Just like Bristol a couple of weeks ago, made-for-TV storylines saturated Sunday’s Richmond race as much as Tropical Storm Hanna soaked the area late Friday and early Saturday. Not only were several drivers vying for the final transfer positions into the top 12 in the standings – thus qualifying them for the Chase – but every driver in playoff contention wanted to win and gain precious bonus points on championship leader Kyle Busch. And if that wasn’t enough, as the race unfolded two drivers in need of a win seemed to have the two best cars: David Reutimann led the most laps in a surprisingly good Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, seeking his first career win, while Tony Stewart led late in hopes of breaking an almost season-and-a-half long winless drought.
ESPN’s ability to simply broadcast the race turned into its own separate drama altogether. Since Hanna hit Richmond late on Friday, all of the television equipment was in place and used to cover practice and the pending qualifying sessions for both series. As the storm hit, crews scrambled to uninstall cameras, wires, dishes and any other important pieces whose functionality was in jeopardy if left in the storm. That same scramble began at 5 a.m. Sunday to set all that stuff back up, and started up again in the late night hours – after the Nationwide Series race – to tear it all down in what was a 20-hour workday for a dedicated crew.
But equipment wasn’t the only thing getting shifted around. With the broadcast schedule thrown out of whack due to the storm, the race had to air on ESPN instead of ABC. ABC is still going to air the final 10 Chase races, but could not change its Sunday schedule to accommodate the postponement of this week’s Cup event. Instead, the network had contractual obligations to air both a WNBA game and the Indy Racing League season-ending race – both of which likely pulled in lower ratings than the Cup Series did on its cable partner. Honoring contracts is the right thing to do, but you can bet some network executives were wishing for those overnight numbers on the ABC side of the coin.
Because of the busy schedule at the track, the race started at a refreshing 1 p.m. – a flashback to days of old. It turned out to be a throwback for the sport’s old-school supporters, as well; a nice feeling settled upon many race fans when they could come home right after church just in time to turn on a race that’s about to begin. After airing a brief race introduction, the National Anthem, the invocation and the command to start the engines, the cars exited pit road and the green flag dropped. Though there was a short pre-race show on ESPN2, viewers did not have to wait very long to see the racing action they had been waiting for on the flagship network.
During the race, ESPN did a great job of conveying all of the Chase scenarios and keeping track of where bubble drivers sat in the points. David Ragan’s early spin with teammate and fellow bubble-dweller Matt Kenseth provided tense moments for Kenseth – along with likely elimination from Chase contention for Ragan.
But instead of refusing to cover the No. 6 car, since it was going to the back of the pack, ESPN stuck with Ragan’s plight. From the pit studio, Rusty Wallace wondered aloud whether some of the damage to the AAA Ford’s left front gave it more downforce… and for a time, it looked like he was right on the money. At one point, pit strategy led Ragan back into the top 10, and he battled hard to stay just a few points ahead of 13th-place Clint Bowyer. ESPN displayed the Chase race at this pivotal moment, and continued to track it as Ragan’s now ill-handling machine dropped through the pack like a stone in water.
Another driver quest for Chase contention was not covered as prominently as Ragan, however. Kasey Kahne easily could have made the Chase, especially when Ragan and Bowyer were running around 25th place. But while Kahne got some airtime, he virtually was written off as little more than a long shot to make the top 12 well before the broadcast even began. Fortunately for ESPN and Bowyer, Kahne ran 19th and never factored heavily into the Chase equation.
Despite the Kahne oversight, it appeared ESPN had more upsides than downsides covering this event. The last couple of races have shown that the network is making more of an effort to cover mid-pack racing, especially when it involves big drivers. There still needs to be more of an effort to show where all drivers are running and why, though. NASCAR has the most competitive racing on the planet, meaning millions of dollars are spent by teams that run 30th on a weekly basis. Even back-dwelling teams have legions of fans and likely would have more… if they were only covered consistently. If a driver is dominating a race – like Jimmie Johnson did in California last week – then there is more time to do this, and the network should respond accordingly.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth and Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty in the pit studio all performed well at their jobs this week. The chemistry amongst both groups has grown, and they no longer appear as two separate entities. The pit studio in particular seems to often interject into the booth group’s analysis – something that was a rarity not very long ago.
The pit-road gang of reporters is improving as well, albeit at a slower pace than one would expect for a group that has been together for almost two full seasons – including Nationwide Series races. When allowed, they did a fine job of conveying the developing scenarios of the different Chase teams. Tim Brewer is not great, but he is also getting better, and the tosses to him from pit road glue the technical education portions of the broadcast together.
The one glaring weak link of the broadcast used to be Brewer… but it is now Dr. Jerry Punch. As mentioned in this column the past few weeks, Punch still struggles to tell viewers what is happening on the racetrack in an exciting fashion. He also botches facts he tries to say and often sticks to clichés, prepared statements, and well-known observations. Punch should be simply telling what is happening in front of him, ratcheting up his excitement level when needed, and leading both Jarrett and Petree in informative discussion.
After over a season and a half of disappointing reviews, many are calling for Punch to step down or for ESPN to move him. Punch still has a lot to add to NASCAR broadcasts and needs to be part of the broadcast team, perhaps on pit road or even in the pit studio. However, calling broadcasts does not seem to be and has not been Dr. Punch’s forte. Following the beats on pit road, building relationships in the garage and explaining racecar mechanics seem to fit much better in this doctor’s bag.
Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV programming this week:
- ESPN’s NASCAR Now aired after the Nationwide Series race, and nothing more could have been asked from host Nicole Manske and analyst Ricky Craven. Both played their roles to a T, and the producers perfectly inserted interviews with all the top 12 drivers and outsiders Kahne and Ragan. However, one improvement that can be made for this post-race show is more pure excitement. Some parts of the program, like the raw post-race conference feed, seem to simply fill time and need to be edited down.
- Props go to ESPN for actually staying on the air for more than 15 minutes after the Cup race. In an event where the 12 playoff contenders were set in stone, this was an absolute necessity; but they delivered.
- The in-car cams after the race were excellent. The ESPN team caught Stewart at a very intimate moment, as he slammed his equipment around and chewed his crew out on the team radio. Stewart cleaned up his act in his post-race interview, but ESPN’s recording of the audio and video after the race told the real, unadulterated story of a lame duck driver and team whose relationship may be reaching the end of its rope. Johnson’s exultation in his in-car cam was also a good addition to the broadcast.
- The disjointedness between ESPN’s regular programming and NASCAR programming still exists. On Friday and Saturday, the sports ticker read that Darian Grubb was becoming Stewart-Haas Racing’s crew chief. At first read, nothing seems wrong with that statement, but take a closer look. How can one man become the crew chief of a two-team organization? Did Tony Eury Jr. become the crew chief of Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season? Whoever took the call or wrote down the information from the Grubb-Stewart press release obviously knew little about NASCAR, and failed to pay attention to the fact that the release explicitly said which car he would wrench on next year.
- Finally, the Joey Logano/Stewart Home Depot commercial was priceless. That promo humorously and respectively signals a changing of the guard for one of the most legendary driver/sponsor/owner partnerships of all time. Let us hope that Home Depot does not ruin the luster of this piece’s cleverness and comedy by buying a spot for it in every NASCAR commercial break. A few marketing people just had a stroke…
The Chase begins Sunday on ABC, with the ESPN NASCAR crew remaining in place. Hopefully, a tropical storm/Nor’easter/war outbreak/Presidential speech will not wreak havoc with the New Hampshire schedule like Hanna did this weekend… but we’ll have to wait and see.