NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Did ESPN Cut the Mustard in Its Cup Debut?

Hello, race fans. It’s been an interesting weekend in the world of racing: anything from a nail-biting win taken away in Edmonton due to a questionable blocking call to a dominant Truck Series victory that simply lulled most of its audience to sleep. When all was said and done, Juan Pablo Montoya had lost at Indy again, while Kyle Busch reigned supreme in the Nationwide Series. Before we go any further, I’ll be covering the Honda Indy Edmonton later this week in the Newsletter. So let’s get right to the NASCAR stuff….

AAA Insurance 200

On Friday night, the Camping World Truck Series returned to O’Reilly Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind. for the 16th running of the AAA Insurance 200. SPEED’s usual crew was on hand to provide the commentary.

NCWTS Setup started with the normal recap of last week’s race, the CampingWorld.com 200, before getting into the meat of the pre-race coverage. This “meat” included seven pre-race interviews – nearly 20% of the field – combined with some analysis from the broadcast booth. There was a feature on the Jeff Gordon Charity Bowling Tournament, an annual event in which some of the SPEED on-air crew (Alexander, Voda and Dunlap) participated in.

There was also a Beyond the Stripe feature where viewers got to learn a little bit more about the rookie contender (and former ARCA champion) Justin Lofton. This was generally interesting to watch because us viewers don’t really know all that much about drivers’ backgrounds before they reach series like ARCA.

So after all that good content in the pre-race show, you’d think that the goodwill would transfer over to the race telecast.

Not so fast, hot pants.

This race was weird to watch, and that’s putting it mildly. If one were to have tuned into the race while it was in commercial (which was a lot), they would have thought that the race was under caution when it was under green. There was just no frame of reference at all with the way in which the director decided to cover this event.

Many of the exterior camera angles at ORP are quite close to the ground, which can obscure things at times. It’s like watching a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on the MSG Network from the 1980s (as opposed to CBS telecasts, which used a different vantage point). The sideline camera used for most of the action was based on top of one of the tunnels to the locker rooms, so everyone appeared taller, some views could be slightly obscured, and the short-shorts appeared even more short and constricting to the average fan.

As a result of these angles, and the general lack of space in the infield, many incidents were missed by the TV cameras, which is a shame. SPEED had only aftermath footage of the first crash involving Chris Jones on lap 10. Waltrip mentioned that you could see the black marks leading to the outside wall from Jones’s No. 87… but I couldn’t see them on the broadcast.

As racing resumed, SPEED had an aerial camera at their disposal, but it didn’t get all that much usage. I think that it would have helped a little, but SPEED would have had to pick their spots with it.

The dreaded double commercial returned on Friday, but in a worse fashion than ever before. This time, it was combined with the Camping World Destination Recreation feature. As a result, there was a commercial, then the feature immediately out of commercial, then right back to another three minute break. During that break, the fourth caution came out for debris and some pit stops were made before SPEED returned. I have no clue why that feature has to air during the actual race. Can it be banished to the Setup, please?

SPEED made specific reference to the three women that started the event (Johanna Long, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Michelle Theriault) during the Setup, but made almost no mention of them at all during the race. Theriault retired fairly early on, Cobb got no mention at all and Long wasn’t mentioned once the race started until lap 188. Weak. The SPEED Spotlight drivers (of which Long and Theriault were included) were all but not mentioned at all, which is a change from the norm – and not for the better.

Post-race coverage was fairly decent. SPEED provided viewers with six post-race interviews (Ernie Cope, Ron Hornaday, Matt Crafton, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and James Buescher). There were also checks of the unofficial results and points standings before SPEED left the air. However, the time-slot for this race ran up to 10:30 p.m. ET. SPEED signed off this program 14 minutes early; I have no clue why. Both my on-screen guide and the schedule on SpeedTV.com said that it was scheduled to be on until 10:30. Maybe the slot was supposed to end at 10 p.m., like with the Nationwide Series Saturday night on ESPN2, but nobody ever made the official change. Regardless of the reasoning, it looks like they just decided that “We’re done for the night.” They could have spent that remaining 14 minutes trying to get more interviews with drivers, or even just some post-race analysis, which there really wasn’t any from the booth.

In conclusion, this is definitely not what viewers expect to see from SPEED with their coverage of the Camping World Truck Series. Hopefully, they will be better next weekend at Pocono….

Kroger 200

On Saturday night, the Nationwide Series returned to O’Reilly Raceway Park for the 29th running of the Kroger 200. With ESPN’s primary squad at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400, the backup, or “B-Team” of on-air personalities was back in play, with a couple of changes. Vince Welch returned to the play-by-play role for his second go-around. Also, Rick DeBruhl returned to pit reporting.

One of the big stories Saturday night was that there was a 80 percent chance of rain during the evening. NASCAR put the race into hurry-up mode because of this, standard operating procedure. However, when this happens, it should be mentioned very early in the pre-race show. Instead, ESPN did not mention this until after the last commercial break of NASCAR Countdown, 24 minutes in. All of a sudden, Welch mentioned it in the booth, Rusty Wallace added a comment about wanting to get going, then the track transitioned straight to the opening ceremonies. As far as I’m concerned, that is simply not the way to handle this situation, especially since the skies appeared to be clear at the track for the moment.

Other than that one isolated incident, pre-race was a relatively normal affair. There was a lot of emphasis on the Brad KeselowskiCarl Edwards rivalry stemming from their wreck at Gateway. This included a montage of their previous run-ins, as well as interviews with both drivers. Coverage and analysis of their conflict was handled appropriately.

In addition to Edwards and Keselowski, there were also interviews with polesitter Trevor Bayne, Jason Leffler and Busch. There was also a Craftsman Tech Garage feature on repairing a crashed car back at the shop. This procedure was fairly new to me, and thus, quite informative.

There were issues during the National Anthem. When I originally watched it, I thought that it might have been on my end. However, I had no other problems during NASCAR Countdown along those lines. I think it was the microphone used for the anthem that was all screwy. However, I believe that is outside of ESPN’s control. Blame the track here.

The race started with the huge stackup, which appeared to be the result of Aric Almirola running up on Paul Menard, backing off, then spinning the tires. This incident was then given a full-screen replay on just the second lap of the race. I really don’t think that a full-screen replay of the stack up at that point was best. This is why ESPN needs to come up with a split-screen setup for replays. They already do that with their Rapid Recaps; why not create a setup based on it for regular usage under green?

Vince Welch is still a work in progress in the broadcast booth. He stumbles over words at times. An example of this was when he was trying to say the length of ORP’s oval during NASCAR Countdown (.686 miles). It took him about three tries to do it. During the race, he’s rather softly spoken, which is quite a change as compared to his demeanor on pit road. Truth is, that’s a little similar to Dr. Jerry Punch’s issues in the broadcast booth that both I and John Daly mentioned multiple times in detail last year. He seems to be unable to take unilateral control in the booth, instead giving Craven and Rusty Wallace additional duties, and thus, airtime.

There were unsatisfactory replays of Hornaday’s crash with JC Stout on lap 161. All we saw was the view from Hornaday’s rear bumper cam, insinuating that none of the exterior cameras caught the wreck. Of course, that is a shame. As a result, the on-air crew concluded that Hornaday blew a tire and hit the wall based on that one available replay. However, it’s pretty rare to run over someone’s left front corner in the process of smacking the wall. A few minutes later, in an on-camera interview Hornaday blamed Stout fully for the crash. As a result, the booth effectively ate humble pie.

Towards the end of the race, there was a lot of focus on Edwards trying to run down Busch. However, Edwards was never really able to catch Busch. As a result, we basically got to watch a couple of cars shadowing each other instead of competition for position further back, which was tough to swallow – especially considering this track offers some of the most side-by-side competition as any such oval on the circuit.

Post-race coverage was quite brief due to the fact that ESPN was close to the end of their timeslot. There were post-race interviews with winner Busch, Edwards, Almirola and Keselowski. The annoying part of this ending was that ESPN never displayed the points standings at all. I can deal with the unofficial results only being displayed in the scroll like they were here, but this is pretty much inexcusable. I understand that Baseball Tonight is a 20-plus year mainstay for ESPN, but they can wait five extra minutes so the broadcast could finish up properly.

Brickyard 400

On Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana for the 17th running of the Brickyard 400. It also marked ESPN’s return to covering the Sprint Cup Series. Their broadcast team will televise all the remaining Cup races all the way to Homestead, with only three events being moved to ABC. No Eastern or Central time zones at all will be on ABC due to the new standard start times, which ABC claims cut into “mandatory educational/informative programming times” in the Pacific time zone. Mind you, I’ve never heard of mandatory times for e/i programming, just that each over the air station has to carry a minimum of three hours of it per week.

Since it was ESPN’s first race back covering the Cup Series, they went all out. There was a sitdown, one-on-one interview conducted by Marty Smith with Jeff Gordon. The interview covered multiple topics, including Gordon’s drive to win. However, only part of this interview aired during NASCAR Countdown. The rest of it can be found in the video section of espn.com. Having said that, what we did get on ESPN yesterday was quite interesting to watch.

Perhaps the strangest feature of Countdown involved Jimmie Johnson, where he talked about his racing style while sitting on what appeared to be a throne made of ice – with IV needles pumping cold fluids into his veins. That came off as weird to me; I couldn’t get the point of the whole thing. Shock value, perhaps? The nickname “Ice Man” also isn’t exactly a creative one; Terry Labonte was stuck with that moniker his whole career

Another feature in the one-hour show had Allen Bestwick doing a sitdown interview with Roger Penske. This interview was focused upon Penske’s 50 years of involvement in motorsports, with his successes at Indianapolis emphasized. Remember that all 15 of his victories at the 2.5-mile rectangle have come in the Indianapolis 500; Penske’s team has never won the Brickyard 400, although Rusty Wallace came close a couple of times (which was touched upon). As a result, not all of the feature had to do with NASCAR; but as a self-proclaimed history nut, I’m fine with features that help fans learn more about the sport’s history.

A fourth feature/montage talked about Denny Hamlin‘s season and the ongoing struggles with his knee. This was nothing that I didn’t already know, but it was still interesting to watch and well put together by the broadcast crew.

There was also plenty of pre-race analysis down in the Infield Studio. Perhaps ESPN erred on the side of too much, since there were far fewer interviews than normal. Only four (Montoya, Keselowski, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch) came up inside the entire hour. In my opinion, that number’s too low.

As a random aside, I can’t remember how many times ESPN played that graphic about the track seating over 250,000 and that the short chutes are about equal to the length of two USS Enterprises back-to-back. Honestly, I think they used that four or five times during the weekend. Too many times. Plus, with the low attendance on Sunday, it sort of got thrown back in the face of ESPN (unintentionally).

The usual crew was back in place, three in the booth, four on pit road, four in the Infield Studio and Tim Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage for the race. Watching this telecast, it made me wonder just what the benefits of having 12 on-air personalities actually is. I think it’s just too busy. In Sunday’s Live Blog, I mentioned that ESPN could probably do fine with just seven.

For some reason, for the first time ESPN didn’t show their usual “Brady Bunch” graphic of all their in-car cameras. I don’t know why they decided to forgo this. My best guess is that they felt there was going to be no time.

Moving on to the race coverage itself, it was actually not bad, probably the best of the three “national” series. There was plenty of action out on the track, and ESPN was able to catch most of it. However, I do have some thoughts.

The network was unable to catch the main reason for Kyle Busch spinning out on the first lap. Based on the blimp replay, I think that Kyle might have gotten loose, then possibly sideswiped Kasey Kahne. The booth just thought he lost it.

Indianapolis is traditionally not the best race for actual battles for position. Instead, the field spreads out quite a bit. ESPN did the best they could with that setup, thankfully. However, I believe that there was too much focus on Johnson when he was having his handling issues. Just because Johnson is running 26th, one lap down, doesn’t mean that it’s the excuse you need to actually cover those cars. ESPN should be doing it anyway.

Post-race coverage was quite extensive. This was because the race ended approximately 42 minutes before the end of the timeslot. Apparently, ESPN now has Edwards per an agreement (as stated by Allen Bestwick) where he will now join Bestwick and the crew in the Infield Studio after each race to discuss his event. I find this interesting, but I wonder about two things. One, would it mean that he would show up in the Infield Studio to help out if he falls out of a race later in the season? And two, what to do about races that run long? I seriously doubt that ESPN will have this kind of time for post-race coverage for the rest of the season.

There were interviews with winner Jamie McMurray and his car owner, Chip Ganassi. In addition, ESPN talked to Edwards (in the Infield Studio), Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon. The broadcast booth also offered some post-race analysis before they left the air at 5 p.m.

All in all, I think that Sunday proved to be a decent start for ESPN. We’ll just have to see about whether there will still be expanded post-race offerings next week in Pocono, or if this effort was just a one-time thing, training for the Chase.

That’s all for this week. Like I mentioned in the introduction, the Honda Indy Edmonton will be covered in The Critic’s Annex Thursday in the Frontstretch Newsletter. Next weekend is another full slate of racing. The Sprint Cup Series will be back in action at Pocono Raceway for the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500. They will be supported by not one, but two divisions in a split 125-mile format.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will race at Pocono for the very first time next weekend in the Pocono Mountains 125, a 50-lap race. Immediately afterwards, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/MAX and Menards returns to Pocono for their second race of the season at the scalene triangle, the Weis Markets 125. Both races will be televised live on SPEED.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will make their second appearance at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. This year, the race will be run at night and will air on ESPN2. Also, this event will feature the debut of Jim Noble on pit road for ESPN. Here’s your schedule.

Friday, July 30
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 a.m. Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix Free Practice 2 SPEED
12:00 – 1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:30 – 5:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
5:30 – 7:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Happy Hour SPEED

Saturday, July 31
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 a.m. Formula 1 Grand Prix of Hungary Qualifying SPEED
9:30 – 10:00 a.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED^
10:00 – 11:00 a.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
12:30 – 1:00 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
1:00 – 3:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Pocono Mountains 125 SPEED
3:00 – 5:00 p.m. ARCA Racing Series Weis Markets 125 SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 p.m. NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30 – 10:30 p.m. Nationwide Series U.S. Cellular 250 ESPN2

Sunday, August 1
Time Telecast Network
7:30 – 10:00 a.m. Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 a.m. NASCAR Now ESPN2
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
1:00 – 5:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 ESPN
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED
12:00 a.m. (August 2) – 1:00 a.m. NASCAR Now ESPN2

^Joined in Progress

Next week, I will bring you critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series race telecasts, along with TV-related news. I will cover the ARCA Racing Series Weis Markets 125 in next week’s edition of The Critic’s Annex.

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 from last weekend, please click on the following links:

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 emails full of rants and vitriol.

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