“When it came down to a green-white-checkered situation...that’s when things do get really tight and there’s a higher probability of something happening,” Massaro said. “We saw it happen twice, really. The second one, obviously, was a bigger story with the problems that Kevin Harvick was having, and the consequences of what happened. That became chaotic — there’s no question.”
NASCAR intended there to be only a single final green-white-checkered restart at this race with a new rule limiting attempts at Talladega from three to one, but the first attempt never had a chance to get fully restarted before a wreck interrupted it from further back in the field. NASCAR deemed attempt No. 1 null under the letter of their restart rules and went for a second green-white-checkered finish, which is when the mess with Harvick occurred.
“There’s a lot of folks who look at it...as it being two, but NASCAR explained their rationale as being that the first one wasn’t actually an attempt because nobody had crossed the start/finish line,” explained Massaro of the confusion over the two restart attempts at the end. “By the definition of the word attempt, when the green flag came out, people thought that was an attempt.”
What did Massaro think of the restart controversy? “I kind of side with NASCAR on it, to be honest. They never actually crossed the start/finish line, so for me...it didn’t actually start,” he explained. “They took the green. I guess by the definition of the word ‘attempt,’ that’s true. By the spirit of the rule, I’m not sure.”
As those who saw the event are aware, it was the controversy over the second restart that became the bigger story of the weekend.
“Obviously, [there’s] a lot of emotion afterwards, especially for the guys who were caught up in the crash and as a result were eliminated from the championship,” said Massaro. “I’m talking about guys like Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, specifically.
“So, it’s an emotionally charged sport, and it’s always going to be, and when you’ve got them strapped in these race cars for three hours at 200 mph on edge—you’ve got to expect that they’re going to let some emotions out afterwards.”
Oh, they did let emotions out. Harvick ran into Trevor Bayne’s car while trying to get his slower car out of everyone else’s way on the final restart of the Talladega race. Harvick was able to stay on pace with everyone under caution speeds, but not at full speed.
Trevor Bayne, for example, told NASCAR that he doubted Harvick’s rationale as to why he wrecked on the second restart attempt after the race:
That’s a crappy way for Harvick to have to get in the Chase is to wreck somebody — what I believe on purpose. Maybe it wasn’t … the restart before that he had engine problems and got out of the way. I think he realized if the caution came out he was gonna be fine, so I go by and get hooked in the left-rear.
Harvick is a really good driver. I think he knows the limits of his car and where it’s at, that’s why I think it was intentional.
While Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin made similar comments, NASCAR bought Harvick’s explanation of the story and assigned no penalty for the incident.
The drama certainly made for interesting television, though, and it’s up to pit reporters like Massaro to be in the right place at the right time to capture the moment and get drivers to sound off on what they just experienced.
“As a pit reporter when that stuff happens, we have a pit producer in a truck. She’s kind of like air traffic control, if you will, as she informs us where to go,” Massaro said. “We’re all going in different directions. A couple pit reporters go to pit road to get the guys who finished [in the] top 5, another pit reporter went to the garage.”
“I was sent to the care center [last weekend at Talladega],” Massaro said. “After I got my interview at the care center, it was, all right, ‘Let’s see who else we can find.’ You just kind of scramble around and you try to find drivers who you need to interview.
“It was kind of chaotic at the end, and of course, there was the controversy, so you had to try to be as journalistically aware of what was going on and make sure that you’re asking the appropriate questions—and make sure you’re not missing anything.”
There was plenty to be paying attention to during Talladega, and not only because of the end of the race.
“I know there was some tension during the race between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, and so that obviously lingers from what transpired at Kansas between the two,” Massaro said, referring to an incident where Logano hit Kenseth out of the lead.
“They had a little bit of contact coming to pit road, and they were racing against each other at certain points during the Talladega race, so there was a sense that Matt was a little irritated with Joey, so who knows where that’s gonna end up before the end of the year.”
Surprisingly, though, the beatdown promised by Kenseth’s tough talk over the radio during Talladega didn’t happen.
So, what was Massaro’s take on the controversial ending and the allegations that Harvick played dirty to advance in the Chase?
“I’m probably not in the business of giving an opinion on that,” he answered. Sometimes it’s best to stay out of these things if you’re going to be right in the thick of it, week after week — particularly when you’re seen as the messenger bringing the events to viewers at home.
“I would like to say that drivers are much more intelligent about that sort of thing than I am,” Massaro explained. “I would go with their opinions before I’d go with mine.”
Talladega is done and over with, as we all know. What about this week’s race at Martinsville Speedway?
“Honestly, this is a huge opportunity for Jeff Gordon,” Massaro said. Gordon plans to retire after this year, but hasn’t had much luck on track lately. “Jeff hasn’t won this year, but this is—statistically speaking—one of if not his best race track. He’s just been amazing here over the course of his career.
“He’s now in a situation where he feels like he’s on the [path to] getting a victory this year. They are running much better than they were earlier in the summer and the spring, so it seems like they’re performing to a level where they can finally get a win. And let’s face it, a win would just be gigantic for Jeff Gordon and the 24 team. It would lock themselves in as being one of the championship contenders at Homestead.”
Massaro thinks that the No. 24 team will come to Martinsville contending with “everything they have,” and that the Hendrick Motorsports camp will back them 100 percent due to Gordon being the only Hendrick car left in the Chase.
“I think there are a lot of eyes on Jeff Gordon this weekend, for sure, certainly in his final season in the sport,” Massaro said. “There are so many people that are pulling for him, and so many people who would love to see him not only win a race, but be one of the four guys at [NASCAR’s season finale at] Homestead.”
Who else should we watch at Martinsville? Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all on Massaro’s short list of drivers who are usually good at Martinsville. “But, the guy that a lot of folks want to see do well is Jeff,” Massaro said.
Will any tension between drivers from previous races carry over to this weekend and beyond? Massaro thinks so, although not the ones you might be thinking of right now.
“I think there’s tension between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano,” Massaro said. “Matt probably would have had a top two finish at the bare minimum in Kansas, had Logano not changed things for him.
“Had that spin not occurred, he could have won the race. I can sense from Matt last week, just in his media press conference from Friday, that he was still mad. And Matt’s an old-school racer, so...it wouldn’t surprise me if something happened between Joey and Matt before the end of the year.”
There’s always the off-chance that something could happen during the race itself. The circuit at Martinsville is very short, and the laps pass by fast.
“There’s 500 laps of Martinsville,” Massaro said. “Something could happen on lap 100 that could be paid back on lap 400. I’ve seen that happen before, too.”
Who’s unlikely to be a source of drama this weekend, in Massaro’s opinion? Harvick, of all people.
“A lot of times [with] restrictor plate racing, I think drivers just chalk up to being restrictor plate racing,” Massaro told us. “They let it go, because things happen so differently at those races and those events. Honestly, I wouldn’t really expect anything to happen [based on Talladega].”
It’s hard to have time with a pit reporter and not ask about one of NASCAR’s more infamous tendencies: what do they do when drivers lose their tempers?
“I’ve never been in a big fight, and I’m thankful for that,” said Massaro. “Things get really crazy. I remember watching last year—my colleague at that time was Jamie Little. Jamie Little was right there in the middle of that big fight, and I was worried about her.
“I’m thankful I haven’t been in a big fight, so to say, trying to cover it, but I have tried to talk to drivers afterwards. It’s always a little unnerving as a reporter because you can feel the tension, and the last thing that you want to do is add to it. You’re kind of walking on eggshells sometimes when you’re asking questions after those moments.
“Obviously, you’ve got to ask questions. You’ve got to get answers for the audience. That’s what we’re here for: we’re here to serve the audience. Sometimes that generates some pretty good TV. I’m not saying I’m hoping for that, but it’s bound to happen with all the emotion involved.”
Talladega may be synonymous with the sport, but Martinsville is a classic worthy of paying attention to as well.
“I will say this about Martinsville...while it’s not a big restrictor-plate track like Talladega, it provides a brand of racing that is unparalleled in itself,” Massaro said. “It is the quintessential short track that this sport was built on. You’ve got 43 cars on a half-mile race track. It becomes a full-contact sport.”
Though not as high speed of a track as Talladega, Massaro said that the action can be just as dramatic—and on top of that, you’ll never see a strung-out field at a short track.
“You’re going to see lots of door-to-door action, bumper-to-bumper action,” Massaro said. “You’re going to see a physical type of racing, guys moving people out of the way.
“You might see some emotions there, too, because let’s face it, the pressure’s there. This round of the playoffs is going to determine who the four guys are who are going to fight for the championship.”
Massaro added, “This is also one when I get on the airplane, I know something’s going to happen that’s going to be fun to watch.”
Martinsville is more than just hot dogs and flatness—it’s going to be a crazy fight from here until the checkered flag drops at Homestead-Miami later this month.
Photo Credit: NBC Sports Group (top), Getty Images (others)
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