NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: The Chase Gets Chased Off the Air on Non-NASCAR ESPN Shows

Whether you are a fan of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup or not, there is no arguing that the 10-race showdown is the sport’s current playoff format. Much like the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL, the top teams in NASCAR are separated from the rest, have their records reset and are forced to compete with each other for the glory of winning the sport’s highest award – the Sprint Cup title. Every driver strives toward this goal, with only a very few tasting the chance to join elite names like Petty, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Yarborough, Allison, Gordon, Elliott, Johnson, etc. Many in the sport have criticized NASCAR of manufacturing drama and hyping up boring racing with the advent of the Chase; nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly been the concept behind NASCAR’s postseason the last five years.

Unfortunately, the powers that be at ESPN seem not to understand that.

You may be saying to yourself, “Hold on, man. Haven’t you been critical of ESPN for plugging the Chase too much?” Yes, I have. However, I am talking about ESPN’s NASCAR race broadcasts, which have been plugging the 2008 Chase for the Cup since what seems like the middle of 2007. The powers referred to here actually stretch much further than NASCAR on ESPN. As repeatedly stated in this column, SportsCenter has done a lousy-at-best job of integrating the sport into its highlight reels. Non-NASCAR personalities on the network seem to struggle with the idea of stock car racing being a legitimate sport, covering it in jest like wrestling. They do the same with the NHL, but even the NHL seems to get a fairer amount of exposure – especially during its playoffs – then NASCAR does each and every Sunday.

A great example of the SportsCenter ignorance of NASCAR occurred during Sunday’s 7 and 11 p.m. episodes. The top stories of the show centered around the open playoff spots being fought for in MLB. This is understandable, as several were still up for grabs going into Sunday’s final day of the regular season. If only ESPN covered NASCAR’s playoffs like they do baseball’s, more outsiders would likely find interest in the sport and help to boost NASCAR on ESPN’s ratings – but that’s a whole other story altogether.

Anyways, a baffling move on SportsCenter followed the MLB coverage. Instead of using the second block of the show to cover the playoffs of the nation’s second-most popular sport, regular-season NFL games were given the limelight instead. Now, there is no doubt that regular-season NFL games are more popular than NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, but the importance of the Chase seems lost on a network that paid millions for rights to this thing. Instead, NASCAR did not get a mention until just before the first commercial break, and that was just a tease-ahead to the highlights of the race.

The snubbing of NASCAR does not exist only on SportsCenter, though – other shows on the network barely mention it. “Expert” analysts on Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn know very little about the sport, meaning they rarely cover anything more than the headlines. On Around the Horn, Tim Cowlishaw is a regular panelist, but often catches a lot of flak for liking NASCAR and really is not the NASCAR insider that some of the regular members of the ESPN NASCAR crew are. Those weaknesses are a strong sign ESPN should do itself some good by making NASCAR analysis part of the agenda of some of its supposedly sports-wide discussion shows.

In all fairness, the network has not completely dropped the ball, (or the jack, in this case), on incorporating NASCAR into its non-NASCAR shows. Outside the Lines has done several stories this season on the sport, including an explosive, expository piece on discrimination in NASCAR. They also had a great look at the impact of the sluggish economy on the sport by Mike Massaro. E:60, an ESPN sports equivalent of CBS’s 60 minutes, also did a piece on Randy Moss’s purchase of the Morgan-Dollar Motorsports Craftsman Truck Series team. In these cases, stick and ball fans got a chance to gain a better understanding of an often misunderstood sport.

ESPN has also done a good job of giving NASCAR Now plenty of airtime. The show is on almost every day of the week, and a lot of time and effort has been thrown behind it to make it the opposite of the disaster it was last season. That disaster, though, helps make a case for the original premise of this article. When stick and ball talent (or lack thereof), like Erik Kuselias, try their hand at NASCAR coverage, they are useless. Kuselias did an awful job at trying to pretend to understand and host a show on the sport, and ESPN made a great move in trying to develop Nicole Manske and Ryan Burr as regular hosts of ESPN’s NASCAR magazine instead.

NASCAR’s re-emergence on ESPN began at the beginning of 2007, which was over a year-and-a-half ago. The regular NASCAR coverage has gotten better, but the rest of the network still has not adjusted to the advent of this highly popular sport on its airwaves. NASCAR barely garnered mention on the network until mid-2006, when ESPN was vying to earn broadcasting rights to some of the races.

If ESPN wants to lure more viewers to its coverage, lame, alliterative commercials about the Chase are not the magic tonic for that. Instead, SportsCenter anchors, reporters, and analysts on other shows need to become more schooled on one of America’s biggest sports. If NASCAR gets more coverage on shows that are usually dominated with football highlights, then ratings will rise. After all, if ESPN is truly the Worldwide Leader in Sports, wouldn’t taking the lead on better NASCAR coverage turn the tide in getting new fans involved?

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV shows this week:

  • ESPN’s coverage of the Kansas Sprint Cup race featured more of the same problems that have plagued their broadcasting team all season long. Dr. Jerry Punch still fails to really call the race, instead deciding to read one-liners and offer shallow analysis and facts of what is happening. The team also fails to cover non-Chase drivers with any effectiveness, which is especially noticeable during races like this one, where non-Chasers like Martin Truex Jr., Casey Mears, David Ragan, AJ Allmendinger and Elliott Sadler all took turns at leading or at least running in the top 10. There will be more on this point later on; hopefully, the network will respond well to feedback and make the right changes. Too much change during last season interrupted the chemistry needed to make great broadcasts, but ESPN made the right moves during the offseason to make the NASCAR team better. The same needs to be done this offseason.
  • The NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kansas was not a barnburner. Denny Hamlin dominated the race in, surprise, a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. But despite the snoozer, ESPN did not do a bad job of covering several angles of the event. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth offered in-depth analysis of the damage to Mike Bliss‘s No. 1 Chevy after he accidentally ran over Kyle Busch‘s car when Busch was trying to pit. Bliss literally ran his car under Busch’s bumper, sending Busch to a hit against the wall almost as big as the hit in the Sprint Cup points he has taken the past three races. Jarrett and Petree both speculated on what damage the giant dent in the hood could have caused to the equipment under it, and Tim Brewer in the ESPN Tech Center did a great job at showing the equipment that could have been damaged. Brewer’s performance continues to improve, and his integration into the discussion in the booth is a big boost to ESPN’s broadcasts.
  • As stated several times before in this column, breaking news coverage is very important to any network. ESPN did a a great job of breaking the news of Juan Pablo Montoya‘s disqualification from the pole during its coverage of Sprint Cup practice on Friday evening, with Jamie Little doing the dirty work in a solo report. This was followed by some analysis from the boys in the booth and then a live interview with NASCAR’s John Darby on the issue. Tim Brewer also explained the rules violation (too much gas pressure in the upper chamber of the rear shocks), and also admitted how much he used to increase that pressure when he was a crew chief. Every person and element involved in this breaking news executed their roles perfectly on ESPN.
  • Every race should be covered like practice. During practices for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series this weekend on SPEED Channel and ESPN, I noticed why I like to watch practice so much… because every team gets covered. Since the cars are not racing each other, the networks follow the storylines of more than just the big teams. When David Reutimann, for example, streaks by the booth, someone begins stating facts on the team or may mention how they spoke to his crew chief in the garage and says how they said that Reutimann’s car is going to be great in the race. The pit reporting team is also close to the teams and the racecars, trying to find stories worth mentioning or sometimes commiserating with the crews and drivers on poor times. The coverage is in-depth, but also light-hearted; and most importantly, every team gets some! If FOX, TNT and ESPN could cover races like this, then less people would be complaining about how boring they are.

Chase race number four launches at Talladega next week. This race may be a challenge for the ESPN crew to cover because of the constant position changes through the field and the (gasp) possibility that non-Chasers will factor into the outcome of top-10 finishing order. Tune in here next week for analysis of the week’s NASCAR TV coverage.

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