The Sprint Cup season is now over halfway home. Can you believe it? I know I can’t.
In fact, it only seems like yesterday Elliott Sadler was leading a rain-threatened Daytona 500 bemoaning his lack of luck… and heck, we all know how that turned out. So, with 19 races in the books, seven races to go until the Chase, and a rare off-weekend ahead, we reach the final broadcasting transition of the season as ESPN, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” takes over for the stretch run following a terrific six-race spell by TNT.
I know not everyone will agree, but I for one very much enjoyed the TNT coverage this year. Their six-race spell sits between the two broadcasting monoliths of FOX and ESPN, and given the hype that surrounds the start of each season and, of course, the all-hallowed Chase for the Sprint Cup, it would be easy for TNT to get lost in the shuffle. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, a fact that speaks volumes for the quality of their efforts and overall approach to the sport we all love (or, in some cases, love to hate.)
So, why has TNT been successful? Here’s a few reasons:
ABF: ANYONE BUT FOX
After the relentless hype and interminable promotion of the stupid rodent that is Digger (or “The bedraggled oversized rat that shall not be named,” if you’ll forgive the Harry Potter reference) whoever came next was always likely to have something of a halo effect surrounding their coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that FOX Sports (or is that “We are FOX Sports”) like to get the most of their broadcasts and do, it seems, care very genuinely about the sport – but there is something about the way they approach it that sticks in my craw. You can’t help but feel if FOX would let the racing tell its own story, rather than trying to force fit a “Dale Earnhardt Jr. did this, Kyle Busch said that” approach to each race weekend their broadcasts would be incrementally better. And as for Digger, well, that furry cretin is one of the single most hated TV mascots I’ve ever seen. FOX touts the fact that they sell a ton of merchandise and that it’s a good way to get kids into the sport, but for me that begs two questions: One, who exactly is buying this Digger crap, and why is a cartoon better than actual, honest-to-goodness on-track action? I don’t know the answers to either question, so at this stage they’re somewhat rhetorical. The fact is, though, that after the white noise of FOX TNT came as a blessed relief.
THE KP FACTOR
Kyle Petty has been a phenomenal addition in the booth for a second straight year. His call-it-like-it-is approach is monumentally refreshing. That said, you do wonder how much of his honesty is a cause of his not having a ride this year; does Kyle have something of a chip (or potato field, to be more accurate) on his shoulder following his unceremonious excision from driving duties? I think that might actually be the case; but no matter, because for TV purposes it’s just what we need. And in a new twist for the announcing booth, Petty has been answering questions sent to him via Twitter on the live broadcasts. If that’s not cutting edge… I don’t know what is. More importantly, it creates a symbiotic link with the fans looking to connect with the sport. I mean, come on, can you imagine DW answering Twitter questions on air? Bless the 84-time Boogity-Boogitying race winner, but he probably thinks a “tweet” is a noise made by a bird.
Dear David Hill and other FOX executives: See that Race Buddy character? Yeah, gents, that’s how you create an animated mascot… and unlike Digger, Race Buddy is actually useful, an online companion that doesn’t leave you completely at the mercy of the TV director. And having a dedicated online pit reporter as part of the Race Buddy package is such a simple idea, it’s genius. Now, I’m not one who likes all the accoutrements and bells and whistles surrounding sports broadcasts, but if I made an exception, Race Buddy would be it. The little animated cartoon buddy with the cool shades is OK by me.
The NASCAR-run town hall meeting earlier this season had one huge consequence for TNT – the introduction of double-file restarts just in time for their 2009 broadcast debut at Pocono. I know not everyone likes these, (especially Jeff Burton, who said as much this past weekend after he was wrecked on a late restart) but for this observer, double-file restarts are exactly what this sport needs. I don’t have the empirical data to back up my assertion, but I would wager we’ve seen double the side-by-side racing at the tracks on the TNT schedule (not including Daytona, of course) than ever before; in some cases, by an absolute country mile. Even with all the complaints about Chicagoland being boring this weekend, those final few restarts saved it for me – and I’m sure for several others watching. Look, in the long races, drivers are going to “make laps” in the middle, setting themselves up for the race’s denouement. We all know this happens, so why complain when one driver races into the distance in the early stages? Now, with the double-file restarts, you know the field will come back together; and let’s be fair, Mark Martin, who was the class of the field, still won on Saturday night. It’s true that TNT was the beneficiary of good timing, but that’s life. It’s always about the timing….
WIDE OPEN COVERAGE
Arguably the biggest positive for TNT, in the opinion of this humble columnist, was the third year of Wide Open Coverage from Daytona. Do you realize, dear readers, that this was the first time in who knows how long every single green-flag lap was broadcast live, which in itself is an incredible statistic. In the previous two years of “Wide Open” the mandated local network “full” breaks had meant we missed a handful of laps. This year, however, the action fell perfectly for the broadcast team, and as a result, we saw all 160 of the scheduled laps. What a concept that is – a live sport you don’t cut to commercial from. Wow, wonder if that will catch on? (cough…)
So for me, Wide Open is the template for how NASCAR should be broadcast… but it doesn’t seem likely to happen. The trouble, as I understand it, is unwillingness on the part of the sponsors to accede to the change. This smacks of stupidity to me. The 30-second ad, front and center, is no longer the best way to promote your brand. A TV spot is more of an adjunct now, with other media channels doing the heavy lifting and sales conversions. What is also missed by those folks that spend hundreds of thousands buying ads every race weekend is that split screen coverage would promote viewership. You are much less likely to get up and go do something else instead if the commercial is shown in the corner of the screen while the racing action is still clearly visible beside it.
So despite the resistance, I will continue to bang the drum and argue until I’m as blue in the face as the Miller Lite Dodge that Wide Open is the way forward. If I was in charge of NASCAR, and that’s a lovely thought worth an article all of its own, then mandating this form of coverage would be one of my first orders of business.
Another factor that has helped TNT is the list of race winners from their six-race stint. Tony Stewart won twice, including his first points paying victory at Pocono; Martin bagged a pair, including wheeling his Chevy to victory lane at Michigan; and Joey Logano won his maiden Cup race, albeit with help from the weather. But perhaps best of all was seeing the King himself, Richard Petty, back in victory lane at Sonoma. The fact that he was sipping expensive red wine just added to the occasion. Now, I know that this is in many ways has nothing to do with TNT, but everyone loves a popular winner; and a list that includes Stewart, Martin, Logano, and Kasey Kahne is right up there.
Of course, it’s not all been all sunshine and flowers at TNT this summer. The replacement of Bill Weber with Ralph Sheheen after an altercation pre-Loudon was as seamless as could be expected, but it was definitely something of a black eye. TNT could have done without the unnecessary scandal. In addition, there have been a number of what you could term “continuity errors” in the broadcasting this year. Read the extremely detailed and excellent broadcast recaps of my fellow Frontstretch Tuesday columnist, Phil Allaway, and he’ll mention the other errors and faux pas made by the TNT folks these past half dozen races. But with that said, overall, I’d argue TNT has done an excellent job with their six events.
Now, with 17 to run, it’s time for the boys from Bristol to step up. Over to you, ESPN…