The second season of NASCAR’ s rebirth on ESPN is in the books. Reactions from NASCAR fans across the nation have been mixed regarding the network’s coverage. When NASCAR and the sports network announced their partnership in 2006, the potential seemed boundless for how good the coverage was going to be. From the first green flag for ESPN for last year’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona, however, the main reaction from many fans, especially old school ones, has been disappointment.
This disappointment followed ESPN from the 2007 season into 2008. For much of this season, fans have wondered aloud about the network’s insistence on only covering the big stories and big teams, about the incessant references to the Chase, about why some wrecks happened out of camera range, about Dr. Jerry Punch’s race-calling abilities and about other issues. ESPN must have taken cues from Jimmie Johnson‘s No. 48 team, though, because it managed to turn in some of it’s best season performances in 2008’s final races.
The Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a decent broadcast for the ESPN crew. First and foremost, the race itself ended well before the scheduled time of 8 p.m., so the historic race was not bumped from ABC to one of the ESPN channels. The entire crew managed to cover all of the big stories of the day from several angles. Viewers never lost track of where Johnson was in relation to Carl Edwards on the track and in the points. Fortunately for viewers and the network, very few cars dropped out of the race, so Johnson technically never clinched the title until the checkered flag.
Another fortunate circumstance for ESPN and its viewers was the abundance of side-by-side racing throughout the event. Even though there were few cautions, the progressive banking at the track created great racing action and the boys in the booth did not hesitate to point this out and explain why the banking made the racing good.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree again brought their A-game to the race, shining under the lights in the Sunshine State. Both provided their expertise throughout the event, including on a range of issues from what Johnson and Edwards each should be doing to insure their capturing the championship to nailing down Edwards’s and others’ fuel-mileage gambles at the end of the race. Dr. Jerry Punch was still the weak race-calling link of the bunch. He again failed to call the racing action as much as the others, but has seemed to call more of it in the past few weeks than he has in his races before those as the lead announcer, which began at the start of 2007. The personnel in the booth will likely not be different next season, so hopefully Punch can watch some video tape and practice his race-calling skills before next year’s Nationwide races.
The ESPN studio was well-staffed for the season’s final event, as Ray Evernham joined regulars Allen Bestiwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. Evernham’s three championships with Jeff Gordon gave him an expert perspective on the night’s events. ESPN has an impressive analyst lineup consisting of two Cup drivers’ championships (Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett) and SEVEN crew chief Cup championships (two each from Tim Brewer and Andy Petree and three from Evernham). Unfortunately, the boys in the Pit Studio did not get the chance to strut their stuff that they deserved. The pre-race show was a bit flat, as some of the stories in it were recycled, and their presence during the race was limited. Another improvement ESPN can make in the offseason is finding a way to make the Pit Studio crew more useful.
The pit reporting crew did their job during this race. There were no major hiccups throughout the race’s pit stops and each reporter asked drivers and crew chiefs the right questions. There was an issue with Shannon Spake’s audio when she was updating a driver around lap 186 and one crew chief interview after the race had a shaky camera setup at the beginning of it. This crew likely will have the same on-air talent next season and they too have turned in their best performances in the year’s final races. Hopefully they will not get rusty during the offseason.
As has been the case for most of the season, ESPN still does not do enough Up to Speed updates and did not do very many during the Ford 400. This is one element that needs heavy improvement in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. So many story lines of drivers outside of the lead pack are ignored. If ESPN is not going to add more of these segments, then it needs to start offering some sort of online aid, like TNT’s Race Buddy, to supplement the lack of coverage for non-top 10 drivers and teams.
While the Ford 400 gets a B-plus from this observer for the ESPN coverage, summing up the whole season is a more daunting task that may yield a lower grade. First off, here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of this year’s ESPN coverage.
- Goodbye: Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, and Allen Bestwick. This trio of NASCAR veteran’s led ESPN’s coverage in on-air talent. They made ESPN’s broadcasts worth watching and definitely were easier to stomach than some of their equals on other networks. Dale Jarrett did an incredible job in his first full year in the booth. He seems like he has been there for a long time already.
- Good Riddance: Brad Daugherty. Brad Daugherty has not been all that bad in the Pit Studio, but he has not really offered much more than the casual fan could. He seems to be taking up camera time that is better suited for Ray Evernham. Since Daugherty is now a part-owner of a Sprint Cup team, ESPN probably should encourage him to go be an owner and not worry so much about his broadcasting role.
- Goodbye: Ray Evernham. He has become a mainstay on Sprint Cup broadcasts the past few weeks and has been a welcome one at that. He should hold a more-prominent role in the Pit Studio next season, but only if he sells his share of GEM. If he holds onto it, he should exit through the same door that brad Daugherty needs to go through.
- Good Riddance: Non-coverage of mid-pack race teams. This has been ESPN’s biggest weakness this season. If there is one area in ESPN NASCAR broadcasts that needs to be fixed, it is the lack of Up to Speed segments and other coverage of drivers not in the lead pack. The constant pushing of the Chase and of leaders makes the broadcasts uninteresting and uninformative.
- Goodbye: NASCAR Now. Nicole Manske, Ryan Burr, and Allen Bestwick, along with ESPN vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg helped turn this ship in the right direction. NASCAR Now was a joke last season and has been quite the opposite this year. Each host has been miles ahead of the hosts of last year. The show airs more regularly, has tons of expert opinions, plenty of driver interviews and has a great Monday roundtable expert panel discussion, similar to that of This Week in NASCAR. Cheers to this crew for giving ESPN a viable NASCAR show in the midst of the stick and ball regular staples.
- Good Riddance: Those stupid alliterative commercials. H is for Homestead. D is for Dover. T is for Thank God These Commercials Are Over! Sure, finding the large number of relevant words that began with the same letter was clever, but these commercials bombarded the TV and radio waves during the Chase season. Let us all hope that the ESPN crew has a better advertising idea for next season… this one was pretty bad.
In conclusion, ESPN’s coverage finally started to turn the corner in the home stretch of the Chase. Though the final races went well, some of the earlier ones did not, meaning that ESPN’s overall grade for the season is a B-minus. The final races receive a better grade, but this grade is for the whole season. ESPN has the entire offseason to improve their coverage and receive a better grade. They should receive praise for improving coverage to the point they have.
You can hear Doug Turnbull talk racing on the Bellamy Strickland 120 racing show this Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com