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.
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.
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