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Critiquing NASCAR TV: Who’s Turned Things Around In 2008… & Who Hasn’t

This is my first week writing for this website, and my first time taking over Frontstretch‘s new television critiquing column in particular from John Potts. But after a challenging week in Mexico City for television – with the race being in a foreign country and all – I didn’t want to start my writing career here on a negative note. So, let me start with mostly positive television turnarounds from last season (with one glaring exception), now that 2008 is well underway:

1) As much as ESPN’s NASCAR Now lacked in consistency and substance last year, it has been made up for – and then some – in 2008. Last year’s hosts of the show, with the exception of Ryan Burr, really struggled to even pretend to have a clue about anything in the sport; but things have changed over the course of the past few months. Nicole Manske, Allen Bestwick and Burr have become the triumvirate of hosts that cycle at the helm of the broadcast, and the talent works to perfection in this case. Bestwick’s experience combined with Manske and Burr’s individual, natural comfort in front of the camera really helps fill the void that the script of the show sometimes lacks.

But the hosts are not the only things to rave about with this show; NASCAR Now has also really become a great forum for breaking news, similar to what its predecessor RPM2Night used to be back in the day. For example, early last week Nationwide Series driver Chase Miller made an exclusive announcement on the show about Verizon Wireless and Motorola teaming up with GEM to expand his NNS program on the No. 9 Dodge. The analysts and news breakers also push this program to the next level; Marty Smith, Terry Blount, David Newton and Angelique Chengelis really convey their garage sources well, making the viewers feel like they have an inside view of the sport.

2) On the flip side of ESPN’s coverage is the integration of NASCAR into SportsCenter. On Saturday morning, anchor Josh Elliott announced the upcoming coverage of the Nationwide Series race in Mexico City, but somehow fused together, in a very convoluted way, references to the Sprint Cup Series. That led some blurry-eyed viewers rolling out of bed wondering which series was racing where; if you weren’t a hardcore fan, you would have definitely been left scratching your head.

The mess was another example of how ESPN’s non-racing programs have really struggled with NASCAR. SportsCenter’s crew – however schooled its personnel may be on the stick and ball sports – need to act like NASCAR is a legitimate sport, and show that by actually displaying some basic knowledge. Stock car racing is obviously important enough to be broadcast prominently on their station; so why aren’t they paying attention to it? As long as the anchors still mess up NASCAR highlight reels, and as long as producers pick arbitrary parts of race highlights to show without really conveying the true story, the uneducated-on-NASCAR sports fan will remain that way at the end of this show.

3) This Week In NASCAR on Speed Channel is also a step up from what the Inside Nextel Cup show had been. In this newer version of the one-hour review, Steve Byrnes seems to reign in the personalities better than Dave Despain and Allen Bestwick had in the past (though I miss Despain a lot). The addition of Chad Knaus and the keeping of Greg Biffle also are good personnel moves for the show. Of the mainstays, Michael Waltrip remains a hog for face time, but he undoubtedly makes the broadcast entertaining when he wants it to be. And Ken Schrader‘s just as much of an integral part of the show’s success; last week, he made an offhand comment about not knowing where he would be driving at Talladega, which gave viewers an exclusive almost-announcement of the next day’s news from BAM Racing. It’s another important lesson learned: breaking news mentioned innocuously on roundtable shows is always a plus.

One thing to note here, though: If TWIN really wants to take their show to the next level, they would cover the Trucks and Nationwide Series more than they do.

4) Finally, major props to the print, internet, TV, and radio media for the intense coverage of all angles of the Aaron Fike-NASCAR drug testing policy story this week. ESPN the Magazine broke the story two weeks ago with writer Ryan McGee, and almost every racing publication and many others have run with it since. Considering what I thought was the limited amount of coverage on the policy in the past, I hope that these pleas generated by both the media and the fans will lead the sport in another direction with its policy.

Have a great week, and I will be back give you the latest in TV critique after Talla-dang-dega.

Wondering why you couldn’t reach Frontstretch yesterday? We apologize for the inconvenience; a switch to a new server host caused our site to go down temporarily. But here’s the good news; we should now be in good shape to handle the overwhelming traffic coming in each day from readers like you! Thanks for making us one of the fastest-growing racing sites on the web; we’ll take a few growing pains for the additional readership, and we’re hoping you keep coming back for more.

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