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Talking NASCAR TV: Punch, Pit Road & Post-Race Are Where ESPN Needs to Improve

ESPN’s road racing coverage Sunday at Watkins Glen was not great – but it could have been much worse. The first two-thirds of the race, with the exception of a couple of caution periods and varying fuel strategies, provided little excitement. Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree and Dr. Jerry Punch did a wonderful job in the booth of keeping track of the leaders’ and other possible contenders’ pit strategies to keep fans’ curiosity piqued, instead of giving them a chance to fall asleep.

However, the latter of the booth-dwelling trio, Dr. Punch, has had a rough three weeks covering the Sprint Cup Series. In particular, he seems to use excessive pauses to search for catchy ways to word otherwise mundane details of the race. Pointing out interesting facts amongst a spread of data is one way to jazz up NASCAR coverage, but Punch seems to spend too much time connecting those dots, sometimes leading to inaccurate miscues and awkward, unpolished sentences. Fortunately for Punch and ESPN, the Doc is not seen as a talking head, but as a respected reporter and personality in the sport; so fans are likely to be forgiving of these broadcasting foibles.

Another aspect of ESPN’s broadcast that has been littered with mistakes this season is its coverage on pit road. Though the network’s pit-road reporters managed to follow the major storylines of the race at Watkins Glen, the dissemination of these reports was shaky at best.

In particular, Shannon Spake repeatedly spoke nervously while covering pit stops and chiming in with updates throughout the broadcast. That’s a problem, as the network had Spake covering the stalls of some of the series’ top teams – including the No. 88 of Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. But as a critical mistake of the race unfolded, Spake ran out of words to say during Junior’s ill-fated final pit stop, making the whole situation seem far less important and confusing than it actually was. I do not think that Spake should not be a part of the pit-road team, but at the very least, maybe ESPN should reassign her to some lower-impact race teams over the course of the weekend – at least until she polishes her Sprint Cup delivery up to the quality level she displays on other ESPN NASCAR broadcasts.

But while Spake’s mistakes were the most noticeable, ESPN’s other reporters – Jamie Little, Dave Burns and Mike Massaro – were not without their own problems. Each one botched tosses to each other and stated some inaccurate stats throughout the show. Considering their years of experience covering the sport, they should be far better than they are at this point in ESPN’s Cup coverage.

The lack of racing excitement through most of the race provided ESPN with another opportunity to cover the storylines for drivers throughout the field. But once again, they didn’t capitalize; instead, most of the racing coverage centered on the drivers at or near the Chase cutoff (though little to nothing was said about David Ragan and Brian Vickers, who are still within shouting distance of making the playoffs). Coverage of the race for the Top 35 in owner points, which is good filler for a race as boring as most of this one was, did not appear prominently until the over half-hour red flag at the end of the race.

ESPN did do two Up To Speeds throughout the 90-lap race, but neither one appeared to go deep enough to make a difference. Through the field coverage, which used to be done frequently on NBC/TNT and was done some – but not enough – on TNT this season, meant that most fans’ drivers get covered during the race. But nowadays, fans of drivers who struggle every week have to go beyond the TV coverage to even have a chance at knowing what caused their drivers’ plight.

Scanner radio traffic is a great way to track a team through a race, and I will say that ESPN does well at finding good chatter and broadcasting it. But as expected, the network only broadcasts scanner chatter amongst contending teams, meaning that subscribing to TrackPass on NASCAR.com, watching DirecTV NASCAR HotPass, getting a Sprint phone, or obtaining a scanner at or near a racetrack are the only ways that one can hear how, for example, Scott Riggs is running.

Fortunately, the ESPN cameras did capture the major wrecks of the day, including the ‘Dega-like melee at the end of the race. The extended red flag allowed the broadcast team to interview some of the drivers involved, and the Max Papis interview proved to be one of the jewels of their race coverage. Papis was emphatic and heartbroken at his finish, yet displayed a grateful and persevering attitude at being given the chance to compete with stock car’s best. ESPN cameras also caught the zealous efforts of a No. 78 crew member literally jumping on the hood of Joe Nemechek’s racecar involved in the same wreck… that was also fun to watch!

But as the race finished up following that nine-car incident, fans’ smiles quickly turned to frowns. Despite compelling post-race stories, such as: Kyle Busch’s astronomical season, the race to qualify for the Chase, Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger’s underdog runs near the front of the field, the turnover above and below the Top-35 cutoff, Bobby Labonte’s trip to the hospital after the nasty red flag-causing wreck, and Michael McDowell and David Gilliland’s trip to the NASCAR trailer for a post-race chastising, we got almost none of these during the network’s post-race coverage. ESPN could only afford to interview the top-three finishers (including Ambrose) and race-winning crew chief Steve Addington before they had to quickly cut to an episode of SportsCenter. That left hungry race fans, who had finally seen a few laps of excitement, with no television post-race rundown until NASCAR Victory Lane at 8 p.m. on SPEED Channel and NASCAR Now a couple of hours after that on ESPN.

This is not acceptable.

The amount of ad nauseam pre-race coverage easily could be replaced with some quality post-race answers to the questions that hundreds of miles of fender-banging racing can spark, and the scheduling conflicts that do arise from NASCAR coverage can easily be worked around. The bottom line is that race fans deserve more than 15 minutes of post-race analysis, and it’s amazing when they’re not able to get it. ESPN has tried to integrate race coverage into SportsCenter following races, but, as stated in this column before, NASCAR and SportsCenter have run about as well together as Kevin Harvick and Jeff Green did with RCR five years ago.

If ESPN makes improvements to its three Ps listed above – Punch, Pit Road and Post-Race – its coverage will soar to the levels it should be.

Here are some other things I noticed from this week’s NASCAR TV coverage:

  • The in-studio NASCAR reporters for ESPN have to be feeling little a bit lonely during races. Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty rarely are heard from after the pre-race show; and though Wallace and Daugherty have struggled on-air at times, it seems that having that many personalities doing the equivalent of pinch-hitting is a bit of a waste – even for ESPN. Though this trio does have a lot to offer (I disagree with what Phil wrote last week while filling in for me), they seem to be a forgotten piece of ESPN’s coverage. Maybe ESPN would be better off using Bestwick in the booth and Punch as the lead pit road reporter, leaving Wallace and Daugherty in the studio by themselves. In that scenario, Bestwick would just toss to them, as he does during the Monday roundtable discussions on NASCAR Now.
  • In-race reporters never seem to work as well as they could for any network. On Sunday, ESPN tabbed Juan Pablo Montoya to fill this job; it was a smart pick, considering his likelihood to contend for the win. Just before the cars rolled off pit road, the network’s Dale Jarrett tried to raise Montoya on the radio to start their conversation; but instead of getting a prompt response from Montoya, viewers heard the driver chatting to his crew. The interview with him then went without a hitch after Jarrett contacted him a second time; that one mistake, fans could live with. But after that, a second one was made; Andy Petree tried to contact No. 42 crew chief Brian Pattie, but all Petree and fans heard was Pattie complaining on the radio about the network interrupting the radio traffic. At least Punch had one of his few bright moments of the day, explaining why there was numerous chattering on the channel that prevented the interview for confused fans at home.
  • As our own Tom Bowles wrote in his Monday column, ESPN’s Sunday morning sports magazine Outside the Lines had a report on diversity in NASCAR and the recent discrimination accusations against the sport. Reporter Kelly Naqi voiced the report and led all of the interviews within it, as she and the network did a wonderful job of digging up and exposing other instances of discrimination in the NASCAR workplace. The report featured interviews with minority crew members; a white female who accused some in the sport of sexual harassment; two other female race team employees who had less caustic views of the sport; and DEI president of Global Operations Max Siegel. ESPN managed to find numerous and seemingly credible accounts to support discrimination claims against NASCAR, while also displaying both sides of the issue. ESPN and others in the media, like Bowles, deserve commending for not letting this developing story not die. Fortunately, fanatics on both sides of the issue have failed to hijack media outlets and interrupt a serious discussion on a serious issue.
  • Speaking of post-race shows, one that always gets overlooked on the NASCAR side of the fence is SPEED Channel’s WindTunnel with Dave Despain. Despain injects enough opinion into the show to make it entertaining, without clouding over the facts about each racing series. Though many NASCAR fans shy away from the show, because of its coverage of other motorsports, WindTunnel deserves credit for being a professional and intriguing racing analysis broadcast. Let’s just say not as much could be said for the NASCAR-only shows always on SPEED Channel….
  • ESPN’s “A” team re-emerged for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, since the Cup Series was also in town. And although this was a welcome relief, the broadcast suffered from some of the same problems as the Cup show.

That more than covers everything from the Glen; next week, we’ll check in from Motor City as NASCAR makes its return trip in Michigan. A big “thank you” goes to Phil Allaway, who did an awesome job covering for me while I was slacking away in St. Augustine. Thanks for tuning in then, now, and next week!

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