Don’t think of this weekend as saying goodbye to Darrell Waltrip. Rather, it’s more of a “see you soon.”
Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma will be Waltrip’s final broadcast call for Fox. The Hall of Famer has been with Fox since the tragic 2001 Daytona 500, injecting race broadcasts with the same Southern twang and vibrant personality that made him a famous driver so many years ago.
But with Waltrip retiring, a question presents itself:
Who replaces him in the booth?
Veteran Mike Joy remains as a steady unifying presence, and four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon offers well-timed personal stories, too. Rumors about who might join that duo have run rampant for months. Kevin Harvick, who is committed to driving for Stewart-Haas Racing next season, would have made perfect sense. But his career behind the wheel isn’t done yet, so nix that one.
That said, after speaking with people in the NASCAR industry and close to Fox, there are a few names worth keeping an eye on. Here’s five that stand out:
1. Matt Kenseth
Are there more qualified, experienced options? Probably. But Kenseth’s dry sense of humor was long one of the best in the NASCAR garage, and that would translate tremendously well to television. His credentials — two Daytona 500s, the 2000 Rookie of the Year over Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2003 Cup Series title and 39 career wins — would give him instant clout in the booth, too.
More than fit necessarily, this is about someone with great potential to excel on camera. Kenseth is confident, stable, and when given the chance, hilarious. He and Gordon would be an interesting fit personality-wise, but if Fox is looking for a recent retiree to fill Waltrip’s shoes, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more engaging personally than Kenseth.
2. Danica Patrick
Now we’re getting into more people with some television experience. Patrick recently called the Indianapolis 500 for NBC last month and excelled, so there’s a recent precedent.
And then obviously, there’s the spotlight that follows Patrick anywhere she goes. Despite her underwhelming statistics as a NASCAR driver, there was always attention cast on her. Patrick’s personality is somewhat like Kenseth’s, in that she has a dryer sense of humor, but she and Gordon would make for a fascinating dynamic. The downsides here are that Patrick already has a number of other business ventures occupying her time, and whether she’d go back on previously saying she couldn’t commit to broadcasting long-term.
3. Regan Smith
As big a name as Kenseth or Patrick? Not hardly. But a reliable, seasoned ex-driver with plenty of broadcast experience? You betcha.
Smith currently works for Fox as a pit reporter for Cup and Xfinity races, but he also spends time in studio as an analyst for “NASCAR Race Hub.” That combination of on-camera reps makes him more-than ready to take on an expanded role in the booth. He would also be a fine complement to Gordon in the booth, with both capable of providing color or more detailed commentary.
Smith might not be a sexy pick, but even on a short-term deal, he’d be a refreshing younger addition to a sometimes-dated booth.
4. Larry McReynolds
This one’s pretty obvious, right? McReynolds previously worked in the booth with Joy and Waltrip until Gordon’s arrival in 2016, and he’s stayed heavily involved with Fox as both an in-race and in-studio analyst. The familiarity factor, combined with already having Larry Mac in house, would make for the easiest, most seamless transition for the network.
But that said, how would McReynolds and Gordon co-exist in the booth? Both have an incredibly technical and nuanced understanding of the sport, but neither is the sort of gregarious personality Waltrip is. That’s not to say anyone would be able to instantly come in and replicate DW’s energy, but McReynolds would seemingly only be a short-term option for Fox.
5. No one (2-man booth)
Hear me out on this one:
Fox’s most obvious long-term replacement for Waltrip — and perhaps even for Gordon, should he opt to slide into a larger role at Hendrick Motorsports in the near future — is Harvick. He’s well-known, well-liked, has boatloads of experience, and does a great job. What more could you ask for?
But given Harvick’s status, and the fact that he clearly wants to continue competing for championships as long as he can, that’s not an option right now. So... why force the issue?
A two-man booth with Gordon and Joy would take some more heavy lifting from both broadcasters, but it’s nothing either isn’t capable of doing. For Gordon, it might even be preferable to have a little more autonomy and control in the booth. That way, Fox doesn’t shove anyone into a role they’re not well-suited for, and it leaves an opening for Harvick whenever he steps out of the car.
This option may have legs, too. Fox Sports CEO Erik Shanks told the Sports Business Daily the network currently has “no plan” to replace Waltrip, lending more credibilty to the idea of a two-man booth.
Regardless, Fox will have to make a decision relatively soon — expect more news on this front as the season draws to a close this fall.
This week’s NASCAR race at Sonoma: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota / Save Mart 350.
Distance: 90 laps, or 226.8 miles.
Where: Sonoma Raceway, a 2.52-mile asphalt road course in Sonoma, Calif.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Worth mentioning: This is the first of only three road courses races on the Cup Series schedule (the others being at Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval).
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Joey Logano: A second win this season, and in the dominant fashion he showed at Michigan, shows why Logano currently tops the Cup Series leaderboard.
Martin Truex Jr.: He might not have won at Michigan, but a third-place finish still keeps his momentum rolling — he’s sixth in the points standings now, but even that feels low.
Erik Jones: Jones has had his bright spots this season, but inconsistency has pushed him to the playoff bubble — two finishes the last three races outside the Top 30 isn’t getting it done.
Austin Dillon: Three consecutive finishes outside the Top 25, and he’s quickly slipping out of playoff contention altogether.