NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED’s TWIN Needs to Double Coverage of Other Series

After intense scrutiny of ESPN’s Sprint Cup coverage in the weeks since Indy, this week’s column will focus on another network’s show.

This Week in NASCAR (TWIN) was unveiled at the beginning of this season as a revamped version of Inside Nextel Cup. The idea behind changing the format was to make the show represent NASCAR’s top-three series more equally than in the past, instead of focusing on the Cup Series and giving minimal attention to the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck divisions.

But those changes didn’t stop with the coverage. After having Wind Tunnel’s Dave Despain in the host’s chair for the past couple of seasons, SPEED Channel tabbed NASCAR veteran reporter Steve Byrnes to take on the daunting task of preventing panel mainstay Michael Waltrip from hogging precious airtime – something Despain always struggled with. Also new to the show for 2008 would be Chad Knaus, an addition to the panel that would offer a crew chief’s perspective to complement the other drivers on the program.

Additionally, one position that had been a revolving door on the show’s panel for last two or three years had been the drivers that accompany Waltrip. Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader had been longtime panelists, but their diminishing presence on the Cup circuit prompted the show’s producers to tinker with other drivers in their place. Brian Vickers, Reed Sorenson and Greg Biffle are among those that have rotated amongst one or two spots on the show this season. Of the three of them, Biffle arose as the one that seemed the most committed, best fit driver for the other slot on the panel – although others were expected to be used with or in place of Biffle throughout the rest of this year.

So, armed with the Byrnes, Waltrip, Knaus, and Biffle lineup on its best weeks – combined with the promise to offer more coverage of lower series – TWIN looked to be a step above what Inside Nextel Cup had been when it debuted back in February.

Sadly, this has not been the case.

From the start of the season, TWIN has proven to have the same problems and benefits as its predecessor. Of course, it’s not all bad. The biggest upswing of the show’s changes have been the insight that Biffle, Waltrip and Knaus offer, showing viewers what exactly goes through their minds during races as well as stating the mechanical nuances of racecars. Another bright spot has been the chemistry amongst the panel. Though Waltrip has still seemed to dominate airtime, he and Biffle have had great exchanges, and Byrnes’ experience in the garage makes him as much an insider as the others.

The downsides of these changes, though, have outnumbered any positives. The number one mistake that SPEED producers have made is not choosing to cover other series as it should. Much more of the show is not only spent covering the Cup Series, but also wasted with awkward silences and endless babble – especially from Waltrip. Some small talk is enjoyable and makes those on the show seem more human, but too much is annoying and wastes precious time that could be spent covering NASCAR’s second and third biggest series.

An example of time wasted came last week when the group spent time egging Michael Waltrip to put his foot behind his head, which he actually did. Though funny, this really seems to amuse those on the show more than those watching. During that same broadcast, the panel had completed its analysis of the previous day’s Cup race and had already previewed the coming event, leaving more than 20 minutes to cover the Nationwide and Truck Series. Instead, those races were covered in less than five total minutes – with endless banter slipped in between.

Another interesting characteristic of the show has been the choice to preview the coming week’s race before reviewing the previous one. Last week, though, the crew did cover the race at Watkins Glen before turning to Michigan. To me, that order is the only one that seems to make sense, so one hopes the change will keep from becoming a one-week aberration.

The fact things haven’t improved is really a shame, as This Week in NASCAR used to be something to look forward to each week. There’s still a glimmer of hope, as the potential of those personalities with the amount of time given to them is enormous. But this program is beginning to have its work cut out for it. At this point, ESPN’s NASCAR Now has not only caught up with TWIN this season, it often seems to offer more widespread coverage of the sport.

If TWIN wants to wrestle back its spot as a quality recap of NASCAR’s top series, then the producers and the panel need to work together to minimize time wasting and catch up on covering the races and other developments of other series.

Did I mention that ESPN managed to cover a Cup race this weekend, too? Here are some things I noticed on their side of the fence this week:

  • Little has changed throughout ESPN’s coverage regarding some of the complaints discussed last week. Dr. Jerry Punch struggled once again to lead the telecast from the booth at Michigan, and its team of reporters failed to complete an accurate rundown of the storylines developing on the top 20 teams during the event. Along with not covering all teams in the race was ESPN’s obsession with sticking only to big name drivers and those still contending for spots in the Chase.
  • Following the checkered flag in Michigan, ESPN wasted little time wrapping up the broadcast. After interviewing a few top finishers, coverage of the race ended and broke for SportsCenter at approximately 5:22 p.m. – at least eight minutes before they could have ended and begun SportsCenter at 5:30. During that show, coverage of the race was limited and did not include the most worthy highlight of the race – Dave Blaney’s near flip when he was tagged and hit the wall. Instead, SportsCenter stayed on until 7:00 p.m., covering some baseball highlights twice. Race fans need decent post-race coverage, and ESPN again failed to provide that.
  • Marcos Ambrose and Blaney both had conspicuous exits from Sunday’s race, yet neither were interviewed by ESPN reporters. Ambrose set the world on fire last weekend and got at least as much coverage as he deserved; but is ESPN’s memory so short that it has already forgotten the soon-to-be-full-time Aussie driver? And when Blaney hit the wall hard for the second straight week, he should have been interviewed – but insight into his feelings on the hits and his team’s close proximity to falling outside the Top 35 were also ignored by ESPN.

Both SPEED Channel and ESPN are professional, world class networks who should be able to learn from repeated mistakes – and that’s what’s most surprising of all. The mistakes we mentioned in this column have not been ones that have turned up in the last week, but instead have plagued both networks for this season and last. At this point, the networks need to begin answering protests from fans if they want to remain trusted entities that cover the sport.

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