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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Focus Hurts ESPN Once Again at Texas

Hello, race fans. You know what time it is. Time to take another look at the race telecasts that we all watch. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series were all at Texas Motor Speedway.

Before I start, Texas also marked a first for SPEED. Krista Voda was in the broadcast booth, doing play-by-play for the two Saturday morning Sprint Cup practice sessions. How did she do? It was a little similar to watching a college football game on ESPN2 that Pam Ward is in the booth for. Even though Voda has been working on NASCAR broadcasts for years, like Ward had with football, it still takes a little getting used to having a female voice in the booth. Still, Krista did a good job up there, impressive for her first time making the switch. But acquitting herself well in the booth creates a conundrum. What does SPEED do with their practice session broadcasts? Do they rotate their on-air personalities in the booth, or do they designate a specific group to do all practice sessions from there, no questions asked? SPEED management will have to determine their direction over the offseason.

Also, SPEED made a last-minute decision to cover Nationwide Series qualifying on Friday evening from Texas. Since they were already in the booth preparing for the Camping World Truck Series race, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons provided commentary. The coverage was OK, but they left the session early to get to Trackside Live. As a result, they missed James Buescher‘s pole run. I don’t believe that a stage show should be shown over a live telecast of qualifying. SPEED had a re-air of Trackside on the schedule, anyway, so they could have just aired it then in full. For the regular airing, they could join in progress, or just air something else in the timeslot as filler until NCWTS Setup came on at 8:30 PM.

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SPEED’s coverage on Friday night started off with the normal recap of last week’s Mountain Dew 250 from Talladega before getting into the meat of pre-race. A montage was shown of Todd Bodine‘s six prior victories before his interview with Ray Dunlap.

Bodine was wearing an unusual knit cap with what looked like a monkey on it. Dunlap took the opportunity to… impersonate the monkey. Incredibly stupid. I know that everyone wants to have fun with the broadcasts, but don’t make yourself look stupid in the process. There is a difference between having fun with your job and being unprofessional. Dunlap seems to have a knack of doing stupid things on a weekly basis, and it’s really getting on my nerves.

One feature was focused on Aric Almirola and his 2010 season. In it, Almirola admits that he’s run very well this season, but that Bodine simply outran him. Nothing groundbreaking here.

The major issue I had with the Setup was the fact they held off mentioning Matt Crafton had to fall to the rear of the field for welding a broken bar back into place after qualifying; it was ignored until the very end, when they interviewed him. Crafton was the pole sitter for the race, thus, it was a rather significant storyline to sweep aside to the conclusion of the Setup and the beginning of the race broadcast itself. It should have led the show, or come immediately after the recap from Talladega. Got to have your priorities straight.

It should also be noted that Friday night’s Truck race was also available online at NASCAR.com via Truck Race Buddy, or as I prefer to call it, TruckBuddy. The same setup that we’ve come to know from the Cup races on TNT was in use Friday night. In-truck cameras on Mike Skinner and Jennifer Jo Cobb‘s trucks were available for viewing, along with my personal fave, the battle cam. The plan currently is for TruckBuddy to be available for the remaining two Truck races, as well.

One of the things I noticed about the race was that it reminded me of the last time the IZOD IndyCar Series was at Texas. Of course, the trucks are nowhere near as fast as the Dallara chassis, but they race very similarly.

Post-race coverage was fairly extensive since the race ended ahead of schedule. There were interviews with race winner Kyle Busch and crew chief Eric Phillips, Johnny Sauter, Crafton, Bodine, Elliott Sadler, Parker Kligerman, and Ricky Carmichael. In addition, there were checks of the unofficial results, point standings, and a check of the owner points battle between Germain Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports before SPEED left the air.

A solid race broadcast to watch. The SPEED booth always knows the right amount of enthusiasm to bring into a race broadcast. I still believe that Michael Waltrip may be overstepping his bounds just a little bit, but it is not quite as bad as earlier in the season. My gripes with the Setup still remain, though. Big stories have to be given their due, and SPEED chose to ignore this weekend’s for whatever reason, to their own detriment.

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ESPN had an unusual 55-minute edition of NASCAR Countdown on Saturday. This length was likely due to the fact that the track insisted upon a command to start engines as close to “High Noon” as possible.

No features were shown during the 55-minute pre-race show. Instead, there was plenty of pre-race discussion in the Infield Studio. Some of the discussion was focused on Turner Motorsports’ announcement of a four-car team with Justin Allgaier driving the No. 31 full-time next season. While it’s beneficial that Allgaier was able to get a full-time ride for 2011, the team does not currently have sponsorship, plus the move does not add any cars to the series. The No. 31 that Allgaier will drive is likely the current No. 11 (the No. 10 will become the No. 30).

I took particular offense to Brad Daugherty’s assertion that the Nationwide Series is “thriving.” With the current landscape in the series, a 20 percent purse cut for 2011, and an overall lack of new blood in the sponsor core, it’s not all rosy. Yes, KHI announced that they would have CitiFinancial on a car for Sadler next year, but they poached CitiFinancial from Roush Fenway Racing.

The only benefit that I saw in the expanded pre-race coverage was the fact that there were extra driver interviews, nearly a dozen in all. Roger Penske also did a guest appearance in the Infield Studio to talk about Brad Keselowski‘s season and his impending first NASCAR championship as a car owner. Hard to imagine it would take Penske 20 seasons to snag one.

A strange issue saw ESPN fail to show the full starting grid on the pace laps before the green flag flew. I had never seen this change before.

The race broadcast was actually not that bad to watch. There was plenty of side-by-side action, with a decent amount of competition shown from all over the pack. However, the booth did take offense with a couple of NASCAR’s calls. The first was the no yellow call for David Starr‘s wall contact on lap 11. Yes, it could have been construed as a way to keep Danica Patrick on the lead lap, but Petree believed there should have been a yellow. For the record, I was fine with that call. Also, late in the race, NASCAR waited a couple of laps to throw a yellow for Brian Scott shedding debris after hitting the wall. The yellow only flew after Clint Bowyer hit something. It should have flown earlier.

Post-race coverage was quite brief due to ESPN running short on time. As a result, there were only interviews with race winner Carl Edwards and the Nationwide Series champion, Keselowski. The celebrations for both drivers were also shown. Unfortunately, ESPN’s approach meant that they could not properly cover the controversy on the final restart. Busch was adamant that Carl jumped the start. Evidence showed that it was borderline. No interview was aired with Kyle, who finished second. As a result, PRN Radio got the sole post-race interview with Kyle. According to Jim Noble, only their crack production staff kept Kyle from getting a fine from NASCAR and points taken away since he unleashed a series of “F-Bombs.”

Aside from the decent on-track action, which ESPN did take the time to show fans, this production was a mediocre effort. There was nothing that really stood out from this race telecast, and then the post-race coverage was just poor. ESPN simply did not cover the stories. There is the chance that Kyle could have rejected an interview request, but they needed to talk to him after the race. Not doing it is just not right.

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Sunday, ESPN returned with another hour of pre-race programming. Since they failed to properly cover the restart controversy on Saturday when they left Texas too quickly, Rusty Wallace, who has experience in jumping restarts from the front and being punished for it, declared Edwards’ restart to be A-OK. It was a short segment, but it should have been done Saturday instead of at 2:10 PM on Sunday.

For the first time, NASCAR Countdown featured a SportScience segment. Last year, ESPN acquired the SportScience franchise away from FOX Sports. For the uninitiated, SportScience is a franchise that looks into the physics behind what you see in sporting events. I’ll admit that I’m kind of nerdy, so I like this segment under normal circumstances. I do prefer it as a half-hour show, though, as opposed to being in somewhat random segments throughout ESPN programming.

Here, the feature was focused on horsepower, which was supposedly derived from how much of a field that a single horse could plow in an hour (yep, it’s just as archaic as most of the rest of our measurements). The majority of the feature was spent jamming the number 850 horsepower down viewers’ throats and comparing it to other things, like lifting the Space Shuttle Discovery. Comparing things is nice, but I didn’t take anything new out of the piece.

The big feature on Sunday was one about Bud Moore and his military career. The segment, which fits into “America’s Heroes: Salute to our Soldiers,” ESPN’s weeklong celebration of veterans, had very little to do with his time in NASCAR. Instead, it was a great look into the life of Bud before he became a champion car owner. What was particularly striking was Bud’s description of his nightmares that continued for years after World War II. The one thing that should have been mentioned to tie the piece into the present, though, was the fact that the deliberations in the NASCAR Hall of Fame vote actually considered evidence like Moore’s military record, even though it actually preceded anything he did in NASCAR, when voting him in as a member.

The most notable segment shown during pre-race was one about the No. 48 team and their drive to succeed at all costs. Jimmie Johnson described the environment as being similar to an NFL team and claimed that it had to be this way. In fact, Chad Knaus mentioned that some crew members actually don’t want to work for the team due to their constant pressure. Admittedly, the information presented here was not really anything new, but even ESPN itself had no clue how pertinent the information would be once the race came along.

Of course, when ESPN realized the importance of their feature, they screwed up. Allen Bestwick was effectively thinking out loud about what Johnson had said on lap 216 while the race was under green. The coverage then cut away from the action to replay part of the feature from NASCAR Countdown. Now, I understand that not everyone watches the pre-race show, but you cannot cut away from green flag racing to replay part of a feature. Simple as that.

In the race coverage itself, there was a substantial focus on the top three Chasers (Denny Hamlin, Johnson, and Kevin Harvick), to the detriment of everyone else in the field. There were constant points updates via the dropdown box off of the scroll during the race. Every time these updates are displayed, Marty Reid would have to turn away from the on-track action to say something along the lines of “Look at how that pass affected the standings!” Now, maybe there is no real difference in how often this move is done compared to, say, 1991 or 1992 with ESPN. However, it just seems more intrusive now than it did then.

This focus on the aforementioned big three resulted in ESPN completely missing the lead-up to the now-infamous shoving match between Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. Both drivers insisted in interviews that they had been racing close together in Turn 4 the previous lap before the wreck. Where was the replay of that action? There was none, so fans had no real frame of reference for what the Jeff’s were talking about during their interviews. To be fair, Marty admitted that the booth was looking towards Turn 4 and Martin Truex, Jr.‘s issues when the actual crash happened, and I can understand that since Truex was wrecking (again).

The reaction to the fight on-air did not surprise me at all. Unlike in the 1990s, when these types of incidents were looked down upon, today, they are seen as exciting. Daugherty, in particular, seemed amped up. However, Marty Reid seemed almost in shock. He basically did not know what to say. While such a tactic can be used by a play-by-play man to allow the crowd’s reaction to tell the story (Vin Scully’s call of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series is just one example), it would have to involve the cooperation of the color commentators, which did not happen here.

The idea of apologizing for gestures out of the broadcasts’ control came up once again. Now, I do not understand why it is broadcast policy to apologize for things like profanity and middle fingers from drivers. It’s not just ESPN, but all over the industry. It happens. It’s part of human life. Not everyone is five years old. We can handle that. In fact, many people want to see that type of behavior. Also, last I checked, ESPN cannot be fined by the FCC for broadcasting instances like those listed above on cable.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since ESPN was nearly to the end of their timeslot. There were interviews with winner Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, Matt Kenseth, Johnson, and Chad Knaus before ESPN left for Sportscenter. An interesting thing to note is that ESPN failed to give a point check before leaving. I know that the beginning of Sportscenter immediately following the race is supposed to be an extension of race coverage, and that they updated the points there, but after updating them constantly throughout the race broadcast, suddenly, there was no need to show the top 12 in points when the standings were set in stone?

Recently, there have been articles written questioning the enthusiasm of the booth. Yes, we’re going down that route again. While I was not totally pleased with the way Marty called the end of the race, if he had been more jumpy, he would have completely blocked out Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. They have the right to get their points in.

Once again, ESPN failed to tell the full story on this day. The coverage gave viewers the idea that certain drivers would come out of nowhere to contend and that no one outside of the top three in points really mattered. The big picture beyond the championship needs to be told for each race. I cannot stress that enough.

That’s all for this week. Next week, the three major NASCAR series travel to the Phoenix International Raceway for another tripleheader weekend. The Trucks are scheduled to race Friday night, while the Nationwide Series will race Saturday afternoon. Then, it’s the main event: the Sprint Cup Series will race on Sunday afternoon. Here’s your listings for the week:

Friday, November 12
Time Telecast Network
8:00 AM – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Free Practice 2 SPEED
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
2:00 – 3:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
3:30 – 4:30 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
4:30 – 5:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
5:30 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150 SPEED

Saturday, November 13
Time Telecast Network
8:00 AM – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi Qualifying SPEED
12:00 PM – 1:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
1:30 – 2:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:00 – 4:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour ESPN2
4:00 – 4:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
4:30 – 7:00 PM Nationwide Series Wypall 200 ESPN2

Sunday, November 14
Time Telecast Network
7:30 AM – 10:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 ESPN
7:00 – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
10:00 – 11:00 PM NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2

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.

As always, if you choose to contact a 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.