The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Hits a Homer with Busch Coverage, Then Pops Up in the Race by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday November 8, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where looking into race broadcasts is the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series were all at Texas Motor Speedway north of Fort Worth for a tripleheader.

However, before we start, I need to clarify something. Last week, I was really angry about ESPN not even giving the slightest reference at all to Sean Irvan’s injury on pit road at Martinsville. At the time, I referenced that Kvapil’s No. 38 team was not amongst the teams that ESPN typically focuses on. To me, this is indisputable. At the time, I referenced an interview that I did with Shannon Spake in 2009. That is a conversation that I noted in my behind-the-scenes piece on ESPN’s telecasts that ran in September, 2009. Yes, they do talk to everybody. I never intended to say that they don’t. If I have to put a link to this passage in the critique each and every week until I stop writing them, I’ll do it. However, I stated in that piece that they don’t cover everyone equally, and Spake’s quotes back that up. And I’m standing by those quotes. With that said, on to the critique.

SPEED tried to focus on the Trucks at Texas… but kept showing us the Busch / Hornaday wreck instead.

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I suppose that no one was expecting all heck to break loose early on in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. But, it did, and we have to look at everything we saw.

Let’s look at NCWTS Setup before getting into the meat of the Hornaday deal. It started roughly ten minutes late on Friday night, but for good reason. Nationwide Series qualifying ran late (or, at least the telecast of it did). You never know with the time shifting that SPEED often employs. Following a recap of the Kroger 200 at Martinsville, SPEED showed a montage of angry drivers after the race. Little did they know the anger was going to return soon after.

The main feature in the Setup was a piece on Jim Smith, who was one of the charter owners in the Truck Series with their No. 08 (later 2) truck driven by Mike Bliss back in 1995 and a part-time No. 06 for Butch Gilliland. Smith talked about what originally led to the creation of the Truck Series (Smith and a bunch of desert racers pitched the idea to Bill France, Jr., who scoffed at it. Smith decided to build prototypes anyway and stage exhibitions at now-closed Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, California before France saw the potential and gave the go-ahead).

Smith came across as somewhat bitter. He mentioned that the main reason that he left the series after 2005 was that Dodge was cutting back their support and he felt that Ultra Motorsports couldn’t “do it right,” even though he did have a fair amount of backing squared away. I also don’t think he’s all that enthused about the current direction of the series, which has completely gotten away from what it originally was (for example, only three tracks from 1995 (Martinsville, Phoenix and Bristol) remain on the schedule and only five of those are short track events (in 1995, those numbered 15).

As far as the race is actually concerned, the big thing here is how SPEED handled Kyle Busch and his shenanigans. When the incident happened, they had the cameras on Busch and Hornaday since they were battling for second at the time. I knew that Chapman could play a role here, and Hornaday was forced up the track. It was a shame that they got in the wall. NASCAR might have been a little quick on the trigger by throwing the yellow, but that’s another argument for another day.

SPEED had what appeared to be audio from Busch’s radio on-air while he was doing his thing. Viewers could hear Eric Phillips pleading with Kyle to cut it out, then cursing when Busch wrecked Hornaday. As you all know, I could care less about cursing. With the situation involved here, SPEED could care less as well.

Phil Parsons came right out and stated that Busch should be parked for the rest of the season. As we all know now, that won’t be the case. However, Parsons really jumped the gun here. Most of the time, commentators are expected to be impartial. I don’t think Parsons was objective here. However, in the overall scheme of things, I could care less. This was an extraordinary incident of misguided vigilante justice unseen in NASCAR for years. I don’t blame Parsons for stating that. Busch’s demoralizing of the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series over the past few years has hurt both series overall, and that’s just from winning all the time. Now, he’s irrevocably affected the Camping World Truck Series points.

Now, SPEED definitely understood the gravity of the situation. It was the most blatant payback in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ hook of Brad Keselowski in Atlanta and somewhat comparable to Dale Earnhardt’s move on Darrell Waltrip at Richmond in February, 1986. They got an interview with Ron Hornaday as soon as they could. Hornaday was naturally ticked, but actually tempered his words on-air. He was even more salty while speaking to writers in the garage, including some cursing.

SPEED basically stationed Ray Dunlap outside Busch’s hauler, which was being guarded by a couple of NASCAR officials. Finally, on Lap 27, Busch came out and gave a brief interview to Dunlap in which he tried to throw Hornaday under the bus for causing the original wreck, but did admit that he lost his cool. He’s got something against Harvick. The mere mention of Kevin’s name or association with him seems to tick Busch off.

Throughout the broadcast, SPEED ran tweets that they had selected (after vetting them, of course) that they thought were pertinent. Interesting enough. In Talladega, this was done just because they couldn’t figure out what caused Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter to wreck. Here, it was mainly reactionary tweets. Knowing that SPEED’s production staff took the time to create a brand-new cloud graphic for the expressed intent of showing off tweets, this format will probably continue to be used in the future. However, I think that there’s already a backlash. At least one PR rep tweeted during the race that they were unsure about tweeting during races with the knowledge that SPEED may co-opt their tweets and put them on-air.

Post-race coverage was fairly brief. SPEED only provided interviews with the winner (Harvick), the winning crew chief (Chris Carrier) and both Dillon brothers, along with a check of the points before leaving the air.

The prevailing feelings in the booth during this race was outright shock. They literally could not believe what they had just seen. They were still shocked at the end of the race. To their credit, they did not let Busch’s shenanigans affect the rest of the telecast. The commentary provided was just as upbeat and enthusiastic as normal.

I did find the constant replays of the Busch-Hornaday wreck to be a little much. Even Michael Waltrip admitted this by basically saying “if you haven’t seen it yet, stick around.” That’s a definite sign of overkill right there. SPEED had to realize that there is a saturation point.

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Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Elliott Sadler led the way for ESPN’s solid Nationwide Series pre-show on Saturday afternoon.

On Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series returned to action after a somewhat inexplicable two-week break with just three races left in the season.

With the Noon Eastern start of NASCAR Countdown, Mike Helton’s announcement of Kyle Busch’s parking was still fresh on the mind of the general fan base. As a result, ESPN recapped the whole mess from Friday night at the beginning of the show. It should be noted that it is very rare that the Camping World Truck Series gets much of a mention on ESPN, even though ESPN is a NASCAR media partner. ESPN replayed an interview with Joe Gibbs that had originally aired just at the beginning of Sprint Cup Happy Hour Practice, one in which he expressed regret over Friday night’s crash.

Following the Kyle Busch segment of the show, championship contenders Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Elliott Sadler each had separate stints in the Pit Studio to talk about the race and their battle for the title. It was a nice change from the parade of ‘whackers that get constant camera time. Of course, the Cup guys did still get their due.

During the race, there was a very quirky technical issue basically right at the start. On the first lap, Brad Keselowski went flying up the hill in Turn 1. ESPN attempted to show a replay of this incident, but the feed cut to what seemed like a slow motion version of something that looked like live footage. A second attempt got that done just fine. However, no replay was ever shown of the near wreck on the first lap involving Aric Almirola. For those of you who missed it, it appears that Almirola may have had contact with Blake Koch exiting Turn 2 and almost went hard into the inside wall. Luckily, he saved it.

On Saturday, ESPN brought out the near constant championship point updates that serve to annoy me more than anything else. Here, it was just a reminder every now and then with an extra line underneath the scroll. Sunday saw the same thing. Expect that thing to be on-screen all race in Phoenix and Homestead for both series.

Even with the on-screen point updates, there appeared to be a focus on two storylines. One was the Stenhouse-Sadler points battle, with additional focus on Stenhouse. The other storyline was seemingly Carl Edwards running away with the show (again).

Post-race coverage was somewhat decent. ESPN provided viewers with six post-race interviews and a check of the Point Standings before leaving the air.

The race was actually quite boring to watch. There just wasn’t all that much going on except for at the very end, when Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere to steal the victory. ESPN stuck to their storylines and didn’t really give viewers a lot of racing for position in their coverage. That just bites. I can only complain about that so many times, but I’ll keep doing it until more racing for position is aired to the general masses.

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Finally, we get to Sunday afternoon’s Sprint Cup race. Of course, even 42 hours later, most of the talk was still about Kyle Busch, his stupid move, and his parking for the weekend. To that end, ESPN got Mike Helton to appear in the Pit Studio during the first segment of the show to explain NASCAR’s thought process leading up to the parking.

In that Q&A session, Briscoe, Rusty Wallace and Daugherty peppered Helton with questions. What did we learn from that interview? Not all that much more than we already knew, but we did confirm the fact that Kyle negatively affected the Camping World Truck Series championship battle did play a role in the suspension. It should be noted that NASCAR has threatened strict penalties for doing such a thing in the past.

Jerry Punch’s tough, solid interview with Joe Gibbs was a highlight of the network’s comprehensive pre-race coverage of the incident.

However, ESPN did not stop their Busch coverage with just the Helton interview. No, that would have been just lip service. First, they aired a live interview with Gibbs (this segment is a different one as compared to what ran Saturday before the Nationwide race). Gibbs was somewhat distraught and talked about Kyle failing to set a proper example. He was asked by Dr. Jerry Punch whether Kyle could be penalized further, or even fired for this latest transgression. Gibbs appeared to sidestep the question. It could be argued that if Kyle were actually fired because of this wreck, it would be by far the biggest example of sponsor influence in the history of the sport, completely usurping Hooters nixing Jimmy Hensley for the No. 7 in 1993 in favor of then-unknown Loy Allen, Jr. and Kulwicki executor Felix Sabates ixnay-ing Hooters’ demands, leading to Hooters leaving a championship team seven races into the next season.

Beyond that, Marty Smith went and talked to a number of drivers early Sunday and asked them for their opinions. I’m not sure how many he actually talked to, but five drivers’ (A.J. Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears and Joe Nemechek) comments did make air. Smith referenced this feature again Monday on the NASCAR Now Roundtable, where an extended period of time was spent with Smith and Ricky Craven basically having a discussion between themselves in which they equated Kyle to a teenager that needed to be told what to do.

As a result of all this coverage, the Kyle Busch segment of the show lasted 30 minutes without commercial interruption. Quite amazing, to be honest. I enjoyed it. Of note: I don’t think anyone was making the argument of Kyle being fired over this incident until ESPN brought it up. Then again, they’re also seemingly the only media outlet throwing the banhammer around at Joe Paterno, but for a completely different reason. The most interesting thing of all was that poll that stated that 55 percent of the 27,000 or so voters thought that Kyle should be kicked to the curb. I saw that poll question on ESPN.com Saturday night and thought that they were taking this controversy to the next level, beyond what anyone else would have tried to do.

Beyond Countdown, the Kyle discussion was thankfully kept to a minimum. This was aided by the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing refused to let Kyle talk to Smith (Yes, they tried repeatedly). However, the race telecast had its own problems.

A minor gripe, but at the beginning of the race, ESPN was airing what I think was taped radio audio that continued over the start of the event. I have never seen that before. I’ve seen live audio at the start of the race, but never taped audio.

The main gripe I had with ESPN’s telecast (besides the 40 minutes of green-flag commercials that I can’t do anything about, so I no longer gripe about it) was a lack of storytelling about even some of the Chasers. I had no clue how the heck Jeff Gordon worked his way up to sixth. I was watching the race and taking notes and all of a sudden, Gordon shows up on the scroll in sixth. I’m thinking to myself at the time, “what the deuce?” I swear, sometimes ESPN race telecasts can be like movies that contain massive plot holes. OK, not quite like the 9:45 mark of that clip, but you get the idea. We miss a lot. And it bites.

Of course, having said that, ESPN was able to stop themselves from going to a commercial break right when the first caution flew on Lap 112 for debris. Nice move. Now, if only we could get helmet cams on the marshals that pick up the debris. If you can put one on Kenyatta Houston (the front tire changer on David Gilliland’s No. 34) on pit road, it can be done. That would be interesting to have at ESPN’s disposal, don’t you think?

Since the race was actually run at record speed (something that was never mentioned on the broadcast and I only realized Monday morning), ESPN had plenty of time for post-race coverage. That time was filled with seven post-race driver interviews, plus an interview with the winning crew chief (Darian Grubb).

The Kyle Busch benching played a very big role in ESPN’s telecast on Sunday. In the included link in the introduction, I talked a little about how ESPN begins planning race telecasts on Tuesdays with a conference call. Kyle Busch’s actions blew that plan (whatever it was) to smithereens. The pre-race show might have been the best of the year. It was hard hitting, right to the point, honest and frank. And if that sounds like the disclaimer at the beginning of an America Undercover special on HBO, that wasn’t intentional. I just wish the rest of the race could be covered like that.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a step into the unknown. Yes, Phoenix has hosted a Cup weekend in or around this time of year since 1988. However, Phoenix International Raceway has received an overhaul since the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series visited back in February. We’ll see how that works. Here’s your listings.

Friday, November 11 (Veterans’ Day)
Time Telecast Network
4:00 AM – 5:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Free Practice No. 1 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Free Practice No. 2 SPEED
1:30 PM – 2:55 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
5:30 – 7:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN2

Saturday, November 12
Time Telecast Network
5:00 AM – 6:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Free Practice No. 3 SPEEDtv.com^
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Qualifying SPEED
12:00 PM – 1:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
1:30 – 3:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
3:00 – 3:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
3:30 – 6:00 PM Nationwide Series Wypall 200 ESPN2
6:30 – 8:00 PM K&N Pro Series West Casino Arizona 125 SPEED

Sunday, November 13
Time Telecast Network
7:30 AM – 10:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500k ESPN
~6:30 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM SPEED Center SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2

^- Available online via free streaming

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races from Phoenix for next week’s edition of Talking NASCAR TV here at Frontstretch. Later this week, I will cover last weekend’s Lowe’s Foods World Finals from the Dirt Track at Charlotte for the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter. That critique will mark my 200th critique for Frontstretch (time flies, doesn’t it).

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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RickP
11/08/2011 08:10 AM
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Concerning the delayed start of the truck race, the Busch qualifying did indeed run long. I heard specific mention of it, via my headset, by one of the local track media and they were busy trying to figure out how they were going to handle it.

You’ll never see helmet “debris cams” on the safety/cleanup crews because that’d give away too much of the game that goes on with debris cautions. I was at the track and watched specifically for guys to get out and collect the debris. On the caution that caused Kenseth to lose his 4 sec. lead, they never even got out of the truck to pick anything up and contacted the tower to say they didn’t find anything. Then in what appeared to be an attempt to cover their tracks, they came on to contact the tower a bit later only to mention that they had made a mistake earlier saying they picked up nothing but rather ‘one of their crew picked up a header bolt’. Yeah, right.

Brian Mc
11/08/2011 01:48 PM
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In case you missed it, did you know “Kyle is a great competitor”? Of course you didn’t miss it because they said it like 4,000 times! Did I mention that Kyle is a great competitor?!

Steve
11/10/2011 03:23 PM
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I was more upset about the drama happening at the end?

Would Burton be able to hold on? Would Smoke catch him? Trouble was, ESPN never gave intervals and just showed Burtons car all by itself lap after lap. That was very frustrating. They aren’t afraid to plaster the screen with ads, but can’t put a tiny intervall on the screen so we could see what was going on. Very weak if you ask me.