ESPN’s Sprint Cup portion of its broadcast schedule for 2008 has seen its ups and downs. Unfortunately for the network, recurring mistakes have overshadowed some of its other more solid efforts. At Atlanta, however, ESPN minimized its obvious mistakes and broadcast a very consistent race.
Besides the championship standings, the big story heading into the start of the event at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday was if Goodyear’s tires would allow the drivers to put on a better show than they did back in March. As the race unfolded, ESPN used several different tools to convey to its viewers the state of the racing tires and the effects on the racecars.
One of these tools was adding more team radio audio to the broadcast. Over the past few weeks, ESPN has played more audio across the airwaves, allowing fans to get an enhanced perspective of what the drivers, crew chiefs, and spotters are saying, feeling, and thinking during the race. At Atlanta, many drivers had a tough time getting a handle on their cars and conveyed this in many different ways to their crew chiefs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. have been known to have the most animated radio conversations and Sunday was no exception. At one point, Eury Jr. lost his cool on the radio following a string of complaints from Junior. Junior then got on the radio and told him to calm down. ESPN captured the entire entertaining exchange and helped to convey the frustrations of drivers and crews. Another radio transmission of note was Greg Biffle’s wondering aloud what had happened with Jimmie Johnson on the first restart when he spun his tires.
Another growing presence on ESPN in the past few weeks has been former championship crew chief Ray Evernham. Evernham’s involvement with ESPN is just as beneficial as Chad Knaus’ on SPEED’s This Week in NASCAR. As the tire situation unfolded, Evernham provided great insight and complemented Allen Bestwick, Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace very well in the Pit Studio. Evernham mentioned a few weeks ago that he may want to sell his minority ownership that remains in GEM so he can be a more impartial broadcaster. His future on television seems bright.
The pit-road reporters also performed better during the Pep Boys 500. There were no major word fumbles or fact mistakes made during pit stops. The ESPN camera crews, pit-road reporters and announcers all did a great job in pointing out how Johnson repeatedly pitted in a way to impede Carl Edwards’s exit from his stall behind him. One pit stop, whose coverage did not make much sense, was a mid-race stop by Reed Sorenson. No pit reporter was assigned to cover the stop and Sorenson was running outside the top 30. Why ESPN decided to show the stop made little sense, since he was not a factor in the race and had not been involved in any caution at that point. Dr. Jerry Punch had to cover it from the booth, since no pit reporter was assigned to the stop. Instead of talking about the stop and whether or not the No. 41 team was changing, Punch mentioned a few general facts about Sorenson and said very little about the stop. Overall, though, pit-road coverage at Atlanta was more than adequate and a definite improvement over the past few weeks.
ESPN’s Up to Speed segments still need to occur more often. Though they take a long time to do, there was plenty of time to squeeze one or two in during some of the long green-flag runs at Atlanta. ESPN did not do its first Up to Speed until lap 155, almost halfway through the race. The second and final one took place on lap 246. One of the two segments covered the 10th- through 20th-place drivers, a move that ESPN first tried during its Nationwide races. These segments were done well, with few mistakes. The only change that needs to be made to them is the frequency with which they are done.
Drivers toward the back of the top 10, unless they were in the Chase, did not get very much airtime. Roush Fenway drivers Jamie McMurray and David Ragan each had good runs and Ragan came back from running 20th to place in the top 15 for the fifth consecutive race. Other drivers that had quiet, decent runs without much coverage included Ryan Newman, who had a similar day to Ragan, and AJ Allmendinger. The task of covering and the leaders makes covering these drivers hard, but that does not change the disappointment in seeing them ignored.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree continued their great work in the booth. Petree had plenty to say about the tires and Jarrett added more insight with his take on driving cars as temperamental as those at AMS (Jarrett drove in the March Atlanta race). Dr. Jerry Punch turned in a much stronger effort, one of his strongest of the year in the lead announcer role. Punch made far fewer impertinent statements than he has before, though he did say that Edwards was hanging on for dear life on the last lap even though Johnson had zero chance of catching him. If Punch continues his improvements, he will make ESPN look like geniuses for keeping him in the booth, instead of looking like idiots for not putting Bestwick in his spot.
Each crash that took place during the race happened within the view of cameras, including the several car crash with just several laps remaining in the race. Following the wreck, Juan Pablo Montoya decided not to grant ESPN an interview, because he was angry. Fortunately, ESPN did not dance around the denial and instead informed its viewers on Montoya’s decision. Transparency is usually the best policy in situations like that. Instead of an interview, ESPN camera crews caught a great candid shot of Montoya walking through the garage, showing the dejection and frustration on his face. That spoke as much as any interview would have.
The same crash that took out Montoya also ended Dave Blaney’s day and ESPN decided to interview Blaney. Though he is not a star driver, his involvement in the wreck was major and made him deserving of some camera time.
The best move that ESPN made during the race was covering Johnson’s comeback. As soon as Johnson got four fresh tires during the final caution, ESPN did not miss a beat. From the drop of the final green flag, Johnson tore through the top 10 and eventually moved from 11th to second at the checkered flag. Since Edwards pulled away from the pack, Johnson’s surge was worth much more of a mention. ESPN made the right decision in covering Johnson instead of only showing Edwards run away from the field.
Some of the good moves made by ESPN helped them gain respect in some places where they lost it. Check this column next week to see if ESPN continued its forward momentum at Texas Motor Speedway for Chase race eight.
Listen to Doug Turnbull talk racing on the Bellamy Strickland 120 racing show on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com this Saturday, from 12-12:30 p.m.