The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Pointing Out ESPN's Obsession With Points In Phoenix by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday November 16, 2010

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Hello, race fans. It’s that time of the week again. Phil’s my name, and race broadcast critiques are my game. This past weekend, NASCAR’s Big Three series were all at Phoenix International Raceway.

Lucas Oil 150

SPEED’s Truck Series coverage on Friday night started out like normal, with a recap of last week’s action in Texas. Krista Voda spent much of the Setup on top of Rattlesnake Hill, which overlooks Turn 4. Yes, there were references to being bitten by insects, but that happens.

To their credit, SPEED stayed focused on the race Friday night: not just on Todd Bodine’s impending championship. Could ESPN take notes?

The big feature from the Setup was a look at Chris Lafferty and Lafferty Motorsports. I’ll admit that I didn’t really know anything about the recent newcomer to the series. In all honesty, it’s a pretty sad story. He came to North Carolina to make it as an engine builder, at all costs. Seriously. He claimed that all he had was the money in his pocket, clothes, and a gun. Eventually, he did catch on as an engine builder and entered the series as an owner as a result of accepting older trucks as payment for an engine and a desire to get some kind of return on the deal. Definitely not the typical way that an owner enters a major series. It’s an interesting, rarely told story and I’m happy that SPEED took the time to spotlight Lafferty and his struggles.

In addition to a look at the different types of pets that drivers have in the Bumper-to-Bumper segment, there were seven pre-race interviews before SPEED got into the race itself. Also, there were no issues pertaining to the embargoing of big stories to the end of the Setup like in Texas.

I was initially worried about how Michael Waltrip would handle himself knowing that Caitlin Shaw was in the race, as Shaw is currently interning at Michael Waltrip Racing in their PR department. I feared that there would be a degree of fawning over the young woman making her second career start in the DGR No. 72. However, I had nothing to worry about. Michael was careful to admit his business relationship with Shaw before the race began in order to set the record straight. However, Shaw may have gotten a little more on camera exposure than she would have otherwise.

TruckBuddy was back in play on Friday night and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the race that way. I mainly use TruckBuddy during regular commercials. I am partial to the Battle Cam. It works best for me. It also locks in on the Lucky Dog when the yellow flies, usually long before SPEED tells viewers who got the pass. Matt Crafton and Todd Bodine were the drivers whose in-truck cameras were locked onto the service. However, TruckBuddy lacks a leaderboard like regular RaceBuddy has. Turner Sports (owners of nascar.com) needs to look into changing that before Friday night.

Since the race ended so quick on Friday night, there was well over a half-hour of post-race coverage. Todd Bodine clinched the title (his second in the Camping World Truck Series) so there were interviews with Bodine, both Hillmans (Sr. and Jr.), and team co-owner Steven Germain, who I cannot recall ever previously seeing on a broadcast. In addition, there were interviews with a dejected Matt Crafton, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Justin Lofton, Johnny Sauter, Aric Almirola, and Clint Bowyer.

SPEED gave viewers a great broadcast on Friday night. I had no real issues with the way that the broadcast was presented. The fact that the race ended so quick may have played a role in the display, however. Compared to the Battle Cam, SPEED’s coverage was a little more focused on up front, but not by all that much. Also, there was not all that much discussion of Bodine’s impending clinch until the very end of the race. The rest of the time was spent on the actual on-track action, which is very good to see. In regards to the Lafferty feature, it was a great look at how the other side of the garage operates as compared to the big money teams. ESPN could stand to take a look at the feature and possibly profile some of the smaller teams next season in their NASCAR Countdown shows prior to Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series races.

Wypall 200

ESPN’s Saturday coverage from Phoenix started off with pre-race analysis from the not-so-Infield Studio, situated outside of the racetrack near the dogleg on the backstretch.

Danica, where art thou Danica? She pulled a disappearing act both on the track and on air during the Nationwide race … much to the delight of a large section of NASCAR’s fan base.

The main feature of Saturday’s pre-race coverage was a sitdown chat with Danica Patrick about how her foray into the Nationwide Series has gone in 2010. What did I take away from the conversation? That Danica really had no clue what she was getting into. Prior to making her Nationwide Series debut, Danica had a test or two at Walt Disney World Speedway in Florida, a test at Daytona in an ARCA car for her restrictor plate debut, and finally, the 80-lap Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. Outside of the restrictor plate running, that is effectively zilcho. NASCAR’s testing ban on tracks that host Nationwide Series (as well as Sprint Cup and/or Camping World Truck Series races) undoubtedly hurt her, but there are ways around the ban.

The move to put her in the K&N Pro Series East race at Dover was a bit of genius, but it should have happened a long time ago. Danica’s schedule this season has not been dissimilar to being thrown to the wolves with little idea of the theory behind driving these behemoths (as compared to her Dallara). I will say that I was surprised at how little she apparently knew about the cars before Mark Martin sat down with her. JR Motorsports should have given her a driving coach from Day One. It is unclear how their actions have curtailed Danica’s potential in the car in 2010.

There was a lot of discussion about the tightness of the frontstretch and its tendency to be the site of chain reaction crashes both on Saturday and Sunday. However, as it happened, the frontstretch was devoid of any wrecking for the whole weekend.

During the race, there was an instance early on when Mark Green broke his transmission and then the engine in the No. 70 Chevrolet. When the yellow came out, ESPN was showing a replay of leader Joey Logano bumping David Green while lapping him. I don’t understand why ESPN couldn’t have cut out of the slow-motion replay to show Mark Green’s stricken car, then cut back to the replay. Live action takes precedence over taped footage.

Danica-mania is finally winding down. Aside from the one-on-one mentioned above, she got only a few mentions on air during the race, mostly for shenanigans with drivers like Alex Kennedy. ESPN seems to understand Danica’s limitations for the moment in the series. Sure, she’ll get better, but she was simply getting too much coverage for how poor she was running earlier on in the season.

Much of the coverage was centered upon the drivers in the top 10 on Saturday, which is generally not a good thing. It means that probably 80 percent of the coverage was given to Cup drivers, and that is not what I wanted to see. Covering races is all about exposure and if you’re focusing in only on a selected number of drivers, you’re missing out on part of the race.

The race ended fairly quickly, so there was quite a bit of post-race coverage. ESPN aired ten post-race interviews, varying from winner Carl Edwards and his crew chief Mike Beam to Cole Whitt, who made his Nationwide Series debut and finished 15th. There was some additional chatter in the Infield Studio before ESPN left the air.

This network’s Saturday coverage was fairly mediocre. I believe that a lot of things that they were assuming would happen, like a late caution or a bunch of wrecks, didn’t pan out. As a result, they didn’t really have a Plan B.

Kobalt Tools 500k

Finally, Sunday brought the Sprint Cup Series drivers out to play. Of course, as you probably remember, the big story coming out of Texas was the crew swap between the Nos. 24 and 48 during the AAA Texas 500. ESPN showed a montage of quotes pertaining to the whole mess. Now, since Johnson’s old crew struggled yet again in complete anonymity on the No. 24, Chad Knaus looks like a genius even though he submarined Jeff Gordon’s final two races of the season as a result. During NASCAR RaceDay, one fan in the gallery held up a sign showing his view on the swap. I saw it on Twitter before the race started and figured that you guys would like it, too.

ESPN’s pre-race feature took a close look at Chad Knaus’ will to win, but still didn’t teach us too much about how he became the mechanical genius that’s led Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team to four straight titles.

One feature was designed around the near-fanatical drive to win that Knaus has. Apparently, he claims that he was even more obsessed when he was part of the Rainbow Warriors in the mid-1990’s. Using footage from the 1995 NAPA 500 at Atlanta was an interesting choice for the feature. It was the race that Jeff clinched his first title, but also one where they literally did the bare minimum to win the championship over Earnhardt, including a weird stop where they just let anyone on the team who wanted to pit the No. 24 over the wall. I don’t really think I learned much in the feature that I didn’t already know about Chad. However, it must be noted that the No. 48 is not his first crew chief job. Knaus served as Stacy Compton’s crew chief at Melling Racing in 2001 before moving to Hendrick Motorsports. I wouldn’t mind learning about how Knaus was as a newbie crew chief, since the No. 92 team was invisible outside of restrictor plate races that year.

Another feature covered Joe Gibbs and his faith. Gibbs talks constantly about there being some type of “plan” in place for life. I can’t claim that I have read it, but such a philosophy is likely very similar (if not the absolute same) as what Gibbs espoused in his recent book, Game Plan For Life. As a result, the feature could be considered nothing more than promotion for the book, interspersed with footage of his drivers in angry situations over the past couple of seasons.

ESPN also featured Harvick’s No. 29 in their ongoing series of features about individual teams. The Harvick feature consisted of a whole series of radio transmissions taken during the AAA Texas 500, and a brief look at a Bagging Challenge at a local Fry’s Food Store. Like most things with a pit crew, the bagging challenge (designed to just be a promotional appearance) turned into a bonafide competition with bragging rights on the line. Fry’s served as an associate sponsor on the No. 29 for Phoenix only.

In last week’s critique, I hammered away on ESPN for heavily focusing on the top 3 drivers in the Chase points (Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick). However, there were some other stories that briefly took precedence over the championship — like the infamous fight. The action on-track also helped out.

In Phoenix, there were no such other stories in play. It was all points, all the time. There were constant dropdown tabs with “The Points As They Are Now,” especially during the final run. It was excessive. Nothing else to it. The long green-flag runs only made this worse. Because of the field spreading out, there was little racing to show up front. Since the points were so important, ESPN wasn’t going to show all that much back in the pack, anyway. When there were battles up front and around restarts, they did show that coverage, otherwise, it was all about the points. Makes me want to rip my hair out, if I had a lot to rip out.

I did find it interesting that ESPN did catch Jamie McMurray tossing a water bottle out of his car to draw a caution. A classic bush league move due to the fact that McMurray had his deck lid come loose. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a deck lid end up like that without a wreck involved. Now, since NASCAR has access to ESPN’s feed, I’m surprised that they didn’t revoke McMurray’s Lucky Dog because of his blatant cheating. They have their reasons why they didn’t. Of course, NASCAR hasn’t said anything on the issue.

Even with the relatively quick race, there was not as much time for post-race coverage as you’d think. There was time for interviews with Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, Kevin Harvick and Gil Martin. It says something that Edwards’ victory, his first in nearly two years, was basically overshadowed by the point race. Sure, Carl got plenty of coverage for his backflip and his entrance into the grandstand to celebrate with fans, but the general feel of it was “Whoop-dee-do,” let’s get back to the Chase.

The Chase-Centric coverage of races is simply hurting the sport these days. Yes, the championship hunt is close. I’m not doubting that. It’s fact. However, you cannot sacrifice covering the rest of the action on track in order to focus in on three people all day. It’s like watching one of those politically charged talk shows on a news channel. Ideally, sports telecasts are supposed to be above that stupidity. Apparently not.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the final one of the season (Oh No!). All three of NASCAR’s National Touring Series will hold their season finales at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Here’s your listings for the weekend (All times listed are in Eastern Standard Time, adjust accordingly for your time zone):

Friday, November 19
Time Telecast Network
11:30 AM -1:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
1:00 – 2:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
3:00 – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2
5:00 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
6:30 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Ford 200 SPEED

Saturday, November 20
Time Telecast Network
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
1:30 – 2:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:00 – 4:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN2^
4:00 – 4:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
4:30 – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Ford 300 ESPN2
7:30 – 8:00 PM Sportscenter at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship ESPN2

Sunday, November 21
Time Telecast Network
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
9:00 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 Ford 400 ESPN
5:00 – 7:00 PM V8 Supercars Championship Series Falken Tasmania Challenge 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 SPEED

*- Tape-Delayed
^- There is a College Football game (Pittsburgh vs. South Florida) scheduled for 12:00pm on Saturday. There is a good sporting chance that it will run long, causing Happy Hour to be Joined in Progress.

ESPN announced additional coverage from Homestead quite late — about 9 AM Monday. A Sportscenter _special, to be hosted by Allen Bestwick, focused on the championship will be a mere 30 minutes in length and air immediately after the Ford 300 on Saturday evening. Last year, ESPN aired a special 90-minute _Sportscenter live from Homestead that served as a coronation for Johnson’s fourth consecutive title. That is not happening, likely due to the much earlier start. Meanwhile, SPEED is once again expanding NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot to a whopping three hours.

I will provide critiques of all three of the races from Homestead in next week’s critique. In addition, I will critique the V8 Supercars telecast from Symmons Plains Raceway in Tasmania for next week’s edition of 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 or ESPN channels 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.

Contact Phil Allaway

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
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5 Points to Ponder: Hamlin The Hunted, Pastrana/Patrick Peril, And To The Aggressor Go the Spoils
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Everyone BUT The Big Three
No Bull: Hold On, Who’s Winning the Points Race? Does Hamlin Know It?
ABJ (Anyone But Johnson): Who Would Be the Best 2010 Champion?

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JTW
11/16/2010 09:09 AM
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The problem with TV coverage of NASCAR’S top tier is simple. Regardless of the network (and in the case of FOX I use that term VERY LOOSELY)it’s the 27 year old producers / directors with MBA’s that don’t have an iota of experience with automobiles or what RACE FANS (not kids) like or want to see. The other problem goes back to FOX and their Toyota schill DW. Yuck. Give me MRN or PRN anyday!

Sherri T
11/16/2010 10:08 AM
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You are right on target about ESPN’s coverage!

They’ve also gone back to lots of shots of one lone car on the screen, which is just pointless. That’s not racing – you can watch qualifying for that!

I switched to a movie 1/2 way through the race Sunday because a) the aforementioned one car on screen and b)only covering the top 3 in the chase! What about all the fans of the other 40 drivers out there?

Michael in SoCal
11/16/2010 11:40 AM
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Thanks for calling out McMurray on the water bottle incident. I understand not wanting empty water bottles rolling around the floor of these cars during races. That’s why they have bottle holders in the car! McMurray should never have gotten that Lucky Dog, Nascar should have noticed that.

tn865linda
11/16/2010 12:52 PM
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I was wondering about throwing things out of the windows. I’ve seen others do that all season. Quit watching the races; sick to death of seeing just the 3 in Cup and the Cup drivers in Nationwide. No wonder they’re losing their audience.

jerseygirl
11/16/2010 01:14 PM
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Nice summary of the races, Phil. One of the reasons I can’t watch ESPN’s coverage is because they are so obsessed with the points they don’t bother to cover the race. It’s annoying and useless to me. If that’s all I need to know, I’ll check online and find out. I tune in to see the race.

And they wonder why the ratings are down?

Kevin in SoCal
11/16/2010 01:24 PM
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Havent the networks ALWAYS concentrated on the points as the season winds down? This isnt a new thing just because of the Chase. It happens in Baseball and Football too. The announcers will recap the standings and the wild card races in all sports.

mkrcr
11/16/2010 01:38 PM
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You neglected to list the best motorsports hour on TV. Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain, on Speed, Sunday @ 9:00PM EST.
At this point of the Chase, any network’s coverage is going to suck. How can you possibly cover the entire race field with NA$CAR’s thumb on your throat?

DoninAjax
11/16/2010 08:53 PM
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So there’s an obsession with points? Not wins? Amazing.

Shoeman
11/17/2010 04:56 PM
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Ah, Poor Danica isn’t getting as much air time as she’s used too. FINALLY!