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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Grading TNT’s 2010 Season – How to Fix Some Glaring Issues

Hello, race fans. I bet you missed our weekly critique last week. I did, too, and I’m the one who writes the piece. My week of Frontstretch coverage at Daytona was interesting, filled with plenty of personal highlights for me as it was my first time at that famous track. In case you missed it, I was happy to break the news on Saturday that Jim Noble will be working the pits for ESPN during their coverage of the Nationwide race at Iowa in a few weeks. For those who don’t know, Noble is the pit reporter for TNT’s Racebuddy, and with that application tabled until next season he’s now free to accept other opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see him transition from web-based programming to a different type of live TV.

Let’s move on to the actual critique. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were both racing at Chicagoland Speedway near Joliet, Ill. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series was at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.

Dollar General 300

First up, on Friday night, the Nationwide Series raced at Chicagoland Speedway. The race was televised on ESPN2 with the usual group of 10 on-air personalities.

NASCAR Countdown was a run-of-the-mill affair. There were no special features for fans to watch; instead, the show consisted mainly of pre-race discussion from the Infield Studio, centered on various issues that could affect the race. Of course, there was also a slight rip on the Chicago Bulls for being unable to land LeBron James. Since Brad Daugherty’s a former NBA center, they felt it necessary for him to chime in on the issue just a little bit. Personally, I don’t tune into Nationwide races to hear about LeBron James. After the insanity known as “The Decision” the night before, most people, race fans included, were likely LeBroned out.

ESPN showed interviews with five of the top-six starters, with Trevor Bayne the in-race reporter for the event as the sixth. There was also a Craftsman Tech Garage feature on refueling, with the emphasis put on the catch-can man, which is an endangered species with the new self-venting dump cans now in use in the Camping World Truck Series. I question just how beneficial these features are these days, though, knowing that ESPN has been doing them since they began covering NASCAR once again back in 2007. At what point does Tim Brewer start to repeat himself?

Since Danica Patrick was back for Round 5 of her NASCAR adventure, ESPN took the time to cover her, but to their credit they scaled back a bit from what they did at Loudon. There were no dropdown constant updates on Patrick’s status, which was good to see. Finally, she was treated more or less like another driver out there. I think part of the reason that Danica got less exposure at Chicagoland is that for the first time in a while, she didn’t do anything stupid during the weekend. The No. 7 car didn’t get caught up in another wreck, and the rookie didn’t spin anyone out. She did get a pit-road penalty – which cost her a lap – but that happens. When there’s no drama, it’s hard to put just one driver on center stage throughout the entire broadcast.

Post-race coverage was quite brief due to time constraints. There was only time for interviews with winner Kyle Busch, Brian Scott and Patrick. Joey Logano, who finished second, walked away from his No. 20 GameStop Toyota after the race, visibly upset over the way the field was reconfigured for a green-white-checkered finish. Marty Reid stated that ESPN was going to try to talk to him while they were still on air, but made no promises. It didn’t happen, which was unfortunate considering the controversy surrounding that ending; eventually, Logano denied ESPN’s interview request.

Lucas Oil 200

On Sunday afternoon, the Camping World Truck Series was back in action with the Lucas Oil 200 at Iowa Speedway. SPEED’s normal crew was on the job, but Adam Alexander missed his third straight race due to TNT obligations. Krista Voda took his place on pit road.

NCWTS Setup started out with a montage-style recap of the first nine races of the season. It seems like SPEED does this segment every other race. Why? Because the division competes so sparingly the network has to spend time reacclimating fans to the Truck Series. People don’t have the longest attention spans on earth these days, and forcing fans to wait three and four weeks between events means that many people forget about the main stars of the series and how they’ve done this year.

This problem clearly needs to be addressed by NASCAR in the offseason. How bad is it? The geniuses who concocted the Truck Series schedule made it so that there would only be 10 races run in the first five months of the season. It’s crazy. It is way too spread out. A 25-race season shouldn’t stretch from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving. There are something like 15 off weeks, nearly triple what you’ll find in the Sprint Cup Series. The number of races is fine – I have no problem with that – but start the season later and/or end it earlier, please.

Getting back to TV, SPEED’s pre-race show shined. There was a nice sit-down style interview with Austin Dillon, where he talked about his memories of, among other things, standing in victory lane at Daytona in 1998 after Dale Earnhardt won his one and only Daytona 500. It was high-quality stuff.

In a Bumper-to-Bumper feature, SPEED asked drivers whether they’ve gotten speeding tickets in the past, and if so, how many? This was interesting, since the answers ranged from none to a series of unknown numbers. For example, Johnny Sauter claimed that he had stopped counting after he had earned 16. In the interests of full disclosure, SPEED also provided some speeding ticket stats for their on-air personalities. Here, we found out that Phil Parsons has gotten 50 speeding tickets, while Ray Dunlap got busted for driving too slow on the Autobahn in Germany.

In addition to the aforementioned features, there were six regular driver interviews during the Setup. Generally, the format flowed well.

During the race, there were a series of right-front tire failures (one for Steve Wallace, one for Aric Almirola and two for Jason White). I don’t believe that SPEED looked into these issues enough during the broadcast, especially since both of the Billy Ballew Motorsports Toyotas were eliminated due to similar issues. I would have liked to have seen where these blowouts occurred on the tires (if possible).

SPEED also nearly missed the restart from the second caution of the race, when Almirola had his wreck. We’ve discussed that problem many times in this space; the network needs to be careful of this going forward.

Post-race coverage was typical for SPEED. There were five post-race interviews conducted for the broadcast: winner Dillon, crew chief Gary Stockman, car owner Richard Childress, Sauter and Matt Crafton. In addition, there were checks of the unofficial results and the points standings.

LifeLock.com 400

Saturday night, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Chicagoland Speedway for the tenth running of the LifeLock.com 400. TNT provided the coverage for their sixth and final race of 2010.

The Pride of NASCAR Series concluded with a feature on 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki. This segment was effectively what I expected. Almost any feature on the late Kulwicki is centered upon Alan’s herculean work ethic, and this one proved no different. However, there was also an inappropriate usage of file footage during the piece from the 1986 Sovran Bank 500 at Martinsville, showing the No. 7 7-Eleven Ford passing a No. 19 Pontiac in turns 3 and 4. Yes, Kulwicki drove the No. 7 for his entire career — with the exception of 1985 and his rookie season in 1986. In 1986, Kyle Petty drove the No. 7 for the Wood Brothers, and the No. 19 that Petty overtook was driven by a young Mike Skinner. When Kulwicki changed his number from No. 35 to No. 7 for 1987, he picked up Zerex Antifreeze as his primary sponsor. How the network could make that mistake – especially considering Petty’s an on-air announcer for them – is surprising.

I’m still trying to understand why TNT feels the need to put Nationwide Series logo graphics on all of the footage shown from Friday night’s Dollar General 300. It’s like they took the recap pictures straight off of Sprint Vision or something. The whole thing comes off as low rent.

Saturday’s edition of the Ponytail Express saw Petty travel to Jacksonville, Fla. for a Randy Montana concert. Kyle then briefly channeled his country music career on stage. For those newer fans, in 1989 Kyle briefly attempted a side career while driving the No. 42 Peak Pontiac for Felix Sabates on a limited schedule.

Wally’s World focused on the phenomenon of cars running side-by-side in corners suddenly breaking loose. This is nothing new. It is a symptom of the now-infamous “aero-loose.” I don’t think that Wally added anything new to the discussion here. Also, the whole “climbing out of a opera window and talking thing” is a little ridiculous to watch. Is this whole thing supposed to be serious, or is it supposed to be taken for fun and/or laughs? I don’t think anyone knows anymore.

Early on, Petty, after referring to the Countdown to Green as “pre-race,” much to his colleagues’ chagrin, claimed that “I don’t know who’s in the back of the pack.” Either this is a joke, or it’s a serious issue that Kyle should address in the offseason. I hope it’s a joke, to be honest. There is a lot of preparation that has to be done to commentate on these races and not look like a complete idiot.

Once again, I’m still trying to figure out how much money that NASCAR’s media partners spend on these cutaway cars and such for the broadcasts. However, I fear that its a whole lot of cash spent (especially on ESPN’s part) for limited returns. The use of Larry McReynolds for this purpose on TNT is totally unnecessary. As it is, we already have a weekly show dedicated to all in the ins and outs of Sprint Cup and Nationwide series cars (NASCAR Performance on SPEED). Perhaps that show could be shared between SPEED and ESPN (and/or placed in more visible time-slots) in order to help the newer fans learn more about the inner workings of the vehicles.

Post-race coverage was fairly decent since the race ended a little early. There were interviews with winner David Reutimann and crew chief Rodney Childers, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. In addition, there were also checks of the unofficial results and the point standings. Finally, the coverage ended with some wrap-up analysis from the broadcast booth. This also served as Alexander, Petty and Dallenbach’s goodbye for the season. Then, TNT left the air five minutes early once again. I have no clue why they keep rushing off, especially considering it was their final telecast. The most likely reason is that they don’t want to step on their RaceBuddy-exclusive extra coverage, but that isn’t a reason not to fill your time-slot.

TNT Summer Series Recap

Since TNT’s Summer Series is now over, we must take an overall look at the network’s performance. Last year, TNT was solid despite being a mess behind the scenes following Bill Weber’s dismissal because of the Manchester incident. Ralph Sheheen, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Daytona, did a great job moving up from pit road to fill in over the final three races. Adam Alexander also did well in his substitute pit reporter role.

This year, TNT had to adjust to Alexander being the new play-by-play guy. I think that Adam had some growing pains at first, but he’s turned out to be a pretty good man for the job. Wally Dallenbach was about the same as last year in the booth, while Petty may have taken a slight step back. However, the performance by the three of them as a whole was fairly strong.

The three pit reporting holdovers from last year (Matt Yocum, Marty Snider and Ralph Sheheen) all performed admirably this season. Sheheen had to put up with Tom Logano, nearly knocking him to the ground at Pocono after the race during the confrontation between Tom’s son Joey and Kevin Harvick, yet still maintained his cool.

Lindsay Czarniak sharing the stage with Larry McReynolds this season was OK. However, I still believe that TNT gave too much of Countdown to Green to them this year, shutting out the pit reporters from giving the at-track interviews and insider info viewers are looking for.

More troublesome was the decision to keep Czarniak on stage during the race, replacing her with Phil Parsons on pit road. First off, there is that ever-present issue of Phil co-owning PRISM Motorsports, continually not having to answer for the team’s business model, which is ridiculous. Secondly, Phil just doesn’t appear to be all that good at the job. He’s much better in the broadcast booth, a competent on-air analyst for the Camping World Truck Series. In comparison, with these pit reporting duties for TNT, he’s struggled to ask specific questions and get the answers viewers are looking for. Personality-wise, it’s my opinion he’s become holier than thou. I’m sure most of you have heard about what happened with Parsons blocking ESPN’s Marty Smith from talking with Kurt Busch after the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. According to sources, Parsons pushed him away at one point, then swore at another media member, all while claiming that “We’re Going Live!” Granted, Phil stood there for what seemed like 15 minutes waiting for his live shot before he actually did it. It’s one example of inappropriate conduct from him in this role, something that should clearly not be tolerated from TNT if they bring him back.

That’s all for this edition. Next weekend is an off week for the Sprint Cup Series, meaning the teams and drivers will get a little time to themselves for a change. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series will be at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., just over the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In addition, the Izod IndyCar Series is back in action after a week off, with the Honda Indy Toronto on the tight streets surrounding Exhibition Place.

Friday, July 16
Time Telecast Network
7:00 – 8:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
8:30 – 9:00 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
9:00 – 11:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series CampingWorld.com 200 SPEED

Saturday, July 17
Time Telecast Network
4:30 – 6:00 p.m. Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30 – 8:00 p.m. Legends Million Pre-Race Show SPEED
8:00 – 11:00 p.m. Nationwide Series Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 ESPN2
8:00 – 11:00 p.m. Legends Million Dollar Race SPEED

Sunday, July 18
Time Telecast Network
11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. V8 Supercars Round 8 (Races 15-16) Sucrogen Townsville 400 SPEED
12:30 – 3:00 p.m. Izod IndyCar Series Honda Indy Toronto ABC
1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Rolex Sports Car Series NJMP 250 presented by Crown Royal SPEED
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. The SPEED Report SPEED

Next Tuesday, I will provide critiques of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races from Gateway next weekend, as well as the IZOD IndyCar Series event from the Streets of Toronto. The Critic’s Annex for July 23 in the Frontstretch Newsletter will cover the Grand-Am NJMP 250 from Thunderbolt Raceway (part of New Jersey Motorsports Park) in Millville, N.J.

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 TNT, ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

TNT
SPEED
ESPN

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

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