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Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN, We Know Jimmie Johnson Wrecked. Thank You…

Hello, race fans, and welcome to my weekly critique, entry No. 41 in an ongoing series in which I look into the TV broadcasts that we watch on a weekly basis. This week, NASCAR’s top-three series were all at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. However, there are a couple of things that must be addressed before we start.

First of which, as you may know, NASCAR’s PR Director, Ramsey Poston, last week gave his two cents about ESPN’s coverage at Talladega. In his short comments on the ‘NASCAR Says’ blog at nascar.com, Poston claimed that the ESPN crew was disappointed with the action at Talladega and let their feelings pour over into the broadcast. Well, we’re not going to rehash Talladega here, but this is stuff that I mentioned last week. I can never tell with ESPN whether it is actual despair about the race or just the way the broadcast is planned out.

However, we have more to the story this week. Landmark Newspapers’ Dustin Long conducted an interview with the somewhat secretive, way-too-private-to-be-the-CEO-of-NASCAR, Brian France. In that interview, Long asked France about ESPN’s broadcast from Talladega. This was Fance’s exact quote: “I didn’t see it. I really didn’t see all of it.” Long then asked France if he talked to anyone associated with ESPN/ABC about the telecast, to which France responded with an outright no.

The general opinion that some of the readers in our Live Blog on Sunday took out of this piece is that France may be unable at this point to relate to normal race fans. If this is true, then it’s a crying shame. France needs to make himself available to drivers, team owners, crew chiefs and what have you. France would also do well to drop in on a fan forum every once in a while. As it stands now, who knows what that guy is up to? He’s invisible, and thus, potentially out of touch with the sanctioning body’s needs.

Now, we know that France rarely shows up on television. When he showed up for the announcement of the inaugural class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame on October 14, it was the first time I’d seen him on TV in months. When he wants to come out and be the face of NASCAR, he can. However, I don’t think he really wants to, as he basically inherited his current job from his late father.

As for your comments from last week, I had to sift through the remarks about alleged drug usage involving France to get to anything that I can print here. We’re not starting those types of rumors here; none of that’s proven. All we do know is that JC, his relative, got busted for cocaine recently. The user “slander” stated that NASCAR should evoke the blanket “Actions Detrimental to Stock Car Racing” clause in order to root ESPN out of NASCAR coverage in favor of expanded coverage from TNT. That would be interesting if NASCAR tried to do so, although I think at this point, it’s not happening and if it did, I don’t think NASCAR would initiate it. ESPN is currently paying NASCAR up to $270 million a year to broadcast NASCAR races and other programming. I don’t think they could get that from Turner Sports or another media partner to replace ESPN at this point (nor would anyone pay that much). They like that $270 million too much.

Also, I have to mention that I really did not like the scheduling that SPEED put out for Friday night at TMS. Nationwide Series qualifying started at 6:30 p.m. ET and was only given a one-hour time slot. I knew going in that this wouldn’t be enough, and at 7:30 p.m., they cut away from live qualifying to go to Trackside Live. SPEED could have just advertised the Trackside program after the Truck race as the main airing, to be honest. There is no reason why that needs to be aired live when you have live qualifying going on at the track that you’re televising. Please don’t do this again.

After the debacle that was Nationwide Series qualifying, SPEED presented the WinStar World Casino 350 from Texas Motor Speedway. The usual crew worked on the telecast, meaning that Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip were in the booth for SPEED while Krista Voda, Adam Alexander and Ray Dunlap handled pit road. Pre-Race (NCWTS Setup) started out in the typical way, with a recap of last week’s Mountain Dew 250 from Talladega. In between the seven interviews, there was a feature on Turner Motorsports, a new team that will be campaigning two trucks full-time next season (in practice, this is the Win-Tron Racing team that has raced in the ARCA Re/MAX Series for the past few years).

The ‘Bumper to Bumper’ feature was what amounted to a Q&A with Todd Bodine, which was quite interesting. There was also a feature about the drivers’ wives and girlfriends about how they conduct themselves at the track. This seems to be the kind of thing that probably should have run last week, to be honest.

The race coverage was more or less what we’ve come to expect from SPEED this season, which is a generally well put together package, with a couple of things that I wish they would fix. Once again, they missed a restart this week. In addition, they still do not really recognize those trucks that are S&P’ing. Maybe that’s because of Phil Parsons’s presence in the booth… I don’t know.

But the one thing that I really don’t understand from Friday’s telecast was the fact that SPEED took back-to-back commercial breaks under green late in the race. The only explanation that I can come up with is that they were expecting the race to take longer to run than it did, necessitating them to take the extra break in order to fulfill their ad obligations.

Since this race was relatively short, the post-race coverage was chock full of interviews and analysis. Eight drivers and the winning crew chief (Richie Wauters) were interviewed on SPEED. There was a fair amount of wrap-up analysis from the booth as well.

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series took to the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway for the O’Reilly Challenge. The big story before that race got underway was the ongoing saga surrounding Danica Patrick potentially coming to the Nationwide Series to drive a part-time schedule for JR Motorsports in 2010. One feature focused on getting opinions from drivers about Danica coming to NASCAR.

There were a pretty good number of interviews during pre-race (nine), and a near completely pointless cut to the Tech Garage. I should mention that my dad came up to visit from New Jersey while this race was on Saturday. Why is this worth mentioning? Because while we watching the race on ESPN2, my father and I got to discussing the coverage. I should state for the record that my dad is not a race fan. Yes, he took me and my buddy Brien to the Bud at the Glen in 1998, but that’s the only race he’s ever been to. He’s more of a stick and/or ball fan. His opinion of the coverage? He thinks that it needs to be catered towards the core fans. Right now, it’s designed to appeal to casual and/or new fans, which may be hurting ratings as a result. He used soccer coverage as an example; they just call the games for the fans watching, give analysis, and that’s it.

The race on Saturday definitely had a green flag feel to it, so ESPN focused on individual stories when there was no racing for position on the track (i.e. – Bobby Hillin Jr.‘s return to the series in the No. 81). When the action heated back up, they showed that action.

Post-race coverage was relatively short. There were only five post-race interviews. Those were with winner Kyle Busch and his crew chief Jason Radcliff. In addition, there were interviews with Casey Mears, Jason Leffler and Brad Keselowski while the unofficial results ran in the scroll during said interviews. In between the Radcliff and Mears interviews, ESPN ran the points standings graphic. The Busch interview was the last of the five, and ESPN left the air almost immediately afterwards.

The race on Saturday was OK to watch. I cannot do anything about Busch running away with the race (again) and ESPN did the best with what they were given. As for Marty Reid, he definitely works well with the Nationwide telecasts, although he can play off of Rusty Wallace and Randy LaJoie better than Petree and Jarrett, to be honest. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to group Reid, Wallace and LaJoie together for all the races next year.

On Sunday, ESPN on ABC presented coverage of the Dickies 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. It was the usual crew of Jerry Punch, Petree and Dale Jarrett in the booth, while Alan Bestwick, Brad Daugherty and Wallace held down the fort in the Infield Studio. The typical crew of Spake, Burns, Welch and Little controlled the pits.

As usual, we’ll start with the pre-race show, NASCAR Countdown. Sunday’s 45-minute edition was briefly interrupted (without fanfare, for some reason) by an ABC News Special Report. Wasn’t expecting that, but that’s something you can’t control – and it must have been chaotic in the TV trucks. There was a pretty good feature on the anatomy of crashes, complete with sound bites from Dr. Dean Sicking, the creator of the SAFER barrier. I’m admittedly a nerd who did science competitions in high school (Science Olympiad), so I found that interesting. There was extensive discussion of the extrication of Ryan Newman from his blowover flip at Talladega. As our John Potts described back on November 1st in the Live Blog, this was completely done to protocol, and Dr. Punch more or less echoed that. I think the cut to the Craftsman Tech Garage with Tim Brewer at that point was unnecessary, though.

There was also a “Taste of the Race” segment where Daugherty went to a temporary Brookshire’s grocery store setup behind the backstretch. Now, I have no issues with that, but what I do have an issue with is the unrecognized Bush’s sponsorship. Daugherty basically says something along the lines of “Hey! You got my favorite!” The camera then pans down to the cans of Bush’s Baked Beans. This wouldn’t be a problem if Bush’s didn’t sponsor Daugherty’s race team. And this is the second time this has happened, although this instance wasn’t as blatant. ESPN needs to put it right out there that Bush’s sponsors that segment, in order to save face.

Also, there was a brief concert by ZZ Top, who also served as the Grand Marshals of the race. Personally, I’m not a fan of pre-race concerts like that, because they just prolong the pre-race show.

As you may expect, Sunday’s race coverage was outright overkill. It drove me nuts. Yes, Johnson having his wreck was the big story of the race, however, ESPN let it become almost the only story on the broadcast. During Sunday’s Live Blog, a poll was taken about whether the increased Johnson coverage hurt the broadcast. The results were 2 to 1 that it did. Yes, it’s nice to know what happened to Johnson, but I swear they showed the replay of the wreck like 20 times during the race. ESPN even had a clock on the repair time (it turned out to be one hour and eight minutes, or 117 laps). Then, after the race, NASCAR Now showed the wreck a reported 30 more times in a one-hour time slot.

Aside from the constant rehashing of Johnson’s wreck, the ESPN cameras kept focused on Johnson too much. In all honesty, I’m surprised that ESPN didn’t give a little more focus to the fact that Johnson was under the minimum speed at multiple points during the race. To continue on that point, it was made clear that the minimum speed (or really, maximum lap time) was 33.27 seconds, or 163.308 mph. I think that this should be listed in the race statistics every week, to be honest.

There was only one debris caution during the race, and ESPN actually found the debris on the track. However, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was, even with the help of my DVR. I guess it was a water bottle, but it looked like a bunch of tearoffs clumped together to me.

There were four “Up to Speed” segments during the race, which is more than normal. Of those, only one covered any driver further back than 11th. I wish they would give a little more coverage to those teams back there.

Since the race only had five cautions, the race ended relatively early. That is, if you consider 6:50 p.m. ET early. ESPN did 10 interviews in that time, and multiple points checks. Even with the post-race coverage, no one mentioned the fact that Kurt Busch won the race by over three-quarters of a lap (25-plus seconds). I thought it was 13 seconds at the finish, and only realized differently when I checked NASCAR’s result sheet later in the evening. Even with all the surplus time, ESPN kept the unofficial results in the scroll. Of the three media partners, ESPN is the only one to show them there.

That’s all for this week. Next week is another NASCAR tripleheader, this time at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. The action starts with the Camping World Truck Series’ qualifying coverage at 4:30 p.m. ET (2:30 p.m. local). Pre-race coverage (NCWTS Setup) starts at 7:30 p.m. ET, with Lucas Oil 150 coverage starting at 8:00 p.m. ET. SPEED will broadcast all the events.

The Nationwide Series is also in town for the Able Body Labor 200 (for reference purposes, this is a company that provides labor to worksites). Coverage starts Friday morning with the first practice session at 11:30 a.m. ET (9:30 a.m. local). The final practice session will air at 3:30 p.m. ET. Both of these will air on SPEED. Qualifying is scheduled for 12:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. local) on SPEED. Finally, race coverage starts with NASCAR Countdown from Phoenix at 4:00 p.m. ET (2:00 p.m. local) on ESPN2. The green flag is schedule to fall around 4:45 p.m. ET.

Finally, the Cup Series will race on Sunday in the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500k. Coverage starts Friday with the only pre-qualifying practice session airing at 2:00 p.m. ET (12:00 p.m. local) on ESPN2. Qualifying coverage will follow at 5:30 p.m. ET, right after NASCAR Now. On Saturday, the first practice session will be carried on SPEED at 1:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. local). Happy Hour will be aired at 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2. However, there is a Georgia Tech vs. Duke college football game that starts at 12:00 p.m. ET on Saturday. Precedent says that the practice coverage will be at least slightly curtailed due to that game.

Finally, the pre-race coverage is scheduled to begin on ABC at 2:30 p.m. ET (12:30 p.m. local). Race coverage will start at 3:15 p.m. ET, with the green flag falling around 3:30 p.m. ET. I will provide a critique for all three of these races, along with anything else I find important.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page here. And if you would like to contact ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

SPEED
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As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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