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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Conquers Monster Mile, But Leaves Room For Improvement

Consistent television coverage complemented a great race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. ESPN not only executed much of its normal coverage well, but also added some extra tools to its telecast, providing a better race for viewers to take in. However, as we’ve seen all too often this season, the network fell short of perfection, displaying a roller coaster’s worth of scenarios that showed both how far they’ve come – and how far they still need to go.

At least the network’s biggest improvements and deficiencies were in different areas this week then they’ve been in the past. In particular, the pit-road reporters endured a lot of scrutiny at a race track where they had a lot thrown on their plates. The extra importance placed upon pit strategy and the tight, treacherous pit-road conditions at Dover made accurate and consistent reporting essential for this four-person group. Combine these factors with the added importance of carefully following the Chase drivers, and there was a lot of work to be done both in the pits and the garage.

Indeed, the network’s team of reporters stepped up to the challenge, going out of its way to interview crew chiefs on the pit boxes about their strategies – a great move on their behalf. But one big snag that occurred with Chad Knaus on his war wagon – and also with Kyle Busch in the garage – was the inability for either to hear the reporter ask the question in their interview. In both cases, the reporter talking could have made a better effort to ask the question right in the ear of who they were interviewing, instead of forcing viewers to sit through the awkward, “I don’t know what you just said, but here is what I’m gonna say,” response that Knaus and Busch both gave.

And some of the same old pit-road problems recurred at Dover, as well. Shannon Spake still has trouble at times keeping her composure during tense, fast-paced pit road cycles or breaking news. She is a decent reporter when tracking down drivers before and after the race or during practice, but the junior member of the ESPN pit-road crew still struggles to deliver smooth accounts of what she is seeing, hearing, and learning.

Jamie Little, Mike Massaro and Dave Burns, though not perfect, performed a rung higher than Spake. Massaro stands out as the Allen Bestwick of the crew, often delivering the smoothest pit road reports while incorporating helpful stats. In addition, Burns has the most experience of the group and that shows – especially during fast-paced sequences – while Little did a good job of holding her own on Sunday. Still, all four reporters need to work on asking better questions of both drivers and crew chiefs, because asking questions with obvious answers is simply a waste of time.

The infield Pit Studio crowd of Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty led a wonderful pre-race show this week, highlighted by several driver interviews. In particular, Loudon winner Greg Biffle joined the panel at the beginning of the broadcast, a major highlight that followed up on the biggest surprise of the playoffs to date. But while the pre-race show covered almost every aspect of the Chase, it chose to bury some of the other headlines this week. On Saturday, NASCAR announced its new drug policy, more allegations against NASCAR of racial and sexual discrimination became known, and the firing of two officials named in the Mauricia Grant lawsuit was made public. However, those breaking news stories were not mentioned until near or after the halfway point of the show, surprising considering they made front page national sports news – including on the network’s own website. One of the big rules taught to journalists is, “do not bury the lead;” well, ESPN must be rewriting the book on that one.

Meanwhile, Allen Bestwick continues to prove that he belongs in the broadcast booth instead of Jerry Punch. When he, Wallace, and Daugherty would interject into the booth boys’ conversations or become a transition between the return from commercial break, they would shine. Bestwick’s growing presence in these broadcasts is a good idea, and may also be foreshadowing a personnel move for ESPN in the offseason.

As for the network’s coverage of the playoffs, one can view the Chase-dominant telecasts in two ways. Pounding the championship story repeatedly can be seen as a good idea, because the Chase is NASCAR’s biggest story. ESPN and SPEED both subscribe to this philosophy – but even ESPN did not cover things adequately this week. Yes, they dominantly talked about several playoff contenders – sometimes to the point of overkill. However, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin struggled through the whole event, but did not get much mention – especially compared to Busch’s second straight mechanical failure. Detailing the trio’s struggles, playing their radio transmissions or putting the crew chief on camera to talk about their cars would have been a good way for fans of those drivers to find out why they are struggling in such an important race.

Radio chatter was also a big story throughout the week, mainly because of Earnhardt’s harsh, public criticism of crew chief Tony Eury Jr. at Loudon. Junior’s run last Sunday was quintessential of so many he’s had this year – a dominant car early, only to fade to mediocrity past the midpoint of the race. With extra emphasis falling on team chatter during the playoffs, Junior’s and others’ radios should have been blaring though the ESPN telecast at Dover. Indeed, hearing Junior talk about his junk race car would have been a great piece to hear during the event, despite him not being in contention. Why this did not happen is puzzling…

Not only did ESPN not cover struggling drivers in the Chase well enough, but they continued to mostly ignore non-Chase participants. When rookie Regan Smith went to the garage near the midpoint of the race, any explanation, interview, or follow-up on the No. 01’s struggles did not seem important to pursue for the ESPN team. In fact, many drivers outside the playoffs struggled at Dover, including former Chase contenders Kasey Kahne and David Ragan – but we never knew about it. Where were the reports on their teams? The broadcasts would be much more exciting if the strategies and racing in the middle and back of the pack got coverage; but some things never change, and as we get deeper into the postseason, the chances of that happening will drop. And if ESPN needs more pit-road reporters to cover all of these variables, why not try Dr. Jerry Punch? He has experience, and that would allow Bestwick to enter the broadcast booth.

Speaking of Punch, there were no real additions, improvements or new downsides to the performance of him, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett. Petree and Jarrett continued to call most of the action on the track, with Punch stepping out of the ring when excitement riled up. Unfortunately, Punch really struggles at breaking from scripted banter and calling the race as he sees it; heck, he even fails to ratchet up his enthusiasm when the green flag flies. At Dover, he read or said a few memorized lines about the race as the field snaked through the fourth turn on the last pace lap, and then remained silent for the actual start of the race. People may be sick of “boogity boogity boogity” and “pull those belts tight” used by Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds on FOX, but even those clichés are better and definitely more exciting than Punch’s deer-in-the-headlights poise.

However, the network overcame some expected challenges that could have arisen at Dover, like keeping up with the fast pace of the race and showing wrecks as they happened. The camera crews and graphic producers operated virtually snag free, attaining levels of perfection often hard to achieve at tracks like the Monster Mile.

All of this adds up to a similar pattern of ESPN’s continued improvement in some areas each week, clashing with an inability to change in others. At Dover, exciting racing and dramatic storylines made for an great race no matter what the network focused on; however, the expected unexciting CoT parade at Kansas next week may make their weaknesses more noticeable.

Here are some other observations from around the NASCAR TV world:

  • SPEED Channel’s continued consistency is often overlooked – especially in this column. NASCAR RaceDay (built by the Home Depot) has remained exciting, informative and upbeat all season long, with producers, directors and reporters working hard to squeeze in many successful driver interviews and features. Yes, the analysis of Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer can sometimes be ridiculous, weak and uninformed – but the two have an obvious chemistry with John Roberts, the lead anchor on the SPEED Stage. Wendy Venturini and Hermie Sadler do a great job in their interviews, too, although Sadler is not very eloquent at times. However, Venturini’s news roundup is thorough, concise and always near the top of the broadcast. I’ve got one suggestion, though: we need more Bob Dillner.
  • NASCAR Now is becoming more and more reputable as a news show. On Sunday morning, Ryan Burr and Boris Said were stationed in the ESPN studios, mulling over the week’s stories, the coming race, and Chase implications. While Burr has manned the load in Bristol as of late, a nice addition to both NASCAR Now and SportsCenter has been Nicole Manske working as a field reporter at the track. In fact, she seems to operate better in that role than Marty Smith has for the past year and a half. That means the big problem left over in this change is figuring out Smith’s future role in the broadcasts. As stated in last week’s column, Smith is a great asset to the ESPN team. His connections in the garage and knowledge of the sport are almost entirely unmatched – which means he could possibly make a good addition as a pit reporter. In fact, ESPN could create a new position for Smith within their race broadcast itself, where he would focus solely on chasing down drivers in the garage after the race for interviews – as well as updating Silly Season news during the pre-race show.
  • Two big mechanical problems stuck out to viewers over the past two weeks: Busch’s sway bar coming loose in the Sprint Cup race at Loudon, and Kevin Harvick’s brake problem in the Nationwide Series the following Saturday at Dover. ESPN and SPEED both nailed these problems with flying colors, making it easy for fans to understand what happened and why. Tim Brewer and Ray Dunlap both provided detailed analysis of the importance of the sway bar, how crews change one, and how it can fail or come loose during the race. Brewer’s improved performance continued this weekend, when he explained what possibly could have gone wrong with Harvick’s brakes. Not only was Brewer stellar on the brake failure, but ESPN camera crews provided a great behind-the-scenes look at the work of Harvick’s crew, while Andy Petree called the play-by-play of the repairs. This type of detailed coverage would be welcomed by many if the network would only use it during Sprint Cup Series broadcasts.
  • Since the technical explanations of race cars have been so thorough – especially in recent broadcasts – why have technical explanations of how to drive the racecar pretty much disappeared? NBC used to have Wally Dallenbach drive a car around each track before the race, and TNT still does the same thing. Hermie Sadler and Kenny Wallace also used to do something similar for SPEED Channel, and even FOX’s Darrell Waltrip got behind the wheel of a racecar and discussed what drivers had to do at each facility.

Why is ESPN behind the two networks? Jarrett just retired, has run in the CoT and has raced on every racetrack the Cup Series runs at. Why can’t he drive a racecar at Kansas (where he suffered a concussion in a crash in 2001) or any of the other tracks the NSCS runs on? And if not Dale… what about Rusty? With two drivers so recently retired working for the broadcast, why can’t they race each other in the pre-race show instead of babbling on about the Chase for an hour? Or as a last resort – if running in a racecar is suspect to Mrs. Jarrett and Mrs. Wallace – could ESPN work with EA Sports on a realistic driving simulator, similar to the life-size virtual football plays that the ESPN crew on NFL Live uses? This would be another great trick they could use to catch up and surpass the coverage of other networks.

That’s it for this week, but rest assured I’ll be here next Tuesday to keep the networks honest after a weekend’s worth of coverage in Kansas City.

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