Quick takeaways from Pocono: Did stage racing ruin the strategy fun?

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• Pocono is the butt of many NASCAR jokes. Five years ago, those jokes had a lot of muster. As the three-turn 2.5-mile track hosted a pair of 500-mile races each summer, you couldn’t blame NASCAR fans for skipping a Pocono (or two) in lieu of much more fun outdoor plans. The races were more marathons than sprints and long green-flag runs tended to be a theme.

As NASCAR and the track cut the races to 400 miles each in 2012, any Pocono boredom jokes quickly became irrelevant. The track became one of the most entertaining on the Cup Series schedule; chopping 20 percent of the race distance ratcheted up the urgency and intensity.

Part of that entertainment was from the varying strategies teams tried. With laps taking approximately 50 seconds, teams could pit under green and not lose a lap, just like a road course. Teams would have their drivers save fuel from the moment engines were fired, knowing the difference in pitting on lap 87 or lap 89 could be massive.

[Ryan Blaney wins at Pocono]

But it was hard not wondering during Sunday’s race if NASCAR’s stage racing format ruined the strategy that helped made Pocono so entertaining. With guaranteed cautions on lap 50 and 100, teams only had to plan for 50, 50 and 60 lap runs. In previous Pocono races cautions were the great unknown. With no idea when a caution was coming, a field of 40 teams could have 30 different strategies.

Sunday, the only drama was when teams would pit during a stage. Each stage required a single pit stop with no other cautions, meaning the lone strategy drama was when a team would pit before the next guaranteed caution. No team was making it 50 laps on fuel and able to stretch a stage without a stop. But without a caution or two in the middle of a stage, no team was willing to short pit and gain an advantage either. Because with the stage breaks, there was no advantage to be gained.

NASCAR’s stage format has been a success so far this season. The format hasn’t negatively affected any of the races in the 2017 season and has added intriguing elements to many. Until Sunday.

If the tradeoff of the benefit of stage racing is poorer Poconos, so be it. But we’re still allowed to lament — at least after one race — the negative impact at the Pennsylvania track.

[Johnson and McMurray have near-simultaneous brake issues]

• It was a rough day for Fox play-by-play broadcaster Mike Joy. He started the broadcast by calling the crowd at Pocono a “nearly full house” as the overhead shot viewers saw at home was of a mostly empty grandstands.

And while the shot might not have been live, the grandstands during the race didn’t validate Joy’s embarrassing description. When you can plainly see the checkered-flag pattern of the empty seats — even during a caution between stages — a sellout isn’t a possibility.

(Via FS1)

Then, with two laps to go, Joy exclaimed “Caution!” as Ryan Blaney was attempting to hold off Kevin Harvick. Except, there was no caution flag. Based off Joy’s explanation, someone told him through his earpiece that Cole Whitt had caused a caution. But Whitt hadn’t.

We have no reason to think Joy threw a producer under the bus. He likely got bad info. But it reflected more on him than the unknown person who relayed the wrong information. And threw a scare into viewers thinking that yet another Cup Series race was going to be decided by a late restart.

But back to the “nearly full house” thing for a second. A remark like that is admittedly trivial, but it’s a prime example of the ridiculousness that has permeated Fox’s broadcasts in recent years. It was blatantly obvious to anyone with good vision and a pulse watching Sunday’s race that the grandstands weren’t full at Pocono. What’s the point in lying?

NASCAR and those that shill for it are understandably defensive about the sport’s attendance woes. It’s tough to watch a sport that routinely got 100,000 fans to races on a regular basis struggle to fill grandstands that are far smaller than they were 10 or 15 years ago. But that defensiveness and blatant exaggeration (at best) do no good to serve fans.

So what if in-person crowds stink. Smart fans know that television is much more powerful than capacity crowds and NASCAR’s television contract’s compensation means tracks don’t need to have sellout crowds to break even on race weekends. Instead of looking ridiculous and finding an absurd positive within a negative, pragmatism is a far better option. There’s no need to mention the size of the crowd at all.

[Earnhardt Jr. shifts into second gear instead of fourth. Again.]

• As we mentioned in our race story, Kyle Busch did some serious blocking on Ryan Blaney as he attempted to prevent Blaney from getting his first Cup Series win. While Busch congratulated Blaney for the win on Twitter after the race, it’s fair to wonder what Busch’s reaction would be if he was the one being blocked for the victory.

That’s not a negative statement on Busch, either. Pocono is one of the two tracks where he doesn’t have a Cup Series victory and drivers are expected to race like crazy for a win inside of the last 10 laps. Busch’s moves to push Blaney towards the inside may have been drastic and aggressive, but isn’t that aggressiveness what NASCAR fans want from the sport’s drivers?

• Here’s a positive about Fox. The network used only Cup Series drivers as its on-air talent for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. The production was rough; it was clear that the drivers were not professional broadcasters and proof that it takes a lot of training to step in front of a camera and look competent. But man, the knowledge was fantastic.

Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer were insightful in the booth. Their lack of fake enthusiasm during the race was fantastic. As the laps clicked off the trio explained what was going on and expertly relayed what they knew in a calm manner. Even if it was a bit subdued.

The one flaw of the broadcast was the underselling of Brad Keselowski’s comeback for the win. After getting shuffled outside of the top 10 on the race’s final restart, Keselowski worked his way through the field and passed Kyle Larson on the final lap by downshifting to third gear off turn 1.

Keselowski’s run was an insanely impressive one, and perhaps the comeback of the year in NASCAR. But it didn’t get the credit it deserved from the Fox booth. We have a few guesses why; namely because Keselowski passed five cars while Fox was in its final commercial break.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!