by Ryan Isley
When NBC was putting together the broadcast team for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the network took a couple of moves that seemed like risks which were questioned. So far, NBC has had the last laugh.
The move that really took everyone by surprise and was scrutinized was the decision to go with Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton as the analysts in the booth. Taking two guys who didn’t have television experience and putting them in the booth together with a veteran broadcaster like Rick Allen seemed like a huge leap for a network making their return to the sport. While the Burton move was announced in December of 2013 after Burton finished his final full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Letarte was still the full-time crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr at the time he was announced to be heading to NBC.
One thing that some people (including myself) weren’t factoring in was that with both guys being recently down on the track full-time, they would have the insight that guys who might have the media experience but not the recent day-to-day racing experience might not have.
With Letarte being a recent crew chief and Burton having been a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver through the 2013 season, the two of them have been able to speak on subjects that guys who haven’t been in the day-to-day grind of the job for years just can’t address. Listening to them discuss the roughness of a track like Kentucky Speedway and talking about the different shocks that can be run on the car with the current setups was just one example of what makes the two of them click and so good at what they do.
This is a trend that also showed itself on FOX earlier this NASCAR season, when drivers like Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon were guest analysts for Xfinity Series races. All three were really good in the booth and were able to bring points of view that just aren’t possible with other broadcasters. In fact, Gordon was so good in the booth that FOX has followed NBC’s lead and has hired him to join the booth full-time starting in 2016.
Letarte also brings something that nobody else can – 20 years of experience with Hendrick Motorsports, including years as the crew chief for Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. Being involved in the day-to-day operations of one of the best teams (if not the best team) in NASCAR is a major advantage for Letarte and NBC.
While Burton and Letarte offer a great deal to the broadcast, the one thing they don’t offer is what sets them apart – they don’t talk too much. Unlike fellow analysts on other networks (Darrell Waltrip comes to mind), Letarte and Burton allow Allen to do his job and let the fans enjoy the action without speaking over Allen or each other. They jump in when needed, and don’t try to take over the broadcast.
What offers even more hope for NBC is that Burton and Letarte will only get better together as they learn the ins-and-outs of the business and how each of them likes to work, along with how Allen calls a race. But listening to the first two races, Letarte and Burton sound like grizzled veterans at the broadcasting game. Some of the credit for that has to go to Allen as well. It can’t be easy for a guy to welcome two rookies into the booth while still trying to get a grasp on the series himself. The way all three have handled the transition has been as professional as anyone could have hoped it would be.
If the teamwork between the three continues (and gets even stronger), NBC will lap the competition in NASCAR broadcasting for years to come.