The script for excitement during Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway practically wrote itself. The sports two hottest drivers, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, occupied the top two spots in the pack for most of the race. Edwards tagged Busch’s back bumper ever-so-slightly, clawing his way into the lead, and yanking victory away from the unflappable Busch. A frustrated Busch scraped against the driver’s side of Edwards’s car after crossing the finish line, which prompted Edwards to go into Cole Trickle-mode, spinning Rowdy out on the cool-down lap. The post-race quotes from each driver were captivating, with Edwards admitting to knocking Busch out of the way to take the lead and Busch likening Edwards to Mr. Ed… yes, that Mr. Ed.
Midway through the race, a large crash included Chase contenders Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer, causing Kahne to retire from the event. Bowyer drove an ill-handling car to a top-10 finish, renewing his Chase hopes as he crept back into the top 12. David Ragan backed up a career-best third-place finish at Michigan with a 10th place in Thunder Valley, moving him within several points of Chase contention.
With the excitement popping like popcorn and the side-by-side racing around the track never letting up, ESPN did not fail to capitalize, turning in its best performance this season. Every person on the crew brought their A game to an extremely important race.
The boys in the booth remained strong throughout the race. Dr. Jerry Punch, who has been especially lackluster through the first few races of ESPN’s Cup coverage this year, managed to remain more composed through the Bristol broadcast. Though his execution of facts and clever phrases was not perfect, he undoubtedly performed better than he has in the recent past. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree each conveyed their former roles well and combined their past experiences into very informative and colorful commentary. Short-track racing has proven on every NASCAR broadcast to be the stage where color commentary is at its best.
The pit-road team also shined as bright as the Bristol lights. Despite the close quarters and the deafening roar of CoTs trapped in the Bristol bowl, few tosses were botched by the pit-road reporters. One complaint that lately has been lodged by both me and fans alike has been the lack of interviews of drivers taken out of races early, especially when those drivers are not superstars. The red flag-causing crash in the middle of the event helped break that bad habit. Shannon Spake staged herself just outside the exit from the infield medical center, poised to conduct interviews. And she delivered, lining up several drivers consecutively.
Dave Blaney got caught in a hard wreck for the third consecutive week, a fact that ESPN did mention. Though not one of the most popular drivers and usually a tame interview, even Blaney got camera time. This move bodes well for ESPN, as the network had gained a reputation of letting smaller storylines fall to the wayside as races develop. One of Punch’s few mistakes during the race occured when he jumped the gun, telling viewers that Blaney was looking to chastise a passing car on the track when he really was looking for and being led to a waiting ambulance.
The studio boys in the infield, Allen Bestwick, Brad Daugherty, and Rusty Wallace, were more useful this week than they have been this entire season, including the Nationwide Series races. ESPN directors and producers integrated all three talents well into the broadcast, inserting them into some rejoins and opening their mikes to chat with Punch, Petree, and Jarrett during certain developing situations. Bestwick hosted a nearly flawless pre-race show and Daugherty showed more personality than he has this entire season, really displaying emotion as if he were driving a car. When Rusty Wallace was in the driver’s seat, Bristol was one of his best tracks, and that carries over in front of the camera, too. Wallace has been known to put his foot in his mouth on camera, at times, but made few errors during Saturday’s broadcast.
The final piece of the ESPN puzzle has been a tough one to fit into the whole picture this year. Tim Brewer has fallen well short of spectacular, to say the least, in his past two seasons on the network. Bristol, however, also brought out the best in him. Brewer’s demonstration of the different ways that crews fix wounded short-track cars was his best ever. He not only clearly explained each piece of equipment, but he did it with personality, another trait he has lacked in the past. Hopefully Brewer can maintain this newfound output and add even more of it to future broadcasts.
Other parts of ESPN’s Cup broadcast that stood out Saturday included capturing great scanner audio, providing coverage of all the wrecks, and getting great views from in and on-car cameras. Among the great radio chatter ESPN broadcast was a less-than diplomatic quote from Bowyer about Michael Waltrip.
“Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR. Period,” said Bowyer after getting a piece of the Waltrip-Casey Mears contact that caused the red flag. Other audio captured and played included Jeff Gordon vowing to wreck Tony Stewart and Mears criticizing his spotter for a miscue that caused him to hit Waltrip. This scanner chatter beats the normal clips of drivers whining about their cars or crew chiefs reminding their drivers to race for points.
Finally, ESPN made an intentional move to cover the entire field in the race. Punch remembered to keep track of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who got black flagged and lost laps early for passing cars before the start-finish line at the green flag. The cameras shot Junior several times fighting hard to keep his track position to get the Lucky Dog, something that never happened. The pit road crew also did at least one sweep through the field near the race’s midway point, giving updates on the top 15 or 20 drivers. This has been one of the biggest deficiencies for every NASCAR network this year.
Overall, ESPN improved at least one letter grade in every area of its coverage Saturday. If ESPN keeps its coverage at the quality level the crew displayed in Thunder Valley, even less-exciting races will be much more bearable to watch.
Here are a few more NASCAR TV observations from this past week:
- ESPN still seems wary to spend very much time doing post-race coverage, breaking well before the top or bottom of the hour to go to SportsCenter. Since the race was on a Saturday night, ESPN2 aired NASCAR Now, hosted by Ryan Burr and Randy LaJoie. This was a decent substitute for continuing coverage on the main network, but would have been better if it had incorporated more talent from the racetrack and more interviews of other drivers in the top 10 and in the Chase. ESPN should have a plan to air NASCAR Now on some network after every race, but this likely will not happen.
- SPEED Channel needs to tweak its Truck Series coverage. The camera crew and directors managed to miss several wrecks as they happened, which is tough to do on a track as small as Bristol. There also were audio problems with both Adam Alexander and Ray Dunlap during pit road interviews. Dunlap seemed, at times, to be at a loss for words during some pit-road sequences. Rick Allen, Waltrip and Phil Parsons did a decent job on the play-by-play coverage from the booth, but other parts of the broadcast need to be executed better.
- After focusing on the ups and down of This Week in NASCAR last week, show host Steve Byrnes emailed me to clarify some things said in the column. Though he could not explain fully why producers of the show fail to give more time to the Nationwide and Truck Series, he did say that one of the reasons the series do not get covered as well is because of the advent of features on the show, such as “Scanner Chatter.” While driver audio is always a great feature to display, time still should be allotted to thoroughly cover NASCAR’s two other series. Nonetheless, a big “thanks” goes to Byrnes for not only taking time out of his busy day to read the column, but to also respectfully provide feedback. No wonder Earnhardt liked him so much!
- SPEED Channel aired the Joe Gibbs Racing announcement of Joey Logano as the new driver of the No. 20 Sprint Cup Series Toyota at 2 p.m. on Monday. This announcement went much better than their coverage of Stewart’s announcement that he was teaming up with Haas a few weeks ago. This time around, they covered more of the reporters’ (almost unending) questions toward Gibbs officials and Logano, and did not lose the audio and satellite feeds mid-press conference. One big downside to SPEED’s breaking news coverage… they broke from the announcement before the new No. 20 paint scheme was unveiled. They could have settled the problem of the reporters asking incessant questions easily. JGR obviously has publicity to gain by having live TV coverage of an announcement with Home Depot at their race shop. SPEED should have arranged with Gibbs to have the car unveiled after a few questions. SPEED also should have arranged for there to have been a microphone passed around for reporters. If there was one, most reporters’ audio did not get broadcast.
- Lastly, I want to apologize for a mistake I made a few weeks ago. I stated in my post-Brickyard column that someone at ESPN should lose their job because of the satellite feed’s mid-race interruption. At the time, I was unaware that the reason ESPN lost the feed was because of lightning strikes. After being corrected, I retract the firing statement and am glad that officials at ESPN and other readers of the column set me straight.
That covers everything for this week. Stop here next week to see how well ESPN shines under Labor Day weekend lights at Auto Club Speedway in California.