The Frontstretch: Dialing It In: Where Does ESPN Go From Here? Why Fans Are So Mad by Jay Pennell -- Thursday October 7, 2010

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Three races into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and this year’s battle for the top spot is closer than it’s ever been – yet that does not seem to be the focus by neither the media nor the fans. Instead, one of the most dominant and constant issues being raised revolves around the television coverage NASCAR has been receiving throughout the season, especially by ESPN.

At the moment, it’s for good reason. To say this week has not been a good one for the folks at the Worldwide Leader, as well as the fans reliant on their coverage, would be an understatement.

Last Saturday, the Clemson-Miami college football game caused the pre-race show and beginning of the Nationwide Series race to be pushed to ESPN Classic. Sunday was not much better. The pre-race show had major audio issues on ESPN2, giving fans of SD TV nothing but static for the majority of the program. Once the race got underway, the fans went to town on how poor the coverage was. Then, on Tuesday, news broke that senior ESPN motorsports producer Neil Goldberg was arrested for being a peeping tom, among other things we will leave unmentioned.

Among the string of complaints, the majority seem to stem from the number of commercials during the race broadcast, especially in the opening laps of each event. Like many fans out there, I too have offered my share of criticism as of late when the opening laps are interrupted abruptly by what seems like endless commercials. Nearly every week, social media web sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with blogs – including our own website – explode with comments about how awful the coverage is and how commercials are seemingly ruining the sport.

The complaining seems to lead many fans to turn the channel to another program, and the ratings are starting to reflect that. According to the Nielsen reports, Sunday’s 400-mile race from Kansas Speedway – the third race of NASCAR’s “playoff” – recorded a 2.3 rating, equating to 3.7 million viewers. That number is down drastically when compared to last year’s 3.2 rating when shown on ABC.

To put those numbers in perspective, the television blog The Daly Planet reports Sunday Night Football drew 15.9 million viewers, and that despicable Jersey Shore had 6.7 million just last week.

Broadcasts haven’t changed as much as you’d think over the past decade…so why all the criticism?

This shocking downturn led me to wonder what has changed over the years to draw fans away from their television sets on Sunday afternoons.

For years, before I covered this sport in the press I was glued to the television set as a fan, eagerly anticipating each weekend’s race. Yet, on Sunday I could barely watch – and I have to write about the race and therefore must watch. I’m just as guilty as anyone to flip back and forth from the race to the football game, and would do so more often if the Philadelphia Eagles were shown more often in Charlotte. There had to be less commercials back in the day, more racing action, wider camera shots, something had to be different.

So, I dusted off my crates of old VHS tapes and decided to find out how much different today’s broadcasts are to some back in the day. Going through my collection, I opted for the season finale of the 2000 season at Atlanta and the 1998 race at California Speedway. I chose these two events because the 2000 Atlanta race was the final for ESPN before renewing their contract a few years back, and the 1998 race in California because this weekend’s race is at the same track. Both were covered by ESPN, and I was surprised by what I saw.

Watching these older broadcasts, I found the commercial breaks came just as early as they do today. On Sunday, ESPN went to break just nine laps into the race, much to the dismay of those watching at home. Yet, when I popped in the 1998 race at California, the first commercial came on Lap 6. During the Atlanta broadcast from 2000, it was Lap 10. So much for this problem being a recent trend.

Another one of the biggest complaints today is there is too much action missed during commercial breaks. This weekend, the first pass for the lead occurred during commercial. So did the first caution. It’s something else I have been an outspoken critic about (see comments in this week’s edition of Tweet ‘N’ Greet in the Newsletter). However, as I was again shown by my own VHS tapes, this issue is nothing new.

During the 2000 Atlanta race, the first caution of the day came when the coverage was away at break. In the 1998 California broadcast, a debris caution (the debris was never shown) brought together a field that had become stretched out. The booth showcased the top 5 and then went to commercial, missing all 28 lead lap cars hitting pit road.

Despite the broadcasting tradition passed over from father to son, fans seem to like it better when it was Ned in the booth calling races while Dale was the one driving on the track every Sunday.

Somehow, in both instances – just as with the early commercials – I was less annoyed with old coverage than I was on Sunday. Perhaps it was the fact I was watching an old race or that I had the confidence in Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett to catch me up with all the action I missed with poise and incredible knowledge. Perhaps it was the fact going to commercial, there was racing shown all the way to the break with no song and dance pieces or flashy video montages. Maybe it was because the commercials were about NASCAR and about the fans.

That brings me to an interesting point I found while watching these two races — there seemed to be more commercials geared towards the fans and their importance to the sport. The most striking was during the 1998 broadcast that showed NASCAR and fans through the years, ending with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. signing an autograph for a young kid while a voiceover said, “This is NASCAR, and this is the way we’ve done things for 50 years.”

It caught me a bit off guard and I’m not sure why. I am sure I had seen this same commercial throughout the entire 1998 season – NASCAR’s 50th – and it was similar to some that are still shown today, but there was something different being relayed in the message. It was not, “You and me both, Junior.” It was much more than that.

There are a lot of issues facing the sport of NASCAR right now, and television coverage is certainly one of those that needs to be atop the list of priorities. Ratings continue to slide each week, and overall they’re down 12 percent for the entire year. Some blame the start times coinciding with the early NFL games, some blame the Chase, others blame commercials, while others simply pass the blame off on ESPN. There are a lot of complaints given, yet few solutions offered.

Comparing the broadcasts 10 and 12 years ago to those of today, technology has allowed for more information during the race, but perhaps it is too much information. We live in a world full of instant gratification, Twitter, live blogs and non-stop data being fed to us on the television, our phones and our computers. Our culture is one that struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder, and it seems NASCAR is not immune from this growing trend, either.

As I watched those old broadcasts, I could not help but notice the screen was nearly empty, showing nothing but the action on the track. The lap counter was a small box in the top left corner of the screen, but apart from that there were very few distractions.

The commentators – Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett – were not following storylines or reading what seemed to be scripted conversations. Instead, they were doing what they had done for years, calling the action as they saw it on the track. The racing spoke for itself and the viewer – at least in my case – had a better sense of how the event was actually unfolding. There was no reason for the guys in the booth to sell the race to keep my interest; they simply let it sell itself.

Despite the criticism as of late, ESPN had a great rebound at the end of Sunday’s race. The final 23 minutes of the event were shown commercial free and fans seemed to notice. This last ditch effort by the network, that has been dubbed “Every Sport Preempts NASCAR” by the fans, was enough to subdue the criticism for a moment, but unless changes are made and issues are addressed, fans will continue to turn the channel.

While it was nice to go back and look through the old VHS tapes, it might be something ESPN and NASCAR should be thinking about in addressing the issues facing the sport right now. Fans were drawn in by the racing on the track and not necessarily what the personalities in the booth were discussing. The action spoke for itself and by showing what was happening at the track, they drew fans into the stands.

Right now, it seems that is exactly what NASCAR needs. The action on the track is much more competitive than it was in either of the races I watched – Bobby Labonte had the series title wrapped up the week before the season finale in 2000 – yet fewer people are showing up and tuning in. If ESPN were to show more racing, be more off the cuff in terms of their commentating, utilize the entire screen and let the competition speak for itself, fans may return.

NASCAR was popular because “this is the way we’ve done it for 50 years,” yet somehow over the last 12 years something has changed. It is up to the sport and its broadcast partners to find what that something is and fix it – not the fans.

Contact Jay Pennell

Thursday on the Frontstretch:
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MPM2Nite: A Not So Fond Farewell To Fontana in the Fall
Changing Lanes: Well Worth Changing Channels to Watch
Fanning the Flames: Blue Humor Gone Bad, Revenge, and What’s Eating Junior?
When Joking About NASCAR Stupidity Becomes Reality
Fantasy Insider: Johnson, Fontana Go Hand-In-Hand … But Who Else?

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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Gordon82Wins
10/07/2010 07:03 AM
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The endless parade of commercials is nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. I think what happened is that when NASCAR’s fan base grew by leaps and bounds, a whole new group of people got annoyed by it.

Yes, NASCAR badly needs to address this more than anything else, but they won’t. It’s easier to add two more green-white-checkered attempts, a 15-car Chase and more Danica. Nothing sells auto racing like a cartoon gopher.

Bill B
10/07/2010 07:36 AM
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“yet somehow over the last 12 years something has changed.”

cough brian france, cough

Jacob
10/07/2010 08:44 AM
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It is interesting how you mention the difference in on-air racing personalities between then and now.
Like a great many fans I grew up with Bob, Benny, and Ned nearly every weekend of the season.
Bob was just a commentator to me. Benny and Ned were the racers. For me, when Dale Jarrett came along, Ned lost all credibility. He seemed completely focused on convincing (?potential sponsors and owners?) me of how good a day Dale was having, just 80 laps off the pace. While Benny was always calling the race with integrity and silently convincing Dale that there were other cars on track.
As time would have it, Dale matured properly, and became a great driver and champion; Ned’s single minded devotion became acceptable because Dale was actually up front. Benny continued his reporting with integrity.
THEN the great TV contracts came along. Ned retired, Bob stayed with ESPN, and Benny moved on to NBC/TNT. The transformation was immediate and dumbfounding. Where Benny had, once upon a time, simply called a race, he was now embroiled in controversy. His commentaries became about creating drama every week, and calling for changing the rules on-air. I INSTANTLY lost all respect for Benny Parsons as he sold himself to the ‘reality TV’ school of race-casting. I felt betrayed and lied to, and it was the begining of the end for me. Having a trusted race commentator turn around like this was nearly as tragic as Dale’s death just a few months earlier, and it marked the begining of the end for me.

JerseyGirl
10/07/2010 10:49 AM
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Jay, the more toys the TV truck has the less focus there is on the racing. I tune in to watch the race, not hear a commentator blabbing about nonsense or having 12 people telling the same thing with a slightly different take. Use the cameras to show the race and let the booth announcer — Allen Bestwick would be my pick and Mike Joy for Fox – call the action. All the rest is extraneous and annoying.

It also wouldn’t hurt if there was actual racing on the track. I’ve been to enough races in person to notice there is less side by side action – a product of both the ugly car and the chase.

Sherri T
10/07/2010 11:02 AM
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I agree with you. And I’m glad to hear someone went back and compared to see what the differences are, because I feel alot like you. Why did I sit glued to the TV before and now I schedule my nap for the middle of the race time?

It’s good to know that it wasn’t the commercials (although those are always annoying), but the coverage of the actual racing.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t need the ESPN crawler at the bottom of the page. I don’t ever read it and it’s just another distraction.

KH
10/07/2010 11:12 AM
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Why bother tuning in when all we will see is Jimmie Johnson running away with the Cup Again…The chase has ruined it for most. It is too contrived and they need to go back to the old way of deciding the Championship

DoninAjax
10/07/2010 11:24 AM
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I think I’ll pull out my tapes of the 1989 Firecracker and other races from the early nineties and take another look.

Spencer
10/07/2010 12:05 PM
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You ALMOST figured it out when you went back to the old broadcasts. Fans used to be far more invested in the sport because the sport was invested in them! Today’s fan is talked TO and told what to think and how to feel. The typical fan wants to see the sport presented on TV the way they see it and NASCAR simply doesn’t want it that way. They want to show the sport the way they want the money guys to see it. Fans have figured out they’re not part of the equasion anymore. Just their wallets. They’ll put up with lots of commercials if they feel the sport reflects them. They’re very traditional and want to see that tradition respected. I don’t even think the COT is the problem, but rather a symbol that the sport has changed and left it’s roots behind. For many NASCAR isn’t so much a sport as it is a LIFESTYLE. Not so long ago fans were rabidly loyal to brands that supported the sport. What happened to that? And as you pointed out, even the old school drivers like Jeff Burton are out of touch with the fan. (Like his lectures on how fans shouldn’t get so excited about crashes. Nice way to talk down to us pal.) Until this season I wasn’t really buying the panic talk that NASCAR is dying or in big trouble. But it’s becoming clearer every week that it is.

Vince
10/07/2010 12:26 PM
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What’s changed in the last 10-12 years? Lets see, BF who runs the sport like a drunken 12 year old, the COT which is safer but you can’t tell one make from the other. And is it just me, but are decals for headlights, taillights and the grill just plain stupid??

Also the graphics package the networks use during the broadcast has changed. We used to have an uncluttered screen. Now we come back from commercial with some big graphic for what ever product blocking our view while the PxP guy reads from some promo. Then there are two scrolls, one top and one bottom. And my big complaint, the split screen. I have a smaller 26” HD tv and when they do the split screen the smaller window is so tiny I can’t see anything. There is a ton of wasted space on the screen when they do the split screen. Why? What purpose do the floating backgrounds on the split screen shots serve? I read a quote that some mucky-muck at Fox it think it was, who though it looked “cool”.

Yes all the commercials are a pain, but what is worse is that they keep showing the some ones over and over again. How many of us do not know by this time that Dale Jr. has Nationwide insurance?

Then there is the obviously scripted coverage. Let the race tell the story. Throw the scripts out. Get rid of the Tech Garage. I don’t need to be told for the 100th time what a spring rubber is/does and what a valve spring is/does. Quit treating the viewer like an idiot.

Finally, Brian France, just go. Just plain go and let someone that has a clue run Nascar. Go back to your happy hour and palm tree pinball.

29racefan
10/07/2010 12:28 PM
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I’m headed back to my tape archive. Good idea and an interesting perspective to explore. I enjoyed the racing commentary before the era of racertainment took over. Thanks Brian France. Canned story lines, telling us what to think, constant shilling and making the story more about the on-air personalities than the race itself. Just to name a few reasons why I hardly make it through a race w/o changing the channel. And let’s not forget that tv reinforces the fact that the fan is no longer part of the equation.

Steve
10/07/2010 01:52 PM
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It used to be all about the race, the tracks used to all be a unique challenge for the drivers, the cars could pass each other, and the announcers talked to you like you knew about the sport without having to dumb it down.

Obviously that’s all changed all due to the almighty dollar. Nascar got too big for their britches and now they are paying the price.

CLYDE
10/07/2010 02:24 PM
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The question should be “Who decided that showing everyone’s pit stops should be more important than following the racing action?” I tune in to watch racing, not watch pit stops! Show the commercials during the caution laps, when everyone is making their pit stops, and KEEP the racing action uninterrupted on TV! Then you might get more of the RACING fans back.

David Garrett
10/07/2010 02:35 PM
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NASCAR coverage: Where to start.
It’s not just ESPN. FOX and SPEED coverage is run by failed carnies from the West Virginia state fair.
Start with:
No Scripts in the broadcast booth and only two reporters in the booth.
No Waltrips
No Wallaces
No Hollywood hotels
No pop ups on screen
A final view of Diggers hole being filled with concrete
Brian France resigning and moving back to California after turning the NASCAR keys over to Tony George.
Barney Hall & Bob Jenkins named only broadcasters for all Cup races.
Only Two night race per year. Bristol & All Star.(argue with me next Saturday night in Charlotte)
Lighten up on the rule book and let engineers do their thing.
Did I mention no Waltips?

Jay W. Pennell
10/07/2010 02:38 PM
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Clyde, another thing I noticed while watching the older races was in the 1998 race they showed nothing but the green flag pit stops. They were not worried about who was leading as the stops cycled through, instead they focused on the stops and caught everyone up afterward.

Mïk
10/07/2010 02:47 PM
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I’ll leave the analysis of the TV Coverage to ‘The Daly Planet’. What needs to be said here is that the media has gotten away from racing in their coverage of NASCAR. print,blog, and TV. Most articles and features are about the rules; the empty seats; the TV coverage; anything BUT the racing.

Those broadcasts were done better then with wide shots to show the racing, and the booth calling the race instead of telling us what we’re seeing.

You are right that the races in the ‘Good Old Days’ were covered better but, with the advertising model of today, even that would have had the life sucked out of it.

Why do we have to watch the pit road? The race doesn’t have a break in it, commercials have to be placed somewhere… when I go to a race, I take a break between heats (THAT’s why they’re called ‘pitstops’), the same should be done with station breaks. They can tell us of any troubles when we get back, and maybe show us when the action slows down.

The racing is fine, the chase is fine, the drama is fine, the ads aren’t.

gnawTdawg
10/07/2010 02:49 PM
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Do yourself a favor: DVR the TV broadcast and listen to the race live on the radio. Those guys are GREAT – it’s waaaay more exciting and a neat flashback to the “good ol’ days.”

Ed
10/07/2010 02:51 PM
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The thing that is killing NASCAR for me (an avid die hard fan since 1993)is the Jimmie Johnson Cup Series.

Craig
10/07/2010 03:29 PM
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It’s really interesting watching old races. On Speed today is the 2005 fall California race. Amazingly the grandstands actually look full. The ESPN coverage has just been bad. I wish there was a way Fox could take the whole season over. I think the problem is that 10 years of NASCAR alienating traditional fans have comeback to haunt them.

NASCAR was very much a US sports fad in the late 1990s/early 2000s. NASCAR in that time went out of its way to cater to these fair weather racing fans. Many of these changes alienated traditional fans: leaving Rockingham, moving the Southern 500 to CA, the Chase, more 1.5 mile tracks outside the South.

What happened? Those causal fans fell out of love with NASCAR. The economy tanked, the COT racing was bad, they went back to traditional sports. It looks even worse now because the original NASCAR fans had already left. We only now notice they are gone. NASCAR needs to reconnect with its roots, or the ratings and attendance won’t get better.

gopapa
10/07/2010 05:29 PM
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I doubt that I’m the only one that gets highly irritated when the first commercial break is only about 10 laps into the race. Waiting longer for the first break would only make subsequent breaks slightly longer but they would eliminate immediate frustration.

Tom Dalfonzo
10/07/2010 08:34 PM
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I have a list of things that can improve the NASCAR TV coverage.

1. The entire season needs to be aired on CBS. CBS was the only network that ever did NASCAR races right.

2. The main announcers should be Ken Squier and Dale Earnhardt. I can’t help but ponder the idea of Dale Earnhardt in the broadcast booth. If Ken Squier is unavailable, you can choose from Bob Jenkins, John Roberts, Steve Byrnes, or Eli Gold.

3. Commercials are prohibited from airing during NASCAR races. The payments and funds will come out of the France family’s coffers.

4. Jimmie Johnson will be banned for life from NASCAR. Watch how fast the sport will improve will him out of it.

5. Safety will be thrown into the garbage.

6. There will be cameras all around the race track. In fact, there will be a new gadget called the FanCam. One lucky race fan will wear a helmet with a camera attached to it. This will give the casual TV viewer a feel of being a fan in the stands.

This is a short list of things to improve the NASCAR TV coverage, but I think these will make a big impact. There are still many things to be done to improve NASCAR, but this is a big start.

DoninAjax
10/07/2010 09:30 PM
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Tom Dalfonzo

With a FanCam maybe we would actually see something worth viewing, like where the racing was.

joe murray
10/07/2010 11:04 PM
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we are tired of having danica and dale jr crammed down our throats.they are the most over rated drivers going.showing danicas pitstop when she is 4 laps down or take time showing dale jr running 24th and a lap down.brian france is a jackwipe.the brains of the family skipped a generation.this rant from someone who went to 2 races a year and watched every lap of the other 34 races.can’t wait to see the crowd or lack of crowd this weekend.

Razz
10/08/2010 01:38 AM
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“…making the story more about the on-air personalities than the race itself.”

You nailed that, 29racefan. But still, Try this: turn off the sound and watch a current race and then an old one.

You’ll quickly see the biggest reason why people no longer watch. Maybe there really is racing going on and we just never see it on TV. Or maybe it’s the COT/Chasepointsracing or whatever …
x-na$car fan
10/08/2010 08:52 AM
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It’s not so much the amount of commercials – it’s the same commercials over & over & over again. If I see one more JR/Nationwide commercial I’ll scream.I wouldn’t buy Nationwide insurance just because I’m tired of having it jammed down my throat. I still don’t understand why they can’t split screen the race & commercials like the IRL does. I find I watch more commercail with the race on. Don’t they understand that 99% of the viewers don’t watch the commercials anyway – they go to the kitchen – go to the bathroom – flip channels-anything but watch commercials…..

Ron
10/08/2010 09:01 AM
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No matter what article you read the comments from readers are all similar…and are a great insight into what’s wrong with NASCAR. I don’t understand why the networks and Brian France don’t read them and react to what fans are telling them. Just plain stupid. And now with viewership and attendance dropping off even more sharply, it’s like they’re trying to commit suicide. And the sport we all knew and loved will be dead.

DMan
10/08/2010 02:25 PM
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It isn’t just Every Sport Pre-empts Na$car. Its all the networks. The coverage is crappy, the commentating is crappy. Also it seems like the coverage is geared for those with very short attention spans. Very few shots last for more than a few seconds, no matter how furiously the drivers are competing for a spot, IF (big if) the network even shows it they show just a few seconds. The networks insist on showing every single pit stop yet only about half are show to completion. Too much clutter on the screen. I’m sick of the Chase hype that starts before Daytona, I’m sick of the Danica hype that started before Daytona, I’m sick of the ESPN specials that try to convince us that Johnson or Kryle (who obviously can dish it out but can’t take it) are just your loveable average Joe. Ever notice the ESPN’s screencrawler on the bottom of the screen never shows any updates, results or news of any other motorsport during a NA$CAR race? And why not show the race in a split screen during commercials like they do with Indycar? Oh yeah, I forgot, because Bozo Brian says fans don’t want that. Hey Bozo Brian…thanks for doing my thinking for me! Sure would be nice if we could vote Bozo Brian out of office!

Dave
10/08/2010 02:34 PM
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The 2000 NAPA 500, which is the fall atlanta race (sounds like ESPN is naming the races again), was run on a monday. The commercial times and race coverage might be a bit off since the monday sponsor dollars aren’t as much as sunday. Do you know where the NASCAR commercials promoting the 50th anniversary came from? NASCAR itself. They paid for those spots so they can air them where they see fit… or to fill in the blanks from unsold commercial time.