CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NBC's return to NASCAR coverage came with a big set of challenges: A three-hour rain delay and a caution-filled race that ended with a horrific last-lap crash nearly eight hours after the network began its broadcast.
But the reviews for the actual product were resoundingly positive.
"I was just blown away by how well they covered the sport and it makes me get excited about the future with them, because that was a great broadcast," NASCAR Chairman Brian France told SiriusXM Radio.
France singled out analyst Steve Letarte, who made his debut in a new talent combination for NASCAR. Rick Allen is NBC's play-by-play announcer, and outspoken former driver Jeff Burton is teamed with Letarte as an analyst.
Letarte spent his entire career at Hendrick Motorsports, where he moved up the ladder to crew chief for Jeff Gordon and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is credited with resurrecting Earnhardt's career and leading him to his Daytona 500 win last season.
But Letarte decided he wanted more time at home and announced before the start of the 2014 season that it would be his last as he transitioned into a television job.
"I just thought that maybe a star was born in Steve Letarte," France said. "He was spectacular for limited experience in the booth. He's very current with his perspective of what's going on with the race cars."
Earnhardt, winner of the race that began just before midnight Sunday and ended early Monday morning, watched the replay later that afternoon and said on Twitter he was curious to see how Letarte did in his debut.
"Steve was great. The whole booth was solid. Gonna be a great relationship with" NBC, Earnhardt tweeted.
Austin Dillon skipped the standard wave to the crowd when he climbed from his wrecked race car at Daytona International Speedway and instead gave a two-handed salute that paid tribute to the late bull rider Lane Frost.
Dillon, an avid fan of Professional Bull Riding, called Frost one of his heroes and said he decided after his victory in Friday night's Xfinity Series race at Daytona to do the two-handed wave as a tribute.
The movie "8 Seconds" is about Frost.
"After we won the first race Saturday night, I thought it was a cool tribute to him to kind of start doing that, was going to try to take it over and just embrace it because he was one of my heroes," Dillon said. "Sunday after the wreck, I thought it was appropriate because that was a pretty wild ride."
Dillon had a text exchange with bull rider Luke Snyder following his frightening wreck into the catchfence at Daytona. Snyder asked if Dillon was OK, and Dillon shrugged off the dangers of auto racing.
"I said, 'Yeah, man, screw riding bulls,' " Dillon recounted. "But he's like, 'I don't know about that. Maybe screw racing.' And I said, 'No, I love what I do.'"
Dillon has watched his wreck several times, in part because of the emotion in the voice of younger brother, Ty, when the two finally talked on the phone.
"I was pretty much fine. I wasn't shaken, and I was just kind of telling my parents, 'I'm OK, I'm OK,' and talking to them," Dillon said. "You could see how upset they were, and I hadn't seen the real footage of the wreck. I knew it was bad but I didn't know how bad.
"When I talked to my brother, it was another level because he was upset, and hearing him on the phone upset, it was like, 'Man, I'm going to have to watch this,' because he's a tough guy, and to hear him be upset about it and worried about me, it was like, 'All right, I need to look at this wreck.' "
ABREU'S BIG WEEK: Rising star Rico Abreu is coming off a huge weekend — he won his first career stock car race with a victory in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event at Columbus Motor Speedway in Ohio.
Abreu followed the next night with a win at the Pepsi Nationals Midget Car race at Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. His win Sunday night was completed when Abreu used a last corner slide-job to edge teammate Tanner Thorson by just 0.093 seconds.
The win in Wisconsin made Abreu just the second driver to win the Chili Bowl and the Pepsi Nationals in one year. Dan Boorse did it in 1999.
"I don't know how it looked from the stands, but that was just a hell of a race from my seat," Abreu said of his Pepsi Nationals win. "The last lap was one of those laps where you have to tell yourself go big or go home."
Abreu, the reigning USAC national champion, won the Chili Bowl Nationals in January. He also won the overall Indiana Midget Week title this season.
A week after his Chili Bowl win, Abreu was in a stock car for the first time in his career. He's running the entire K&N Pro Series East Schedule in an attempt to see if he likes racing on pavement.
Abreu, who stands just 4-foot-4, won 26 races last year across 410 winged and non-winged sprint car races, 360 winged sprints, and USAC midget competition.
NEMECHEK MOVES UP: John Hunter Nemechek is finally old enough to race on any NASCAR track.
Nemechek, who turned 18 last month, will make his Kentucky Speedway debut in Thursday night's Truck Series race. It will be Nemechek's first race on a 1.5-mile track because NASCAR rules limit drivers under the age of 18 to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length.
Nemechek, the son of NASCAR veteran Joe Nemechek, has run in four Truck Series races this year. He finished a career-best fourth last month at Gateway.
"I have learned a little bit from earlier short-track races, but it is a different ball game at the 1.5-mile tracks," Nemechek said. "I am looking forward to going there and getting my first start at the Kentucky Speedway"