While Phil Allaway takes the week off, it is my pleasure to be filling in on this column, as I had the honor of writing it through the 2008 season. Back then, ESPN was in the second year of its return to NASCAR, and the network still had many kinks to work out — not the least of which was the continued struggling of lead booth announcer Dr. Jerry Punch. When I met with ESPN officials and asked about some of their problems, they attributed them to the growing pains attached to recently rejoining the sport. Have they finally shaken off the cobwebs?
For me, the answer is clear: a resounding yes. Nearly two years removed from that conversation, Sunday’s coverage at Watkins Glen is proof that ESPN, the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” has made significant strides.
The most noticeable change ESPN has made since 2008 is the addition of Marty Reid as lead booth announcer and the moving of Dr. Jerry Punch to pit road. Punch replaced Mike Massaro, while Vince Welch was brought on to replace Shannon Spake. Punch and Welch joined the existing pit road team of Jamie Little and Dave Burns, who have proven themselves as solid pit-road beat reporters since 2007. Yet despite plenty of outcry for Punch’s demotion from the booth during the 2008 season, ESPN chose to keep him up top through 2009, making the move to Reid this January.
Six months into the role, it’s clear Reid is a definite upgrade. While he appears nowhere near the race enthusiast that the lead announcers of FOX (Mike Joy) and TNT (Adam Alexander) are, and sometimes struggles to remember who drives what car, he has mixed in very well with the rest of the booth crew. Former owner and crew chief Andy Petree and 1999 Cup champ Dale Jarrett continue to provide smooth, thorough analysis, minus some of the fluff and NASCAR cheerleading that Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds on FOX have brought to the table time and again.
Jarrett and Petree’s expertise was very noticeable this weekend at the Glen. Remember, in comparison to Waltrip, Jarrett took his last racecar reps in 2008, so the tracks have changed a lot less in two or three years than when Waltrip last drove on them in 2000. Jarrett’s knowledge was so precise that he even took to pointing out the exact shift points during the laps at Watkins Glen. A Petree highlight came in his analysis of how the track changes would affect crew chief’s strategies of when they would pit their cars. In earlier Glen races, according to Petree, crew chiefs would consider pitting early to try to gain track position and bet on more cautions late in the race. But with the subtraction of the sand traps and the addition of more paved runoff areas, drivers had fewer chances to mess up and get stuck and more space to spin out of the way or correct any spins, meaning less caution flags were likely to fly. Petree, who led Dale Earnhardt to Cup championships in 1993 and 1994 as crew chief, correctly predicted what other head wrenches would do, as they pitted their drivers about 10 laps later on their first stop than they had in previous years. Petree’s prediction of green-flag racing was also correct – the final 16 laps came and went without a caution.
ESPN has a knack for putting competent crew chiefs on its airwaves, either in the booth, in the studio or even for special features. Tim Brewer has matured from a bumbling homeboy in 2008 to explaining a useful piece in the Tech Center he broadcasts from every week. I was convinced two years ago that Brewer needed to be benched, but he since has felt the heat and stepped up to provide great hands-on demonstrations of different issues with racecars. Brewer is quick to pull the pieces away from the cutaway car in the Tech Center as situations are unfolding and then provides quick, simple explanations as to what is going on. Brewer did this perfectly before the race even began Sunday, when he showed the weight problem with Kyle Busch and, later on, the throttle-spring problem on the No. 18 Toyota that occurred during the race.
But he’s not the only one who stands out. While absent from the telecast Sunday, Ray Evernham’s anecdotes from being one of the greatest crew chiefs of all-time with Jeff Gordon, then a successful owner after that have translated into a bevy of relatable info from either the ESPN Pit Studio, or from the broadcast booth in Nationwide races. If Petree gets sick one week, this network has a great backup.
Speaking of the Pit Studio, it was under-utilized on Sunday. With few cautions, there were fewer breaks in the action to cut away to the trio that has Allen Bestwick paired with 1989 Cup champ Rusty Wallace and NASCAR owner Brad Daugherty. In one rare on-air moment, Wallace spotted a spin in midst of a diatribe and incorrectly deemed the incident a caution. Pair moments like this with his calling Busch an ignorant donkey a couple of weeks ago on-air because he didn’t know his mic was up, and Wallace has affirmed ESPN’s decision to replace him in the booth with Jarrett after the ’07 season. Despite his knowledge of the sport, Wallace seems to have become the Joe Biden of NASCAR broadcasting – lots of worthy experience, but with a huge disconnect between the brain and his big mouth. Daugherty also seems to add little more than cheerleading to the Pit Studio, while Allen Bestwick still often shines, with his smooth delivery and years of NASCAR experience. Bestwick did butcher one ESPN baseball promo, calling All-Star Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, “Joey Vow-tow…” I’m sure not many NASCAR fans caught that, though.
Bad luck did strike ESPN in the ankle. Both ESPN and TNT have caught flack from writers and fans in the Twitter Universe for missing rare lead changes or other action during commercial breaks. The most exciting racing Sunday at Watkins Glen occurred for a 10-lap stretch from about lap 30-40, when the day’s predominant favorites, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya, engaged in a tense, close, exciting battle for the lead that carried the intensity of a last-lap battle for the gold. Ambrose, whose hunger for a Cup win is ravenous at road courses, made several skilled, but desperate moves to try and pass the leader Montoya. Yet with the battle seemingly in short-term check, ESPN cut to a commercial break; and, as luck would have it, that not only was the moment the Aussie Ambrose passed Montoya for the lead, but two other cars would spin on the track at the same time, bringing out a caution.
Critics are quick to jump ESPN for missing these critical moments, and their dissents are fair. But, if posed with a choice, what would we rather see? Commercial breaks earlier in the telecast, when passes for the lead do not necessarily decide the end of the race, or commercial breaks with 10 laps to go, when the racing gets much more dicey and consequential? ESPN has to pay the bills and show the commercials; this time, they made a choice that they surely regret. A simple solution to this problem, I say, would be to hold out from a commercial break as long as possible during the edge-of-the-seat battle for the lead. 20/20 hindsight says there were plenty of dull moments afterwards to play extra commercial breaks – but hindsight always sees that well.
The main plus for ESPN on Sunday was the race’s length. A 1:20 p.m. (or so) green flag and a checkered flag waving before 4 p.m. meant a less-than-three hour race, something very few objected to. This meant there were fewer lulls in the action than normal that ESPN had to fill, resulting in a more attentive and in-tune audience at race’s end – an audience much more likely to stay tuned to the expanded SportsCenter to watch the studio anchors attempt to voice the NASCAR highlight reel. The race length leaves the viewership with a much better taste in its mouth, meaning they may feel more prone to watch next week’s Michigan race – which will certainly take up a much larger chunk of Sunday afternoons.
ESPN, overall, gets an A-minus this week, having made the proper tweaks to its telecast in the last couple of years. If ESPN indeed decides to renew its commitment to NASCAR at the end of the current broadcasting deal, it has a deep on and off-air team not only for its first-string Cup telecasts, but for its developed bench of talent for its Nationwide Series non-companion races as well.
Here are just a few remaining knick-knacks from the broadcasting week in racing:
- Just how long will the quacks back at the ESPN network studios take to learn a thing about NASCAR?
- Sunday’s race highlight reels showed a couple of spins, Ambrose’s Sonoma misfortune and Montoya’s taking the checkers — but nothing of the great duel Montoya and Ambrose waged just before the race’s midpoint. At least the network surprisingly didn’t bother with popular Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race that day, which was a non-arrival and 26th-place Glen finish.
- Two years ago at Sonoma, TNT numbered the turns on TV at the tricky track, a welcome feature on zoomed in shots at a place with so many bends. Numbering the turns at Watkins Glen would sure be nice; in fact, numbering the turns at any track would be a great idea, as many corners look the same on TV. No network has really tackled this concept, but I feel that it would go over well.
- SPEED did a terrific job covering the Truck race at Nashville Saturday night, making the broadcast exciting despite winner Todd Bodine’s dominance of the race. A highlight of the event was the duel between Red Horse Racing’s Justin Lofton and Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Brian Ickler. The two trucks made contact multiple times, with Ickler winning the battle by trapping Lofton behind a lapped truck. After the race, Ickler pulled alongside Lofton and gave him the finger (which SPEED inadvertently did not edit on a replay), causing Lofton to nudge into Ickler’s rear bed on the cool-down lap. After the race, pit reporter Adam Alexander wasted no time getting a reaction from both drivers. In a situation where the network easily could have copped out the easier assignment of chasing down only the top finishers, Alexander instead ran to the haulers in the garage to get the real post-race scoop from the race’s most exciting moment. Kudos, SPEED.
Phil Allaway returns to the Talking NASCAR TV driver’s seat next week to cover the coverage from Michigan. Tune here after all the festivities and see what Frontstretch’s media expert has to say then.
Weekend NASCAR TV Schedule
Friday, August 13
Time Telecast Network
12:00 – 1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
3:30 – 5:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. Trackside! Live SPEED
Saturday, August 14
Time Telecast Network
9:00 – 10:00 a.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
12:00 – 1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Final Practice Coverage SPEED
1:00 – 2:00 p.m. Nationwide Series NASCAR Countdown ESPN
2:00 – 4:30 p.m. Nationwide Series Carfax 250 ESPN
5:30 – 7:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
7:30 – 10:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Too Tough To Tame 200 SPEED
Sunday, August 15
Time Telecast Network
9:00 – 10:00 a.m. NASCAR Now Pre-Race 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 ESPN
1:00 – 4:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Carfax 400 ESPN
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED
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. 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:
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.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.