The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Not Detail Oriented In 'Dega by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday October 7, 2008

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Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Not Detail Oriented In 'Dega

Doug Turnbull · Tuesday October 7, 2008


A defining race like Sunday’s slugfest at Talladega Superspeedway is only as important to those viewing it as the network covering the broadcast allows it to be. If details are left out or if the excitement factor is either too hyped or not ratcheted up enough, then the whole complexion of a race can turn out differently. ESPN did a pretty good job telling Sunday’s story on a macro level; but the ever-changing small details were the ones that often fell through the cracks.

The Amp Energy 500 had more different leaders than any race in NASCAR history, meaning many different drivers shared the limelight — including some that ESPN was not prepared to cover very well. Mike Wallace, driving the Richard Childress Racing No. 33, ran in the front briefly, fell back after the first round of pit stops, then was almost up to the front again before blowing a tire and falling out of contention. Yet after receiving significant mention while leading, ESPN did not mention or attempt to explain Wallace’s descent to the back of the pack. The next time his name drifted over the airwaves was when his right rear tire blew and brought out the caution flag.

There were other examples of this cursory coverage with drivers outside of the Chase. A good one is where Ryan Newman blew an engine several minutes before the network mentioned it casually. Not long ago, Newman stood in Victory Lane at Daytona and five years ago, Ryan Newman was the dominant driver in the series, tucking eight wins under his portly belt – man, memories are short these days. Newman’s only other teammate, Kurt Busch, also dropped out of contention with similar trouble — developing a pattern with Dodge engines — but also received a similar snubbing by ESPN. It’s true that both Penske drivers have had extremely disappointing years … but they are still frontline drivers. Busch won the first Chase just four short years ago and was in the playoffs last year, meaning both drivers’ rough days should have been a bigger part of the ESPN coverage.

Other drivers with mechanical trouble that garnered little or no mention and/or explanation included Dave Blaney, Sterling Marlin, David Reutimann, and Terry Labonte. Reutimann’s comeback from tire trouble and a spinout was completely ignored until he returned to the Top 10 near the end of the race. But as soon as he reemerged as a contender, the No. 44 dropped off the pace, which was documented but never adequately explained by ESPN.

Even drivers within the Chase that were not running near the front did not get much TV time on this day. Clint Bowyer and the No. 07 and Greg Biffle in the No. 16 rarely had the cameras or attention pointed in their direction because they were conservatively hanging in the back of the draft, waiting to make the right move. Other Chasers Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson famously hovered back in the pack as well, getting tons of coverage of their “plight” under “tough” circumstances. Biffle is part of that triumvirate at the top of the standings, but got far less airtime than Johnson and Edwards; and along those same lines, Bowyer is by no means out of contention for the points lead. For a team that usually overcovers Chase drivers, the bypassing of Biffle and Bowyer in the coverage is unexplainable.

Kurt Busch was nowhere to be found this Sunday after suffering engine problems during the race at Talladega. That was Busch’s second straight finish outside the Top 20 at this track, unlike the two Top 5 finishes at Daytona recorded earlier this year.

Other loose ends left untied by ESPN included the state of Chaser Kevin Harvick’s modern era streak of consecutive races without a DNF. The No. 29 was one of several in the Chase to get swept up in the final big wreck of the race and did manage to finish after all. This was incredible, considering the amount of damage to the car and the small number of laps left to repair and return it to the track … but TV viewers at home.

Meanwhile, the full field rundown is a feature that ESPN still manages to avoid. The Pit Road Crew only managed the rundown one time, which happened to be during a green flag run, meaning the drivers’ positions changed rapidly. There were plenty of cautions that the group could have used to cover them in less chaotic positions, but common sense seemed to be used conservatively on Sunday.

Despite many faults in the broadcast, ESPN did manage some intelligence on Sunday. Interviewing most of the drivers involved in the two big crashes was a highlight of the broadcast, especially when Chaser after Chaser offered their take on what caused the wreck and the consequences. The camera crew also did a great job capturing the wrecks both in real time and during replays, while the Pit Road Crew scored an interview with a Goodyear official, showing the journalistic qualities viewers want to see throughout NASCAR broadcasts.

The analysis of the race from the booth from Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree was phenomenal. Both have a wealth of experience on plate tracks, and gave their take on the actions of the day from both the driver and crew chief/owner perspective. Their knowledge of restrictor plate racing helped viewers of the race, especially new fans to NASCAR, understand some qualities particular to those types of facilities.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jerry Punch still has not risen to Petree and Jarrett’s level in the booth. Though he has immense racing knowledge, Punch still fails to call the action as he sees it. Likewise, Rick Allen on SPEED Channel, who holds Punch’s position during the Truck races, manages to assert himself into the middle of in-race discussions. Talladega and the previous events at Dover and Kansas (at least on the final laps of those two races) had plenty of excitement to mention, but races to come may not — which means that Punch needs to take his performance to the next level.

In the end, ESPN gets a B minus at best for its Talladega coverage. Though there were many faults in the race, ESPN did manage to deliver parts of the race it does well. The details forgotten by ESPN in Talladega are great examples of how all media outlets fuel the short attention span of the American people, by traveling in mass to the hottest stories of the time and leaving previous flavors of the weak to sour and become forgotten. As the Cup Series travels to Lowe’s Motor Speedway next week, ESPN should have an easier time covering the entire race, as there will be likely less variables to consider and keep track of.

Here are links to either emails or websites you can use to give the various networks your feedback. Please be respectful if you choose to use them, so yours and everyone’s comments are taken seriously.

Contact ESPN
Contact SPEED
Contact FOX
Contact TNT

Contact Doug Turnbull

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10/07/2008 05:00 AM

When 40 percent of a NASCAR broadcast is spent on two Hendrick teams , there isn’t going to be much time for the other 41 cars and drivers . We get non-stop mentions of the 48 , and the 24 , numerous views and interviews of their crew chiefs , this week we even got an interview with the car owner that served no purpose whatsoever . We even get to see their pit stops when they are no factor in the race at all .

The lack of the full field rundown several times each race puzzles me . The networks started the practice . I have never heard one fan complain that it wasn’t a good idea . In fact fans constantly complain that the idea isn’t used . Yet we never see it . I suspect that the networks feel the crawl on the screen is all the viewers need . But really , what could be wrong with mentioning every driver and car in the race several times during a 4 hour broadcast ?

10/07/2008 12:26 PM

Great article. All race my wife and I were talking about the same thing. One other point that was missed by the talking heads. When the 24 went into the wall the 21, Jon Wood was up next to the wall and Jeff hit him before he hit the wall. Nothing at all was said about this. Jon came back many laps down and still not a word about his trouble. This is a sad part of the “Chase” only the chosen few get mentioned on the TV, everybody else is just not there, sad indeed!

Kevin in SoCal
10/07/2008 01:07 PM

Driver’s out of contention not getting mentioned on TV has been going on since the races started being televised. Its not something new due to the Chase. Every year by this time, only the 2 or 3 drivers with a chance to win the championship were mentioned.

10/07/2008 09:45 PM

I emailed ESPN after the race. They had already gone 39 minutes over so why couldn’t they have done interviews to the top of the hour? They seem to treat NASCAR as a step child that they pay the least amount of attention to as possible. Keeping us waiting for a race to begin so they can finish a blow out football game is unforgivable. I always thought they were the best when they covered NASCAR in the 90’s, but they’ve definitely lost their edge. Jarrett is their one saving grace. Put Punch back in the pits and Bestwick in the booth and it might improve.