The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Frantic Chase Coverage Missing One Thing... The Non-Chasers by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 11, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where watching races and breaking them down is the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series raced at Kansas Speedway. My critique of the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 was also due to be in this space today. However, due to time constraints, the critique of the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 has been moved to Thursday’s Critic’s Annex in the Newsletter. It will be excellent, believe me. However, it will not be a geographical oddity.

Kansas Lottery 300

On Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series returned to action at Kansas Speedway. However, the weekend was overshadowed first by rumors that the series might cut at least one race weekend from the schedule for the 2012 season. That particular issue was not discussed at all by the TV crew, an interesting omission considering the newsworthiness of the topic.

Reed Sorenson occupied a good chunk of ESPN’s Nationwide pre-race show after his abrupt firing last Tuesday.

The other notable issue that came out of the past week was the outright firing of Reed Sorenson from the No. 32 in favor of Brian Vickers and the Cup driver du jour for the rest of the year. Let’s just be honest with ourselves. This isn’t just a travesty; it is a traveshamockery. Yes, I went with the nonsense — but, it’s true. The move does not make sense at all.

ESPN chose to focus the first part of Countdown on this stupid move. They got both sides of the issue by talking with Sorenson and Steve Turner. Turner came off as sounding like he was entitled to win every week, and Sorenson sounded confused, like he has ever since he got canned. Even Briscoe, Wallace and Daugherty in the Pit Studio had serious issues trying to come up with a legitimate reason for the move. I don’t think those three were being unprofessional in the studio on Saturday. They were just trying to make sense of stupidity on Turner’s part. The idea of something happening that neither party is talking about was brought up, which probably would hold water if we were to find out what it was. I could come up with some pretty radical theories, but I’m not divulging them here. Perhaps that will be this week’s Frontstretch Top Ten.

ESPN also aired a one-on-one interview that Marty Smith did with Elliott Sadler that was conducted at Dover (I think). Here, Sadler talked about his opportunity to drive the No. 2 for Kevin Harvick, Inc. for the 2011 season, the fact that if he didn’t get that ride, he probably would not be at the track at all this season, the goals for the year and whether he has met them or not (not really). Sadler was quite honest in the piece. It’s the kind of thing that ESPN should have been more of this season, but has chosen not to.

Race coverage was once again quite focused on the frontrunners. The commentators in the booth, especially Reid, were incredibly impressed with Brad Keselowski’s performance. The move from 14th to the lead in less than five laps was pretty impressive, I’ll give you that. Makes me think back to how strong Mark Martin was at Watkins Glen in 1993.

I was unable to watch this race from Laps 52-63 because my picture cut out. I’m not sure if this was just an issue with my cable, or if everyone had this problem. Since no one made a reference to it on air, I’m leaning towards it being a personal issue. If everyone had the problem and ESPN was basically off-air for six minutes in the middle of a race and didn’t acknowledge it, that would be a serious situation. It would be another traveshamockery.

In a race like Saturday’s, ESPN should have done more to show battles for position on track. I don’t care where those battles are, or even if those cars aren’t on the lead lap — show them anyway. Yes, ESPN did show some of these, but not enough. This situation was encapsulated when Reid said something to the effect of “it’s quite boring up front, but there are quite a few battles for position back in the pack” right before a commercial break, then, they didn’t really show any of said battles. Weak.

Post-race coverage was all done in one segment. However, that one segment was jam-packed with content. ESPN brought viewers 12 post-race interviews, plus an interview with the winning crew chief (Todd Gordon). There was also some post-race analysis from the broadcast booth. Great stuff. The only thing I didn’t like was the fact that they didn’t give the point standings a full-screen graphic (they were shown above the scroll, though).

ESPN can do some great things with their Nationwide Series broadcasts, but they have to want it. It’s like winning a NFL game (or in this case, a College Football game). You gotta want it. By some of the production choices of what action to show, I just don’t know if ESPN really, really wants it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Reid is strong enough as a play-by-play man to force the truck’s hand, like so many other play-by-play commentators can. I didn’t see anything in Saturday’s broadcast that would show me that he is a strong-willed man at the helm.

Hollywood Casino 400

Sunday brought the Sprint Cup stars out to play for Chase race No. 4, the Hollywood Casino 400. Countdown started off with a recap of last weekend’s AAA 400 at Dover, done in a montage style. OK to look at, but it doesn’t really do anything for me. It gets the job done, and that’s all I can say about it.

The main feature of the show was a well-put together piece on Jeff Gordon and his relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson. Here, I actually learned some new things. I had assumed that Gordon and Gustafson had crossed paths at least a few times over the years at Hendrick Motorsports, but these guys were carrying on like they were the best of friends. As far as the crew chief-driver relationship goes, this off-track bond can be good or bad, but they seem to work well together. With Gustafson, there isn’t so much of the awe we saw when he was teamed up with Mark Martin two years ago. Instead, it seems like he was determined as heck to get Gordon to reclaim his proper place in NASCAR and it shows.

Another piece was a feature on Jimmie Johnson’s recent struggles, done using a montage of race footage and clips from NASCAR Now. It was basically a continuation of a previous feature. After Sunday’s performance, I don’t think we’re going to see Part No. 3.

Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson became the focus of ESPN’s longform, well-presented Countdown feature this Sunday.

In addition to the major features in pre-race, I always keep a look out for quirks. This week, I noticed that Nicole Briscoe was tripping all over herself during Countdown. This is not normal, as Briscoe is usually quite sharp with these kind of things. Perhaps she was a little flustered on Sunday. Maybe there was an unseen technical issue that irritated her. Maybe Steve Turner’s rationale from Saturday was still on her mind. Regardless, she just didn’t seem like herself. Hopefully, this is just a one-time thing.

During the race, there were those classic, long as heck green-flag runs that everyone really seems to hate these days. I suppose it’s better than 15 cautions in a 200-mile race on dirt (you’ll see that on October 29 on SPEED), but it means that you have to change up the grandmaster plan in order to have a great broadcast.

ESPN is historically not the best at changing things up. Their focus was the Chasers (obviously). So, the majority of their coverage was focused upon the Chasers towards the front of the field and their battles. However, when things stretch out, you have to go looking for more action.

Here, Up to Speeds can work to knock out a segment (perhaps, a bathroom break could be worked in here, like when Ken Squier took one in Daytona back in 1988). However, looking further back in the pack for battles is a necessary caveat. ESPN did do this to a certain degree during the long runs Sunday, but they always seemed to appear during the NonStop segments. Interesting.

Speaking of the NonStop segments, I do think that they lead to more breaks early in the race to make up for the (potential) lost ad-revenue from the NonStop breaks. How much is lost, I don’t know (and ESPN would never, ever say), but I’m sure it’s something.

However, there was one interesting quirk that came out of those early commercials in the race. ESPN appeared to break out of a local commercial break to show a live pass for the lead on Lap 65. Of course, I’m assuming that it was because there was an ad for DePaula Chevrolet in it, an Albany, NY dealership. As they’re nowhere near big enough to be buying nationwide ad space on race telecasts, I just assumed that it was a local break. I was under the opinion that ESPN couldn’t do that; that it was in the hands of the provider (in this case, Time Warner Cable). Regardless, I’m quite pleased.

Like in the Nationwide event, post-race coverage was all done in one segment. However, it was much shorter. There were six post-race driver interviews, plus an interview with crew chief Chad Knaus. There was also some post-race booth analysis before ESPN went to SportsCenter. The point check was once again constrained to above the scroll. I have no clue why ESPN thinks that this adjustment is a good idea. Their viewers’ eyes (or, at least mine) aren’t necessarily trained to look up there for the standings, especially when no one draws attention to them being there. I guess that ESPN thought that saving time, and space on screen would be better in the long run.

ESPN provided viewers with a pleasant surprise or two on Sunday, but mostly more of the same issues with strict focus that I’ve talked about for most of the season. Opening up the scope will help fans get a better idea of everything that is going on during the race; it’s not just the Chasers and first-place battles that should appear on screen each time.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series have a (mostly) home game as they return to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series will hold their final race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with the Camping World Truck Series as support. 34 cars are entered for the Izod IndyCar Series race, a season high. Also, it should be noted that Marty Reid will not be in Charlotte this weekend due to his IndyCar responsibilities. As a result, Allen Bestwick will do play-by-play for both races. Here’s your listings.

Thursday, October 13
Time Telecast Network
2:00 – 3:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice No. 1 ESPN2
3:30 – 5:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1 ESPN2
6:00 – 7:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour ESPN2
7:00 – 8:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2
9:00 – 10:30 PM Formula One Grand Prix of Korea Free Practice No. 1 SPEEDtv.com^

Friday, October 14
Time Telecast Network
1:00 AM – 2:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Korea Free Practice No. 2 SPEED
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
4:30 – 5:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 2 ESPN2
6:00 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN2
7:00 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30 – 10:30 PM Nationwide Series Dollar General 300 Miles of Courage ESPN2
10:00 – 11:30 PM Formula One Grand Prix of Korea Free Practice No. 3 SPEEDtv.com^

Saturday, October 15
Time Telecast Network
1:00 AM – 2:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Korea Qualifying SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by the Home Depot (Special Edition) SPEED
3:00 – 3:30 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
3:30 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Smith’s 350k SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ABC
7:30 – 11:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Bank of America 500 ABC

Sunday, October 16
Time Telecast Network
1:30 AM – 4:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Korea SPEED
2:00 PM – 4:00 PM ARCA Racing Series ARCA 200 SPEED
3:00 – 3:30 PM IndyCar Countdown ABC
3:30 – 6:00 PM Izod IndyCar World Championships ABC
7:00 – 8:00 PM SPEED Center SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM Wind Tunnel SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED*

*- Tape-delayed
^- Available via free online streaming

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events for next week’s critique here at Frontstretch. The Izod IndyCar Series finale will be covered in the October 20th 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 any of the TV partners 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 emails full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

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Gordon85Wins
10/11/2011 02:05 PM
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I know I’m in the minority, but I don’t care if the networks focus only on Chase drivers. Non-Chase drivers shouldn’t even be on the track. It might look more like a real playoff then.

sylvia richardson
10/11/2011 04:53 PM
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HERE I GO AGAIN THAT STUPID CHASE.THEY ARE OTHER RACE CAR DRIVER THAT I WANT TO SEE BESIDES 12.

Linda
10/13/2011 01:59 PM
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What I noticed was Greg Biffle leading at the start of the race and they did not talk or even show him. Got really tired of seeing JJ going around in circles. ESPN doesn’t care about what fans want and it is obvious. And the non-stop is ridiculous; you can barely see it and there seem to be way more commercials throughout the whole broadcast. Once again, cash is king.