The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Can ESPN Expand Their Storylines Beyond The Chase? by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 26, 2010

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Hello, race fans. It’s time to take another look at the telecasts that you are provided with on a weekly basis. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series was at Martinsville Speedway for the TUMS Fast Relief 500. They were joined by the Camping World Truck Series, back from a month-long hiatus with Saturday’s Kroger 200. In addition, the Nationwide Series was at Gateway International Raceway for the 5-Hour Energy 250, where we’ll start in this week’s edition of Talking NASCAR TV.

5-Hour Energy 250

The lone split weekend during the Chase saw ESPN’s “B-Team” for race coverage in Madison, Illinois for the final Nationwide Series event at Gateway International Raceway. Vince Welch got another try in the broadcast booth, paired with both Ricky Craven and Rusty Wallace as analysts.

Once again, college football threw a wrench into the network’s Nationwide Series plans on Saturday. The Syracuse-West Virginia game ran long by about 15 minutes, cutting significantly into NASCAR Countdown. As a result, there really was not all that much pre-race analysis.

Since Mike Massaro was already in Martinsville covering for Welch on pit road, Shannon Spake served as the pre-race host on Saturday. That was a first for her with ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, but she acquitted herself just fine here.

Aside from Spake’s introductions, the show began with a recap of the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250, emphasizing the whole Brad Keselowski-Carl Edwards incident that ended the race in July. There were also five interviews.

During the race itself, Vince Welch was simply not enthusiastic enough in the broadcast booth. I don’t know what it was on Saturday, but he simply did not have the “right stuff.” That’s a shame. It would be one thing if there wasn’t an exciting race to call … but there was. The problem is that Vince made the whole event seem boring. Even watching NASCAR Now’s roundtable yesterday, Vince failed to capture the drama on track during the run to the finish. That is a fatal flaw for a play-by-play commentator; I know he could never do radio with that mindset.

Because of Vince’s lack of enthusiasm, Ricky and Rusty had to pick up the slack. Thankfully, they filled the gap just fine, lifting the broadcast in the process.

Another gripe I had was that ESPN decided to do a full screen Craftsman Tech Garage feature on Lap 36, while the field was under green. Yes, it was relatively short, but I do not understand why ESPN couldn’t have done this feature with a split screen. The fact that the second Tech Garage feature, which was under caution, was done in a split-screen format only reinforces the fact the network screwed up.

ESPN does deserve a thumbs up for not going to commercial when the fourth caution came out on Lap 97 for Josh Wise’s spin in Turn 4. I understand that this instance was likely not as close to the point of no return as the one back in Fontana, but it is still good to see that they care about their viewers and will show them what’s going on. The replays left a little to be desired, though.

Post-race coverage was very brief due to the fact that ESPN was up against the end of their timeslot. There was only time for interviews with winner Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, Justin Allgaier, and Mike Bliss before ESPN left. Once again, there was no view of the point standings. I know that Brad Keselowski’s got a 485-point lead, meaning he’ll hoist the trophy in two weeks at Texas Motor Speedway unless something extraordinary happens. But … would have been nice to see how the rest of the top 10 is shaking out.

The overall race telecast was brought down significantly due to Vince Welch’s performance in the booth. The angles were good, for the most part, and I had little to no issues with the reporters on pit road. For the future, though, Welch needs to put a little more… oomph in his commentary. It’s obvious that he wants to be there. Make the viewers hear that.

For next year, ESPN needs to consider the possibility of a full-time Nationwide Series-only broadcast booth, like what the Fujitsu V8 Supercar Series in Australia has. Welch would be considered a candidate for play-by-play commentary if such a move is taken, but I cannot approve him as the full-timer based on Saturday’s performance alone. It would be a repeat of Dr. Jerry Punch doing Sprint Cup races, and I can’t imagine that tone would be beneficial for the series. Dave Burns would probably be the best internal candidate at the moment for such a play-by-play gig, beating out Punch, Welch, and others for the job. As for analysts? Craven is a definite, if he wants it, while Rusty would probably get the third slot – if ESPN chooses to have one.

One more note before taking off: with Neil Goldberg no longer employed by the network, this race served as the first show for Jim Gaiero of ESPN. No word as to whether Gaiero will be the full-time replacement for Goldberg in 2011.

Kroger 200

Welcome back, Camping World Truck Series! I’m already on record as saying that taking a one month break in October is ridiculous; Saturday’s race was the first for them since Las Vegas on September 25th.

NCWTS Setup started off with a look back at that event, the Smith’s Food & Drug Stores 350K. There was also a Bumper to Bumper segment where drivers were asked about pet peeves they have, a strong point in what was generally a well-presented pre-race show. The answers really ran the gamut, from random gripes on the track to everyday things like being late.

Another feature saw Justin Lofton and Timothy Peters at Nellis Air Force Base (along with SPEED’s Ray Dunlap) to learn about the RED HORSE squadron, a division of the Air Force that works around quarries. The feature was shot last month, but timing wasn’t the issue here; instead, Ray’s fake firing sound effects while in the vehicle just killed the whole thing. It annoyed me and made Ray look immature.

Unlike the Nationwide telecast, enthusiasm was something that I didn’t have to worry about with the normal trio in the broadcast booth. However, there were some other things that I did not like about SPEED’s broadcast on Saturday.

Most notably, the network missed two restarts. Rick Allen came to their defense on Twitter during the race, claiming on his page, “Short track racing is awesome! Hard to get in commercials, though.” I’ll give him that since it’s Martinsville. Using the second yellow for Cody Cambensy’s first spin as an example, NASCAR declared a quickie caution since Cambensy spun by himself and got back underway. A normal commercial break at Martinsville takes as long as a quickie caution, which is why SPEED wound up missing the restart. That would be less of an issue if many of the key contenders didn’t pit under the yellow, a development affecting the rest of the race that viewers would have to struggle to understand. My take is the network should have shown those stops in a split screen after they came back from commercial; instead, Allen notified viewers that those drivers stopped after the break. Do you think that’s enough pit coverage in this situation, or do you want more?

SPEED spent a lot of time talking about Cup regulars Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch… time that should be spent covering the rest of the competitors.

In addition, there was too much emphasis put on the whole Kevin Harvick vs. Kyle Busch showdown. First off, these are two Sprint Cup drivers moonlighting in the series with their own teams. They’re just there to win, and only one of them had claimed victory the last eight times they’d faced off. Big deal. There are more stories to cover than just that. I will give SPEED credit, though, by giving the appropriate amount of coverage to the Cope twins, Amber and Angela, during the event. Angela got more coverage than Amber only because she got herself into a little trouble on track.

Post-race coverage was typical of what we’ve seen from SPEED this year. There were interviews with four drivers and the winning crew chief, Butch Hylton. In addition, there were checks of the unofficial results and point standings before SPEED left the air.

This broadcast was a decent one from SPEED. However, I should have known going in that since this race was the shortest distance-wise of the season (105 miles, as Krista notified viewers during NCWTS Setup), there were going to be issues with commercials. The booth made this race enjoyable to watch, though, and that is all that really matters to me.

TUMS Fast Relief 500

The Sprint Cup Series’ return to ESPN saw NASCAR Countdown return to ESPN2 and an increase in length back to an hour. Luckily, this swap does not significantly decrease the pool of potential viewers.

Cutting to commercial at just the wrong time continues to plague ESPN broadcasts.

For this race, the main feature of NASCAR Countdown was a piece on crew chief-driver relationships. It was quite an interesting segment, giving us viewers an inside look at the drivers we see each week on TV and how they relate to issues with their cars. Also, we see sides of these athletes that we normally don’t. For example, footage was included of Joey Logano cursing over the radio. Apparently, such an exhibition of profanity is quite rare if he is not confronting Kevin Harvick.

Another feature saw a group of drivers (Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, etc.) join Greg Biffle at his mountain retreat for what Allen Bestwick described as a “Play Day.” On paper, calling a day out amongst grown men a “Play Day” is a little weird, but if us fans ever got to do it, I’m sure fun would be had by all. In reality, the “Play Day” consisted of a day out at Biffle’s Triple B Ranch to raise money for animals, a cause that Biffle supports heavily. Amongst other things, the Ranch has a sweet overlook and a small dirt track where the racers duked it out in former police issue Ford Crown Victoria’s. We didn’t necessarily learn anything about the drivers that attended the fundraiser, but with the stress of the season, it’s good to see them be able to unwind – if only for a couple of hours.

A third piece continued the line of “driver following” segments with a look at Jeff Gordon’s week after his issues at Charlotte. Unlike the previous ones, there was no mention of sponsor functions or anything like that for the father of two. Instead, the focus surrounded some basic interactions with the team itself. For example, we saw a couple of employees at the Hendrick Motorsports factory (I find it difficult to call the place a “shop” these days) discussing how Gordon got his speeding penalty, using the actual tachometer out of his car. The second half of the feature consisted of footage from a test at “Little Rock,” the Martinsville clone at Rockingham Raceway Park.

In addition to the features listed above, there were seven driver interviews and a whole bunch of pre-race analysis in the Infield Studio. For the record, I don’t believe that all of the analysis really adds much to the overall show. After 20 minutes, it seems like the trio runs out of things to mention.

During our Live Blog on Sunday, there were a lot of complaints about commercials at inopportune times. Unfortunately, commercials are a fact of life with NASCAR coverage since they need the revenue to offset the millions that it costs each week to put on a race telecast. However, I don’t really understand what amounted to a double commercial break late in the race. These irritate me during Camping World Truck Series races on SPEED, let alone Cup races on ESPN.

ESPN had some picture issues during the race on Sunday. At one point, there were these black lines that went across the screen repeatedly for about two or three laps, then went away and never came back. It was a little annoying to watch.

Aside from those technical issues above, the race was generally pretty good. Although there was a substantial amount of focus on the Chasers, non-Chasers got quite a bit of focus as well. Having said that, there were very few interviews with drivers who managed to find trouble, like Regan Smith. Also, when Sam Hornish, Jr. wrecked to bring out the 13th caution, there was no replay of what happened to him at all. Travis Kvapil looked to be involved as well, but no mention was ever made of it, despite the fact that he went behind the wall to repair an apparently unrelated issue.

These minor incidents roll into a major issue that’s dogged the network. Whenever there’s a problem, ESPN should make a point to send someone to go and find out what is wrong when cars go behind the wall. Once they find that information out, it needs to be relayed to viewers much quicker than it is currently. I can understand maybe letting the S&P teams go because they know what they’re up to. However, I would like to know why David Gilliland is forced behind the wall early in the race. I don’t care that he drives for Front Row Motorsports. I just want to know what happened (apparently, a busted driveshaft and/or tranny). Speaking of Kvapil, he appeared to have a fire on his car late in the event. This problem was never shown on-air, but alluded to with shots in passing of the smoke cloud from pit road.

ESPN did have some good camera shots during the race. For example, during the first caution, Travis Kvapil accidentally ran over his tire changer’s foot. It looked nasty, but he was a-OK after that. Also, the front bumper cam was used on Kyle Busch’s car for ground shots. Not a bad move.

Since the network was really tight at the end of their timeslot Sunday, post-race coverage was very limited. There were interviews with Denny Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Kevin Harvick. Of note here, there was a technical problem with the camera on Martin during his interview. The picture froze, then went to blue before ESPN cut to another camera on the roof.

All in all, this one was an OK broadcast to watch. However, ESPN has some aspects that they need to improve. Especially next week, there shouldn’t be so much focus on the Chase. This week, the dropdown point standings weren’t used as much, but it shouldn’t be used at all next week. Give some more time to non-Chasers, since those drivers have fans as well and many will be running up front with the parity of restrictor plate racing.

That’s all for this week. Next week, the Sprint Cup Series returns to Talladega Superspeedway for their second visit of the year. The AMP Energy Juice 500 main attraction will be supported by the Camping World Truck Series’ Mountain Dew 250. Here’s your schedule for the weekend:

Friday, October 29
Time Telecast Network
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:30 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Happy Hour SPEED
4:30 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED

Saturday, October 30
Time Telecast Network
12:00 PM – 3:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
3:00 – 4:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
4:00 – 6:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Mountain Dew 250 SPEED
8:00 – 10:00 PM Super DirtCar Series SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 SPEED*

Sunday, October 31
Time Telecast Network
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:00 – 1:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
1:00 – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series AMP Energy Juice 500 ESPN
3:00 – 5:00 PM V8 Supercars Armor All Gold Coast 600 SPEED*
7:00 – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2

*- Tape-Delayed

I will provide critiques of both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races from Talladega in next week’s critique, along with the SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 broadcast from Syracuse, New York – one of the most historic dirt races held throughout the Northeast.

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 either the SPEED or ESPN channels personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

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 ones full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
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Five Points to Ponder: Ageless Wonders Join With Earnhardt For Martinsville Magic – Now Can It Last?
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in NASCAR: Martinsville Edition
Two Jeffs, Two Long Winless Droughts, and One Big Reason Why
No Bull: What Does Kurt Busch Have Against Hendrick Motorsports?

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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
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…
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Marybeth
10/27/2010 08:04 PM
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If ESPn wanted ratings last weekend, they would have interviewed Kenny Schrader every practice, qualifying, before & after, and pre & post race. How’s the family?
Where did you race last weekend? How did you get to race here this weekend? What do you think of your car? Do you like the weather? etc.