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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN is the Mark of Inconsistency for Sunday’s California Race

The last few Labor Day weekends have been a mark of remorse and anger for many of the NASCAR faithful since the Southern 500 was snatched from legendary Darlington Raceway and moved to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The racing in California has been less than thrilling and is reflected by sparse attendance at both the spring and fall races.

After last week’s exciting duel between NASCAR’s two hottest drivers at Bristol, the sport had a tough act to follow in Fontana. To say that the racing action fell far from the high standard set at Bristol is an accurate observation, but there still was good racing at times throughout the field of cars.

Unfortunately, ESPN’s booth crew, particularly Dr. Jerry Punch, failed to deliver a full capsule of the day’s action. Television ratings have been up this year, for the most part, but were down after even an exciting Bristol race. To keep viewers watching, the booth batch of Punch, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett must convince the audience that the event is exciting, a task not fulfilled during Sunday night’s Pepsi 500.

Though the field became strung out during long green-flag runs and Johnson was mostly the only one in the lead, there were several caution flags that helped bunch up the field and produce good racing during restarts; however, Punch failed to call very much action, forcing Jarrett, Petree, or Allen Bestwick in the ESPN Pit Studio to interject and call the shots.

Problems keep recurring during ESPN broadcasts and they exist in their coverage of both series. The biggest issue is simply the lack of variety in story lines which is manifested in the lack of coverage of drivers outside the top 20. ESPN has tried to be more diligent about doing driver-by-driver field rundowns; however, 500-mile races are long. The network can easily fit more than two in per broadcast and can cover more than just 15 drivers per rundown. With the racing dragging on at times, an update on Paul Menard, Reed Sorenson, Ken Schrader or Regan Smith would be refreshing, even if none of the four have a shot at contending for the race win.

ESPN has made several improvements in their broacasts. The integration of the Pit Studio anchors into the booth commentary has improved by leaps and bounds as 2008 progresses. By allowing Rusty Wallace to interact with his former competitor Dale Jarrett, letting Brad Daugherty make predictions on who can win and having Allen Bestwick take some of the pressure of calling the race off of Punch, ESPN producers are on the right track.

The pit road crew did not make any major mistakes last night which bolsters its credibility among viewers. The pit-road reporters, especially Dave Burns, were not shy to add important pieces to storylines discussed throughout the coverage. The team coverage of the field rundown sounded very crisp and the reporters rarely stumbled while tossing to each other.

Tim Brewer in the ESPN Dish Tech Center has stepped up his game the last two races, adding much more personality to his often tricky explanations of racecar setups. His account of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s complaints of how his car’s rear-end was toed out too much shed a lot of light on a new trick that many teams are trying to help the oblong CoTs turn better.

ESPN’s coverage still has a significant amount of room to improve and has made gains in the past few weeks. The play-by-play commentary is the backbone of any sports broadcast. With racing excitement sometimes lacking, to say the least, Punch, Petree and Jarrett have the added responsibility and daunting task of working hard to keep viewers tuned in.

Here are some more observations noticed on NASCAR broadcasts this week:

  • On Friday afternoon, SPEED aired an episode of NASCAR Confidential that centered on NASCAR Race Control and other arms of the sport, where people behind the scenes work hard to put on races. NASCAR Confidential is an extremely informative show and shedding light on one of the most criticized aspects of the sport was a genius idea tackled by the show’s minds. This show finally explained to fans exactly how NASCAR officials decide how to penalize drivers, throw caution flags and sort out driver positions based on timing. Also revealed in the show was the hand-in-hand relationship that exists between NASCAR Race Control and the TV producers. The show was filmed during the Coca-Cola 600 weekend, so FOX was covering the sport. Seeing the behind-the-scenes coordination between NASCAR officials and the camera crew is a part of the sport that many do not know exist. After seeing the show, one cannot help but respect the effort put forth by NASCAR employees, whether they agree or disagree with the decisions they make.
  • This Week in NASCAR has made strides in the past couple of weeks to change the show lineup, trying to include more coverage of the Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck Series. TWIN usually covers the two other series at the end of the show, but has decided to do race summaries in the middle of the show, instead. Steve Byrnes was not shy about asking Michael Waltrip to comment on ESPN’s decision to air Clint Bowyer’s anti-Waltrip racing comments. Not surprisingly, Waltrip said that he thought ESPN was out-of-line for airing the scanner traffic, because it did not add to the analysis of the race. Thousands of fans likely disagree.
  • Just as it did after last Saturday night’s Bristol race, NASCAR Now aired on ESPN2. Though ESPN is providing much-needed post-race coverage, the quality of this show needs to improve. Ryan Burr and Boris Said were both at times searching for verbal ways to take up time. The raw feeds of post-race press conferences are only successful if the audio at the track works. Otherwise, they are unbearable to watch. ESPN needs to work to integrate more of the personalities from the track into NASCAR Now’s post-race shows. There are many options available to add to segments of the show, as well as dozens of drivers, not all of which finished in the top five, that need to be interviewed. There is room to grow here, too.

A third consecutive night race awaits ESPN and the Chase implications at Richmond can go without saying… let us just hope that ESPN has more to say than they did last week.