Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a lot of reasons to win Sunday’s Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway, not the least of which was the strong reader response to my being critical of Junior for lethargic television interviews in last week’s column. The results were varied, but most sided with Junior, saying that he does enough media appearances to suffice the wants and demands of the networks and that he deserves some lenience about his interviews, considering he does them after racing in extreme heat for several hours. I’m sure Junior read the column for inspiration, and that led him to victory lane on Sunday – I’m positive.
But seriously, whether Junior read the column and the responses or not, his win did give TNT and other entities covering the race something to talk about after a rather dull event up to that point. Junior’s reaction to winning for the first time in 76 races – and on Father’s Day at that – definitely makes up for any lackluster interviews he may have delivered in past weeks. Instead, the raw emotion poured from his being as he congratulated and embraced teammates; it was clear a monkey was lifted off his back.
Sunday’s race will not go down in history as one of the most historic ever, but it will be a highlighted page in the 2008 season’s book of stories. TNT and other networks that broadcast the race did a great job and should be commended. But there was a lot of NASCAR coverage throughout this past week, and Turner wasn’t the only broadcasting entity to step up their level of stock car coverage. Here are some highlights and some lowlights of the past seven days of NASCAR broadcasting:
- ESPN’s SportsCenter coverage of NASCAR has improved dramatically in recent weeks. The anchors seem to have more of a handle on what is happening in the highlights as they happen, and the writers seem to be composing more fluid descriptions that make better sense. However, on Sunday, the male anchor on SportsCenter, while doing a brief overview of the truck race, did call Ron Hornaday, “Roy Hornaday.” In the overall realm of sports, this is a minor mispronunciation of a second-tier athlete’s name, but Hornaday is a multi-championship-winning driver and has been in the sport forever. ESPN can do better than that, especially considering they currently have a fat contract to cover NASCAR’s top two series.
- Speaking of their broadcasting contract, ESPN did cover qualifying, practice and the race for the Nationwide Series on Saturday night. There weren’t any major mistakes during the event, as the director seemed to get back from commercials in enough time to make the restarts, the pit-road reporting crew did not botch very many tosses to each other, and the boys in the booth sounded smooth and collected – even Rusty Wallace. The network did a great job covering the final few laps of the race, as Joey Logano cruised to victory, including getting video of his dad’s reaction as the race wound down and managing to simultaneously broadcast both Joey’s dad’s interview and Joey’s burnout at the same time.
- ESPN has had more issues than any other network that has covered the races this year, and it is good to see them getting their act together before they take over the responsibility of covering the Cup Series. There is one glaring deficiency in the coverage, however, and that is the performance of Tim Brewer as the network’s crew chief. Since the beginning of last season, Brewer has had mounds of opportunities to refine his television skills… and has not improved. He has the knowledge he needs to do his job, having been a successful crew chief in the sport, but Brewer is hard to listen to and has a lot of trouble conveying his points. If ESPN wants to improve their coverage, they need to hire someone or give an existing person the responsibility of teaching Brewer how to better execute his commentary. If they do not, his coverage will appear as an obvious weak spot for the network throughout the second half of the season.
- As mentioned in a previous version of this column, ESPN’s NASCAR Now has improved dramatically over last season. Every show has kinks to work out when it starts and this show has been no exception. Last week, the show provided expanded coverage of the announcement of the Boston Ventures-Petty Enterprises partnership. Ryan Burr was an excellent moderator and go between for the other reporters and the different guests on the show, including Richard and Kyle Petty. Burr and the rest of the ESPN crew have turned this show away from the immature, bush league show that it was last season. Two thumbs up go to them.
- Kyle Petty’s appearance on ESPN started my thinking of all the sharing that the networks are OK with doing. Petty appears on SPEED Channel’s Trading Paint (SPEED is a FOX entity), is on TNT as a broadcaster, and makes the occasional appearance on NASCAR Now on ESPN. Ralph Sheheen is allowed to work as a pit reporter for both SPEED and TNT; also, Larry McReynolds, as mentioned in last week’s column, doubles for both FOX/SPEED and TNT. It is good to see the networks, for the most part, sharing their talent and behind-the-scenes crews instead of hogging them. NASCAR is a hard sport to cover well, and this cooperation helps to put a better show on for the viewers.
- SPEED Channel had its good coverage of Saturday’s Truck Series race handed to them. The finish was unbelievable, with Erik Darnell and Johnny Benson streaking across the start/finish line door to door followed by three other trucks (Todd Bodine, Brendan Gaughan and Scott Speed) racing three-wide for third place right behind the leaders. Congratulations go to the camera crew for capturing great shots of that finish at several angles. Just like T. Taylor Warren’s expert photography helped NASCAR decide Lee Petty’s 1959 Daytona 500 win over Johnny Beauchamp, the camera crew’s great work helped NASCAR to decide this finish of .005 seconds.
- The only complaint for the camera crew this week is its coverage of the Kyle Busch-Hornaday-Kevin Harvick scuffle. Busch, driving on fresher tires, dumped Hornaday on the closing laps of the race, taking him from a top-10 finish to 23rd. I, personally, was waiting for the crew to jump to the confrontation, but it was caught on camera from a distance and broadcasted well after the fact. That’s surprising, because the camera crew should have been near Hornaday after the race and been within a fairly close distance of his and Harvick’s accosting of Busch. That would have made for some great YouTube footage. Instead, SPEED did manage to get some great quotes about the incident from Hornaday but could only capture the ruckus from a distance. With fans always licking their chops in anticipation of the next driver showdown, SPEED should have taken a prime chance to give its viewers what they wanted. Fortunately, the great finish of the race almost made up for SPEED’s fighting foible.
That covers it for this week’s column. Next week, the Cup Series travels to the twists and turns of Infineon Raceway; check back here to see if TNT covers the Napa Valley as thoroughly as it did the Irish Hills.