At its best, auto racing doesn't just translate via television -- it bursts through the screen and into your living room, leaving little bits of rubber on the sofa. That's often certainly the case with NASCAR, whose sound and fury and kaleidoscopic colors have made for compelling viewing ever since CBS cameras caught Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison slugging it out at Daytona in 1979.
And explaining it all are the personalities on the other side of the camera, who to longtime viewers have become like an extended family -- though one where the members don't always get along. Race announcers, broadcasters such as Ken Squier and Mike Joy, are like the uncles who regale us with stories each time they visit. Analysts, like Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty, are like the uncles we argue with across the dinner table. Just like back in the day at the race track, sometimes a few chicken bones get thrown.
Oh, do race fans love their television analysts. Oh, do race fans hate their television analysts. Oh, do race fans love to hate their television analysts, something Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte will surely discover next season when they don headsets for NBC. Regardless of the network, that complicated yet committed relationship is always there, with both sides rushing back to one another each week. Well, except for this one. With NASCAR on a rare hiatus, it's time to turn the channel back through history, and run down the sport's top 10 television analysts.
10. David Hobbs
There was something about that British accent, which seemed both so out of place and so enchanting all at the same time. A former driver who raced just about everything -- he made six Formula One starts, and two in what is now NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series -- Hobbs worked for more than a dozen years as a color commentator and pit reporter for CBS telecasts of NASCAR. It was Hobbs who sat in the motorhome with Teresa Earnhardt when her husband Dale lost a tire, and ultimately the Daytona 500, to Derrike Cope in 1990. Later, it was Hobbs who asked the Intimidator the question everyone was thinking: What the heck happened?
9. Dale Jarrett
As smooth behind the microphone as he was behind the wheel, Jarrett moved effortlessly into the broadcast booth after his racing days ended, and in recent years has been a regular on ESPN broadcasts. The son of Ned Jarrett, another champion driver who made a successful transition into television, the three-time Daytona 500 winner has been working select broadcasts for ESPN since 2007. The 1999 NASCAR champion and newly-minted Hall of Famer has an even-keeled style that helps to see through the clutter, which viewers seem to appreciate in a medium that can easily be overtaken by shouting and noise.
8. Buddy Baker
The Nashville Network was a NASCAR broadcast partner throughout the 1990s, and Baker was in many ways TNN's voice. A 19-time winner on the sport's premier circuit as a driver, Baker brought his gregariousness and enthusiasm straight into the broadcast booth, even though he was still competing part-time. Never at a loss for words, Baker was one of many former drivers who not only found a second career behind the microphone, but discovered that the experience enhanced his career as a whole. He's still at it today on SiriusXM radio, and his broadcast work is likely one reason he's earned a nomination for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
7. Chris Economaki
OK, so maybe he wasn't technically an analyst. But he wasn't really a pit reporter, either, at least not in his later years. Economaki was simply an original, and every race broadcast was improved by his presence. Part commentator and part essayist, the Dean of American Motorsports opined on all things racing during his stint with CBS, which coincided with the network's golden age of NASCAR coverage and exposed him to a new audience. His voice was unmistakable, his depth of knowledge was unfathomable, and he could own the TV screen even when sharing it with championship drivers. So no, he wasn't really an analyst. He was a legend.
6. Benny Parsons
The 1973 champion was a big personality, but he brought an ease to the broadcast booth when he transitioned from behind the steering wheel to behind the microphone. A former Detroit taxicab driver who knew how to relate to people, Parsons often analyzed races in a relaxed, almost professorial tone that struck a chord with race fans. After winning 21 races as a driver, he became a ubiquitous media personality, calling races for ESPN, NBC and TNT. Parsons won an Emmy award for his work with ESPN in 1996, and was still a presence in his sport when he was lost to lung cancer in early 2007.
5. Ray Evernham
The three-time championship-winning crew chief was intense and detail-oriented as a crew chief, and brought that same work ethic to his job as an analyst for ABC and ESPN. Befitting someone who won 47 races atop the pit box, Evernham's specialty was drilling down to the core of any issue involving car setup or pit strategy, and making it easier for the viewer to understand. He took the job seriously, and it showed -- early this year Evernham stepped away from his television work, to avoid any conflict of interest after his role as an advisor to Rick Hendrick expanded into the motorsports realm. That's a pro's pro.
4. Andy Petree
He may have an understated tone, but his words can carry plenty of punch. A championship-winning crew chief with Dale Earnhardt before becoming race-winning car owner with a smaller, out-of-the-way team, Petree is as good as any analyst working today at forecasting what's about to happen on the race track. A part of ESPN's coverage since 2007, he can also scold with the best of them, in a flat voice that can convey plenty of disappointment. His Earnhardt connection gives him credibility with old-school race fans, while his delivery and underrated knack for outspokenness do the rest.
3. Kyle Petty
On the subject of outspokenness -- meet the man who redefined the practice. An eight-time winner in NASCAR's premier series who has been a mainstay of TNT's coverage, Petty is far from shy about sharing opinions that are sometimes brutally honest and occasionally inflammatory. The latter was certainly the case when it came to his comments last year about Danica Patrick, but anyone who's been paying attention realized that was nothing new. In a sport where too many competitors are perhaps too friendly with one another, it's almost refreshing to have an analyst not afraid of hurting feelings, and that's what makes Petty so good.
2. Darrell Waltrip
As an analyst, 'ol D.W. can so rankle some people, that they even questioned whether the three-time champion deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. That's crazy talk. What's not, though, is the indisputable fact that since joining the Fox booth in 2001, Waltrip has become the face of his sport on television, and he's earned that position through sheer enthusiasm and goodwill. Sure, the "boogity" thing may have run its course, and maybe the Fox guys get a little excitable sometimes. But goodness, does Darrell Waltrip love NASCAR, and that passion comes charging right through the television, and it all makes him as engaging and as watchable as any racing analyst there's ever been.
1. Ned Jarrett
There may be many younger viewers who aren't familiar with Jarrett's work on television, given that the two-time champion hasn't called a race since 2007. But he essentially invented the idea of a former driver moving into the booth, and quickly became a master of the craft. Best known for his work on CBS and ESPN, Jarrett was very much a professional broadcaster, using a concise style that let the race tell the story. But he was human, after all, and his call of son Dale's 1993 Daytona 500 victory will choke you up even today. When he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his broadcast work was cited as much as his racing triumphs, and with good reason. For decades, he wasn't just an analyst. He was the analyst.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Darrell Waltrip
- Ned Jarrett
- Dale Jarrett
- NASCAR Hall of Fame