The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: The Chase Gets Chased Off The Air On Non-NASCAR ESPN Shows by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday September 30, 2008

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Whether you are a fan of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup or not, there is no arguing that the 10 race showdown is the sport’s current playoff format. Much like the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL, the top teams in NASCAR are separated from the rest, have their records reset, and are forced to compete with each other for the glory of winning the sport’s highest award – the Sprint Cup title. Every driver strives toward this goal, with only a very few tasting the chance to join elite names like Petty, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Yarborough, Allison, Gordon, Elliott, Johnson, etc. Many in the sport have criticized NASCAR of manufacturing drama and hyping up boring racing with the advent of the Chase; nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly been the concept behind NASCAR’s postseason the last five years.

Unfortunately, the powers that be at ESPN seem not to understand that.

You may be saying to yourself, “Hold on, man. Haven’t you been critical of ESPN for plugging the Chase too much?” Yes, I have. However, I am talking about ESPN’s NASCAR race broadcasts, which have been plugging the 2008 Chase for the Cup since what seems like the middle of 2007. The powers referred to here actually stretch much further than NASCAR on ESPN. As repeatedly stated in this column, SportsCenter has done a lousy-at-best job of integrating the sport into its highlight reels. Non-NASCAR personalities on the network seem to struggle with the idea of stock car racing being a legitimate sport, covering it in jest like wrestling. They do the same with the NHL, but even the NHL seems to get a fairer amount of exposure — especially during its playoffs — then NASCAR does each and every Sunday.

A great example of the SportsCenter ignorance of NASCAR occurred during Sunday’s 7 and 11 PM episodes. The top stories of the show centered around the open playoff spots being fought for in MLB. This is understandable, as several were still up for grabs going into Sunday’s final day of the regular season. If only ESPN covered NASCAR’s playoffs like they do baseball’s, more outsiders would likely find interest in the sport and help to boost NASCAR on ESPN’s ratings — but that’s a whole other story altogether.

Anyways, a baffling move on SportsCenter followed the MLB coverage. Instead of using the second block of the show to cover the playoffs of the nation’s second most popular sport, regular season games of the NFL were given the limelight instead. Now, there is no doubt that regular season NFL games are more popular than NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, but the importance of the Chase seems lost on a network that paid millions for rights to this thing. Instead, NASCAR did not get a mention until just before the first commercial break, and that was just a tease-ahead to the highlights of the race.

The snubbing of NASCAR does not exist only on SportsCenter, though — other shows on the network barely mention it. “Expert” analysts on Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn know very little about the sport, meaning they rarely cover anything more than the headlines. On Around the Horn, Tim Cowlishaw is a regular panelist, but often catches a lot of flak for liking NASCAR, and really is not the NASCAR insider that some of the regular members of the ESPN NASCAR crew are. Those weaknesses are a strong sign ESPN should do itself some good by making NASCAR analysis part of the agenda of some of its supposedly sports-wide discussion shows.

In all fairness, the network has not completely dropped the ball, (or the jack, in this case), on incorporating NASCAR into its non-NASCAR shows. Outside the Lines has done several stories this season on the sport, including an explosive, expository piece on discrimination in NASCAR. They also had a great look at the impact of the sluggish economy on the sport by Mike Massaro. E:60, an ESPN sports equivalent of CBS’ 60 minutes, also did a piece on Randy Moss’s purchase of the Morgan Dollar Craftsman Truck team. In these cases, stick and ball fans got a chance to gain a better understanding of an often misunderstood sport.

ESPN has also done a good job of giving NASCAR Now plenty of airtime. The show is on almost every day of the week, and a lot of time and effort has been thrown behind it to make it the opposite of the disaster it was last season. That disaster, though, helps make a case for the original premise of this article. When stick and ball talent (or lack thereof), like Erik Kuselias, try their hand at NASCAR coverage, they are useless. Kuselias did an awful job at trying to pretend to understand and host a show on the sport, and ESPN made a great move in trying to develop Nicole Manske and Ryan Burr as regular hosts of ESPN’s NASCAR magazine instead.

NASCAR’s re-emergence on ESPN began at the beginning of 2007, which was over a year-and-a-half ago. The regular NASCAR coverage has gotten better, but the rest of the network still has not adjusted to the advent of this highly popular sport on its airwaves. NASCAR barely garnered mention on the network until mid-2006, when ESPN was vying to earn broadcasting rights to some of the races.

If ESPN wants to lure more viewers to its coverage, lame, alliterative commercials about the Chase are not the magic tonic for that. Instead, SportsCenter anchors, reporters, and analysts on other shows need to become more schooled on one of America’s biggest sports. If NASCAR gets more coverage on shows that are usually dominated with football highlights, then ratings will rise. After all, if ESPN is truly the Worldwide Leader in Sports, wouldn’t taking the lead on better NASCAR coverage turn the tide in getting new fans involved?

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV shows this week:

  • ESPN’s coverage of the Kansas Sprint Cup race featured more of the same problems that have plagued their broadcasting team all season long. Dr. Jerry Punch still fails to really call the race, instead deciding to read one-liners and offer shallow analysis and facts of what is happening. The team also fails to cover non-Chase drivers with any effectiveness, which is especially noticeable during races like this one, where non-Chasers like Martin Truex, Jr., Casey Mears, David Ragan, A.J. Allmendinger, and Elliott Sadler all took turns at leading or at least running in the Top 10. There will be more on this point later on; hopefully, the network will respond well to feedback and make the right changes. Too much change during last season interrupted the chemistry needed to make great broadcasts, but ESPN made the right moves during the offseason to make the NASCAR team better. The same needs to be done this offseason.

David Reutimann struggles to get his fair share of airtime during the race; but in practice, the UPS Toyota’s one of the lower-tier teams given plenty of coverage by the networks.

  • The NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kansas was not a barn burner. Denny Hamlin dominated the race in, surprise, a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. But despite the snoozer, ESPN did not do a bad job of covering several angles of the event. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth offered in-depth analysis of the damage to Mike Bliss’ No. 1 Chevy after he accidentally ran over Kyle Busch’s car when Busch was trying to pit. Bliss literally ran his car under Busch’s bumper, sending Busch to a hit against the wall almost as big as the hit in the Sprint Cup points he has taken the past three races. Jarrett and Petree both speculated on what damage the giant dent in the hood could have caused to the equipment under it, and Tim Brewer in the ESPN Tech Center did a great job at showing the equipment that could have been damaged. Brewer’s performance continues to improve, and his integration into the discussion in the booth is a big boost to ESPN’s broadcasts.
  • As stated several times before in this column, breaking news coverage is very important to any network. ESPN did a a great job of breaking the news of Juan Pablo Montoya’s disqualification from the pole during its coverage of Sprint Cup practice on Friday evening, with Jamie Little doing the dirty work in a solo report. This was followed by some analysis from the boys in the booth and then a live interview with NASCAR’s John Darby on the issue. Tim Brewer also explained the rules violation, (too much gas pressure in the upper chamber of the rear shocks), and also admitted how much he used to increase that pressure when he was a crew chief. Every person and element involved in this breaking news executed their roles perfectly on ESPN.
  • Every race should be covered like practice. During practices for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series this weekend on SPEED Channel and ESPN, I noticed why I like to watch practice so much… because every team gets covered. Since the cars are not racing each other, the networks follow the storylines of more than just the big teams. When David Reutimann, for example, streaks by the booth, someone begins stating facts on the team or may mention how they spoke to his crew chief in the garage and says how they said that Reutimann’s car is going to be great in the race. The Pit Reporting Team is also close to the teams and the race cars, trying to find stories worth mentioning or sometimes commiserating with the crews and drivers on poor times. The coverage is in-depth, but also light-hearted; and most importantly, every team gets some! If FOX, TNT, and ESPN could cover races like this, then less people would be complaining about how boring they are.

Chase race number four launches at Talladega next week. This race may be a challenge for the ESPN crew to cover, because of the constant position changes through the field and the (gasp) possibility that non-Chasers will factor into the outcome of Top 10 finishing order. Tune in here next week for analysis of the week’s NASCAR TV coverage.

Below are links to contact the different networks. Please be courteous in your remarks, so yours and everyone else’s comments are taken seriously.

Contact ESPN
Contact SPEED
Contact FOX
Contact TNT

Contact Doug Turnbull

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marshall
09/30/2008 06:12 AM
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Those of us who have watched ESPN from the beginning are well aware of their dislike for auto racing . ESPN has NEVER believed that auto racing is a sport or race drivers are athletes . ESPN ( and many other media ) lumps auto racing in with horse racing , the Iditerod dog sled race , and billiards . Not really sports , more like entertainment , but forced to report them anyway . Just don’t waste much time on them and get back to real sports as fast as possible . Drivers are athletes ? All they do is sit in a seat and steer for four hours . Any secretary that types has just as good eye hand coordination as they do and she types for eight hours . Heat inside the cars . No worse than a 90 degree day at the beach . How hard can race driving be ? Thats the mind set at ESPN . It will never , never change . So any hand wringing over the poor coverage , or lack of coverage of auto racing by these people is wasted effort . The entire ingrained culture of sports media in general says that auto racing is entertainment , not sport .

Annie Mack
09/30/2008 09:10 AM
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Anyone who has followed Nascar since before Dale Earnhardt Sr’s death can tell you that the Sprint Cup is more like wrestling now than ever before. I do believe the drivers are athletes and the cup schedule requires them to be in shape. However, that’s as far as it goes. The actualy racing, the rules, and the format are all for entertainment. Nascar has removed the competitive nature of the ‘sport’ and replaced it with manufactured competition and threats to any drivers who dare to speak a disparaging word against Nascar. I don’t blame SportsCenter for not covering Nascar. Actually, all they have to do is show highlights for ‘insert any race here’ and change the venue to represent that week’s race. Nothing changes much.

Terri
09/30/2008 10:07 AM
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Another thing that drives me CRAZY is that way too many times I go to watch my DVR’d taped Nascar Now, only to find a soccer game, or the tale end of some other show and either miss the show altogether or just as I get really interested or they’re going to say something cool, BAMM, it’s over! How STUPID is THAT!!

dawg
09/30/2008 11:28 AM
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Even tho ESPN has shelled out big bucks to carry the Chase. Their elitist attitude comes through loud, & cleat. These are primarily stick, & ball folks. Who look down their noses at auto racing, in general & NA$CAR, in particular. They seem to have a bias, aginst the sport, & the fans.Viewing us as a bunch of red neck, uneducated, double digit IQ types who are beneath them. We do have that kind of fans. But, with the possible exception of Golf, & Tennis. What major sport doesn’t? On secong thought scratch Golf. Every hole seems to have a tipsy loudmouth who seems compelled th yell“YOU THE MAN, or IN THE HOLE” after every tee shot.

Señor Obvious
09/30/2008 01:00 PM
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Fun Fact of the Day!

ESPN carried NASCAR for two decades prior to being outbid for the broadcast rights for the 2001 season.

Dr Jerry Punch was absolutely one of the best ever on pit road. His problem is that he’s better suited as a pit road reporter than a play by play announcer.

If not for ESPN, NASCAR wouldn’t enjoy near the popularity that they enjoy today. The reverse could probably also be said.

No Marshall, you never watched ESPN from the “beginning”. ESPN began back in the 1970s, not in 2006 and NASCAR started back in the late 1940s, not in the 21st century.

NASCAR was accused of being like pro wrestling even before Dale Sr. died. In fact, I believe I used to see that used as a troll on internet message boards back in the early 90s. Anyone who believes that the races weren’t manipulated or massaged to add more excitement prior to Brian France arriving on the scene doesn’t know racing. It happens not only in NASCAR but in every other sanctioning body down to your local go-kart track.

Bill France I and II, and Brian France are all from the same mold. Nobody is rolling in their grave, in fact, if they had taller coffins, they’d stand up and cheer.

marshall
09/30/2008 02:42 PM
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Obvious , thanks for the rambling diatribe about …? I’m not sure what about . Yes , i watched the very first ESPN broadcast and many others since . I don’t know that Punch was all that great in years past either , but he sure isn’t getting the job done know .
Hate to burst your bubble , but NASCAR got popular because network tv started carrying races from Daytona , Charlotte , Atlanta , etc . in the very early 60s . Not very good broadcasts mind you , but they started what ESPN continued almost 20 years later .
Can’t disagree with you on the manipulation idea . Only thing is , Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. were far better at it than Brian . Their ideas usually worked because they were based on a vast knowledge of stock car racing . Brians’ are based on nothing more than guess work by people who have no concept of what racing should be like or where it should be heading .