The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Why Chase Coverage Is Already Turning Into A Problem by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday September 14, 2010

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Hello, race fans, and welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where I look into the race broadcasts that we all watch (or try to watch) and dissect them with a fine tooth comb. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series raced at Richmond International Raceway. Also, the Rolex Sports Car Series held their season finale on Saturday afternoon.

Before I start… some news. On Friday, ESPN announced a new five-episode series entitled “Riding Shotgun: Kyle Busch.” This series will follow Kyle Busch around as he prepares for the first Chase race next weekend in New Hampshire. The series was originally supposed to premiere Monday night at 8 PM, but the U.S. Open Men’s Final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (delayed due to rain and lightning) aired instead. I will be covering this series in the future; look for its debut to come after NASCAR Now today at 5:30 PM.

The “new” Nationwide car arrived at Richmond International Speedway this weekend… so ESPN just had to tell us all about it.

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On Friday night, the Nationwide Series returned to RIR to take on the three-quarter mile oval for the second time this year. This race would also serve as the third and final race for the new Nationwide car, scheduled to roll out full-time on the circuit beginning in February 2011.

NASCAR Countdown was a typical affair. Since this event was the first with the “new car” in four weeks, ESPN took some time to refresh viewers about the vehicle and its characteristics. However, this explanation was not really necessary as a month isn’t enough time for people to “forget.” However, a rule change recently announced removed rear sway bars from the cars, so a quick trip to the Craftsman Tech Garage was in order so that Tim Brewer could explain what was abolished.

There were pre-race interviews with Clint Bowyer (this move was interesting, since they had literally just talked to him less than five minutes earlier on the Sprint Cup qualifying show), Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch. Note there are no Nationwide Series “regulars” not driving a Cup car listed among them. Preceding the Kyle Busch interview, ESPN played the now-infamous Kyle Busch sponsafier ad where he was dressed up in the pink driving suit and talking about Bunnies, Kittens, and little baby seals because he was driving that scheme — although modified to fit NASCAR and Z-Line Designs’ preferences. Just for the sake of putting it out there, that scheme should have been run Saturday night.

A slight mix-up by Brad Daugherty made reference to Aric Almirola, who was driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports Friday night. Brad accidentally mentioned that Aric would be driving that car for the entire 2011 season, which led people online to theorize that JR Motorsports had cut ties with Danica Patrick. Whoops. Almirola will be in the No. 88 next year, not the No. 7. Last I checked, Danica Patrick is still in play for next year, part-time in the No. 7.

Race coverage was up and down for ESPN. There were good battles for position on track that ESPN showed to viewers, and the broadcast booth seemed to be into the race very enthusiastically.

I liked the fact that ESPN postponed their scheduled commercial break on Lap 34 to show Tayler Malsam’s spin on the frontstretch, which brought out the second caution of the race. Of course, ESPN then squandered that goodwill by missing the restart from the same caution due to still being in a commercial. Ouch.

It gets worse, though. That wasn’t the only time they missed a restart. The next time the caution came out, it flew during a commercial break, and ESPN missed the restart because they were in another break. Nearly the entire third yellow flag period was spent in commercial.

Post-race coverage was relatively typical. There were six post-race interviews (Kevin Harvick, Reed Sorenson, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, and Trevor Bayne). I’d say coverage of this race went OK overall.

Utah 250

On Saturday afternoon, Grand-Am’s Rolex Sports Car Series returned to Miller Motorsports Park for their season finale, the Utah 250. The usual group of Leigh Diffey, Dorsey Schroeder, and Calvin Fish were in the broadcast booth.

The start of this telecast was very weird, to be honest. There was a brief introduction to the broadcast, with clips of past incidents and on-track action, and then, the green flag. I’ve never seen a live Rolex Sports Car Series race come on the air this way… and I’m not really a fan. It’s like they joined the race in progress right at the beginning. I know it’s the last race of the season, but I cannot subscribe to this setup being used in the future. It looks quite amateurish, bush league, and so on. The track map (sponsored by Burger King) was shown right after the first commercial break, approximately five laps into the race.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the commentary. As I’ve mentioned multiple times this season, this trio is an enthusiastic bunch in the booth. The action for position was few and far between at times, but the booth made the race exciting to watch. This is generally not that easy to accomplish at Miller Motorsports Park because of the venue being so spread out. Even with a shorter configuration (3.09 miles), the Daytona Prototypes were still turning laps in the high 1:40’s and low 1:50’s. In the past, the series ran the full 4.5-mile configuration and laps were around 2:30. Lower classes were turning laps well over three minutes. For a track of that length, there were not all that many passing zones due to an overabundance of medium-speed corners.

When there weren’t any on-track battles to show, SPEED talked about individual teams and their plans for 2011, which is more or less the norm for the end of the season. Not a horrible way to basically kill time.

Post-race coverage was fairly standard. There were interviews with the Daytona Prototype (Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett) and Grand Touring class race winners (Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis). In addition, there were interviews with Chip Ganassi, owner of the Telmex No. 01 Lexus Riley and the championship-winning Grand Touring drivers, Emil Assentato and Jeff Segal. There were also checks of the final point standings for the Daytona Prototype and Grand Touring classes before SPEED left the air.

Of note here, Memo Rojas actually got to speak. If you watch Rolex Sports Car Series races on a regular basis, you will notice that Memo often stays in the background and lets Scott Pruett do all the talking. Based on that, I guess that Memo is a relatively quiet person. Either that, or he doesn’t like all that much attention and prefers for his driving to do the talking. However, he does have something to say, and it’s good that SPEED finally let him get in a few sentences before Scott went ahead with his whole “Hi to my family at home” spiel that’s legitimate, but so cliché by this point that other drivers have mocked it.

I enjoyed watching the Grand-Am race from Utah. I hope that they never pull what they did at the start of the telecast again, though. It’s a shame that they’re done for the season; only the Petit le Mans remains for ALMS, and that’s next month.

It’s the 2010 Chasers! After watching the ABC broadcast at Richmond, I bet you can name them all.

Air Guard 400

On Saturday night, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Richmond International Raceway for the 26th race of the season, the Air Guard 400. As this event was the last race of the “regular season” before the Chase, I was going into this race weary of the telecast due to Chase overload. Mind you, that was even with very little chance of any movement both into or out of the Top 12 – Clint Bowyer held a 117-point lead over his competition with one race to go.

Unfortunately, another opponent of late season Saturday telecasts reared its head: College Football. ABC had football starting at 3:30 PM Saturday (here, it was Florida State-Oklahoma). Despite the fact that this game was not remotely close, coverage continued until the end. I understand this move only because the Heidi Game proved that you absolutely cannot leave a football game early. Granted, it was 1968, but that doesn’t matter. People would be insanely angry.

As a result of this coverage, NASCAR’s pre-race show was very limited. The only driver that was interviewed prior to the start of the race was Clint Bowyer, 12th in points entering the race. The only feature that ran was a brief piece about Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne visiting the 9/11 Memorial, which is currently under construction in Lower Manhattan.

Our own Amy Henderson wrote in the Big Six entry in Monday’s Newsletter that Kyle Busch technically missed driver introductions and got a free pass from NASCAR. Since ABC/ESPN couldn’t get on the air from Richmond until 7:20 PM, though, there was absolutely no mention of it – and that’s something fans should have known about at some point during the night.

Since this race was run on September 11th, Richmond International Raceway had some special features to commemorate the day. Every fan was given a mini-American flag upon entering the track, instructed to wave it during pre-race, then on Laps 9 and 11 during once the green flag flew. Well, let’s just say that Laps 9 and 11 occurred during the first commercial break, so the network failed to mention the concept or show it to us in video replay; they didn’t have to. Not cool. Could ABC/ESPN had held off for seven minutes after the start of the race before their first break instead of three?

Race coverage was more or less what we’ve come to expect from the network during this part of the season. It was heavily stilted towards the Chasers. The only time you saw coverage of drivers outside of the top 5 or so was if they were a Chaser, or they were having serious issues, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

There was excessive talk about the Chase during the race. I’ll be the first to tell you that I really don’t care about the Chase, especially when it hasn’t started yet and nothing of real note was going to happen except for Hamlin and Johnson trying to claim sole possession of first. The broadcast booth beat the idea into viewers’ heads about Biffle locking into the Chase despite running horribly and finishing outside of the Top 30.

Early on, Marty Reid mentioned that Leffler’s No. 32 went to the garage on Lap 31 with all four brakes glowing on the car. This issue sounds like a legitimate problem on paper, albeit very early to have that type of mechanical failure. However, there was no footage shown to back this up. I wish ESPN could have broken from the grandmaster plan long enough to show us that. I don’t think the No. 32 made the broadcast at all. Also, the team had no sponsor on the car and may have been a S&P entry anyway. Now, I’m not accusing Marty of lying. I am saying that ESPN did nothing to protect Marty from potentially looking like an idiot here.

Also of note, since the race was aired on ABC, there was a different tone overall to the broadcast. Besides the constant Chase reminders, there was more of a learning demeanor used for the viewers at home. There were multiple cuts to the Craftsman Tech Garage for features during the race, including one on Lap 19 that cut away from live action. That ticked me off. You’re really going to prioritize a full screen Tech Garage feature on brakes over live action on the racetrack? You must be insane. Luckily, the split-screen returned a little later, but this concept is still ridiculous and, in my opinion, doesn’t win new fans over.

Marcos Ambrose collected back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time all year … but did the broadcasting crew really care? On this night, it was Chase or bust, with everything else secondary to NASCAR’s main playoff “event.”

Since the race was completed in near-record time (even with the 15-lap caution for rain), there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. ESPN responded with 15 interviews. However, this actually consisted of the 12 Chasers, Joe Gibbs, Joey Logano, and Marcos Ambrose. The interviews of the Chasers (with the exception of Hamlin and Kyle Busch) were completely focused on the Chase, all but ignoring the 400-lapper just completed – what fans had tuned in to watch.

As for Logano and Ambrose, their interviews were short and sweet, especially Ambrose’s. I hate to see this happen, but it seemed like Jamie Little had very little to say to Marcos, which is a shame. As you might remember from when I talked to Shannon Spake last year, ESPN’s pit reporters get a substantial amount of information on 24 specific teams, and just basic setup information and such with the remaining cars. These teams may change from week to week, but I’m absolutely sure that all the Chasers were on that list. My best guess is that Ambrose’s No. 47 team was not one of those 24; Little seemed to bumble through the interview in a way that even casual fans at home would notice.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the first of the ten-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Cup Series will be back in action at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Sylvania 300, where the Camping World Truck Series will provide support, along with the Whelen Modified Tour (Northern Division). Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series will make their yearly trip to Japan for the Indy Japan 300. Here’s your listings for the week.

Friday, September 17
Time Telecast Network
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
1:00 – 2:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2

Saturday, September 18
Time Telecast Network
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
10:00 – 11:30 AM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
1:00- 2:30 PM Whelen Modified Series New Hampshire 125 SPEED*
2:30- 3:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
3:00- 5:30 PM Camping World Truck Series TheRaceDayRaffleSeries.com 175 SPEED
11:00 PM – 2:00 AM Sunday Izod IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300 Versus

Sunday, September 19
Time Telecast Network
9:00 – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
1:00 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 ESPN
3:00 – 5:00 PM V8 Supercars L&H 500 SPEED*
7:00 – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2* *Tape-Delayed

Right now, I plan on providing critiques of the Sprint Cup, Camping World Truck Series, and Izod IndyCar races for the critique on Frontstretch next week. The V8 Supercar L&H 500, the first race back for the series after their pointless nine-week long summer break, will be covered in the Critic’s Annex.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page here. And if you would like to contact the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following link:

SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
FREE FRONTSTRETCH NEWSLETTER! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP
5 Points to Ponder: No Chase Drama? No Problem, Four Too Many for Hendrick, and Conway’s S&P
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Richmond-New Hampshire Edition
It’s Not All About the Top 12: Ten Wild Card Storylines To Watch In NASCAR’s Chase
No Bull: Is the ISC / IndyCar Divorce A Warning Shot to NASCAR?

Contact Phil Allaway

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Michael in SoCal
09/14/2010 11:31 AM
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Isn’t the Nationwide COT going to race at Charlotte later this season?

jerseygirl
09/14/2010 11:40 AM
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Really glad I didn’t waste my money & time to go to Richmond. It was bad enough being bored watching on TV while doing other things around the house. I left the broadcast every time a commercial came on and I agree with you about the full screen Brewer segment. Who cares? Oh right, NASCAR is still trying to interest the “casual fan”. That would be the one who has already moved on to whatever the next hot thing is these days.

The Mad Man
09/14/2010 01:19 PM
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I think it’s high time a real network that actually can broadcast a race without bias or being controlled by NASCAR’s whims and whimsy stepped up.

Richmond was almost as boring as Fontana and that’s pretty bad. What use to be an exciting race has now been reduced to little more than a shill for a failed play-off system that has to rely on hype to generate artifical excitement and fails to deliver every time leaving fans frustrated, angry, and becoming less and less interested in what was once a great form of racing.

DoninAjax
09/14/2010 02:39 PM
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The Chase coverage has been a problem since BEFORE the Daytona 500.
“Who do you think will make the Chase?”
Ten laps into the 500 it was “If the Chase started now…”
Every race it was all about the drivers in the Chase.

Kelly
09/14/2010 10:18 PM
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How can ESPN show something and make it interesting when the product they’re given is flawed beyond anything? How can you make “racing” in a straight line fun and interesting? Nascar is boring beyond belief and trying to contrive a fake playoff system is beyond stupid. I will admit that ESPN sucks at broadcasting racing, and they seem to want to get back all the money they spent on football by overloading commercials during Nascar races. But I will continue to say, you cannot take a bad product and make it look good. Nascar is dying, fans are leaving and while Emperor Brian sits and fiddles and counts his money, Nascar will fade away and nothing will bring back the disenfranchised fan.

Steve
09/15/2010 07:01 PM
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Kelly, if ESPN would move away from their script and let the race play out, they might put on a better broadcast. Far too often they stick to the script when their script has no relevance to the race.

Last year it was the Chase drivers and only the Chase drivers with a Jimmie Johnson love fest thrown in. Even when he was down 100 laps, he was part of the script so they followed his repairs religiously until he was back on the track. Expect more of the same. You can probably add in a Kyle Busch love fest since they all professed their love for him as Chase champion last week. (I’m anxious to see if they stay consistent with this)

The TV coverage is a major reason Nascar is losing rating to football in the fall and I don’t think ESPN really cares, since their bread and butter is football anyway