Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where race telecast critiques are the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series were each in action at Pocono Raceway. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series was in action with ESPN’s “B-Team” at Iowa Speedway.
*U.S. Cellular 250*
On Saturday night, the Nationwide Series held their second race of the season at Iowa Speedway in front of a sellout crowd. Since ESPN was busy covering the Sprint Cup race in Pocono in addition to this event, there were some changes. First off, there was a rare two-man booth for this race. Marty Reid was joined only by Ricky Craven. There was no Pit Studio (it was back in Pocono), so Shannon Spake hosted Countdown from pit road. It was a throwback telecast in a way with only five on-air personalities.
Countdown started off with a recap of the Indiana 250, with emphasis on the final restart where Elliott Sadler was black flagged for illegally reaching the start-finish line before the leader. This included quotes from Robin Pemberton, whose explanation only caused more confusion. Sadler coming back from that ridiculousness was one of the lead stories of the telecast.
The primary feature of Countdown was a piece where Marty Smith and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. went on a trip to Nashville. While there, the duo took in a number of sights. They went to Tootsie’s bootery to get new boots, then picked up some Conway Twitty (Seth McFarlane would be proud). After checking out a parade, they went to the CMT Music Awards (this was June 6, by the way). While there, Smith and Stenhouse served as quasi-Red Carpet reporters and interviewed a number of musicians and celebrities (what Michael Waltrip would be considered here is somewhat unclear, but he showed up). The whole piece didn’t really have a focus, unless that focus was just having fun. If that was the purpose, then I guess it was mission accomplished.
There was also a brief mention of how Joey Gase met the man whose life was saved after he received a kidney from Gase’s late mother. I think that was the only time Gase was mentioned on the entire telecast. It would have been nice to at least have Gase talk about it a little bit since it is a good story.
The big story telecast-wise that came out of Saturday’s night was the performance of Ricky Craven. If you perused through feeds on Twitter during the race, you would have seen multiple tweets praising Craven’s analyzing ability. It is a change in pace from what we’re generally used to. I’ve described Craven’s booth performances in the past as somewhat cerebral. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Here, Craven was very informative in his commentary and helpful. He definitely showed that he is well informed about the happenings in the Nationwide Series well beyond the typical stories covered in an ESPN telecast. However, I feel that he may come off as a little wordy at times.
Also of note, Craven does work quite well with Reid. As many of you know, it has been a little rough in the booth for Reid so far this season. However, Reid just seems to be able to play off of Craven much easier than with Petree, Jarrett or Rusty Wallace. Perhaps Reid is a bit more at ease with the relatively inexperienced Craven. The two-man booth actually worked quite well. While some viewers probably missed the technical-based commentary usually provided by Andy Petree, I didn’t really miss it that much.
In place of the more technical-based content, we got more racing on-track for position, something that I’ve been clamoring for on ESPN for the majority of the time that I’ve been writing this column. I want to argue that Craven could be responsible for that. I know that all of ESPN’s on-air personalities have to be well-versed on as much of the Nationwide field as possible. However, it doesn’t always come off that way on the telecasts.
The only real technical gripe I noticed was something up with the RPM’s on the telemetry graphics around halfway. I’m not mechanical genius, but I know that Nationwide Series engines turn much more than 3500 rpm’s at Iowa.
Post-race coverage was fairly extensive. ESPN provided viewers with ten post-race driver interviews, plus interviews with the winning crew chief (Luke Lambert) and car owner (Richard Childress). There was also a check of the point standings and some post-race booth analysis before ESPN left the air.
I’m not sure about how much Craven wants to do commentary, but I think that he would be a perfect analyst for ESPN’s Nationwide Series coverage. However, he’s like the third or fourth string analyst right now, so he only gets to do a couple of telecasts a year. As a result, ESPN is sitting on a diamond in the rough. They should take advantage of Craven’s talents more often.
*Pocono Mountains 125*
Saturday brought the Camping World Truck Series/ARCA doubleheader to Pocono Raceway. Personally, I believe that this race is way the deuce too short, but that’s not important right now.
The Setup started off with a look at Tim George, Jr. and his skills in the kitchen. Apparently, he’s quite skilled. So is Ray Dunlap. Both were invited to Childress Vineyards under the guise of a one-on-one interview, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea since George isn’t exactly the most well-known driver out there. Instead, it turned into a 40-minute cooking competition similar to Chopped. Rick Allen, RCR teammate Ty Dillon, and Childress Vineyards Executive Chef Chris Wagner served as the judges. I guess George won, but both contestants put up a good fight.
Another feature had SPEED following Dakoda Armstrong around during his off-week after Chicago. He decided to go home to Indiana and race a USAC Silver Crown car at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, along with his brothers. Prior to that, Armstrong took the cameras to his family’s shop and talked a bit about his part prior to entering ARCA. The actual race didn’t go all that well due to another driver running over Dakoda’s right rear wheel. It was an interesting piece. I always like learning new things about drivers and this will count. Speaking of learning about drivers, it appears that Allen and Phil Parsons spent Monday at work with Clay Greenfield for what will likely be a feature during the Setup at Michigan. That should be fun.
The Setup still didn’t really have any interviews, though. In addition, there’s still no real analysis previewing the race. If ESPN does way too much analysis, SPEED does way too little. There has to be that happy medium between features, interviews and analysis. No one has that happy medium, yet. I suspect TNT, as god-awful as they were this season, may be the closest.
For Saturday’s telecast, we had a special guest in the booth. In addition to the normal three drivers, Jeff Burton joined in to watch the race from the booth. Burton was generally considered to be quite good. Since Burton’s still an active driver who had actually raced on the brand-new surface at Pocono Raceway, he brought a lot of first-hand knowledge to the telecast that fans really seemed to eat up (on Twitter, at least).
Honestly, when I watched the race live on Saturday, I thought that Burton had temporarily replaced Parsons. Since Parsons’ Cup team had a New Jersey-based primary sponsor (TRAQM.com), I figured that he had to go do some stuff with them. However, that was not the case. A four-man booth is just plain hard to work with.
Since the truck race was really Part 1 of a doubleheader, there was plenty of post-race coverage in order to bridge the truck race to the ARCA telecast which started at 3pm. There were nine post-race driver interviews, plus the crew chief (Harold Holly), truck owner (Richard Childress) and mother of race winner Joey Coulter. The John Wes Townley interview (which I think is a first for a post-race segment) was predictably rough. There was also a check of the point standings and an interview with ARCA polesitter Brennan Poole before the coverage transitioned to the ARCA Racing Series.
Overall, the telecast was quite solid. There was a healthy amount of coverage throughout the field and the telecast was informative. That’s always good to see. Also, I didn’t have any issues with enthusiasm levels at all. I still think that Waltrip needs to lay off the watermelon talk. He’s just got to stop that. We know that it is your favorite food (this was listed during the Setup) and that you went to a watermelon patch last week. I saw the pictures on Twitter. However, it is just out of hand.
Finally, we come to the Sprint Cup Series, which made their second visit of the year to Pocono Raceway. The track looked okay at the start of NASCAR Countdown, but conditions quickly deteriorated. How did they handle the mess? Let’s find out.
The primary feature of Countdown was a piece on Jimmie Johnson. Johnson talked about racing at Indianapolis, and his Crown Royal 400 the previous week. Pictures from ESPN’s Indianapolis telecasts, along with audio from ESPN and IMS Radio were worked in as well. We learned about how proud Johnson was of his crew and about how he wants to win eight Sprint Cup Series Championships (and as a result, be considered the best driver of all-time). Yes, it is a bold statement, but nothing I think most viewers wouldn’t have already known. I like features, but I like to learn stuff in them.
Another big feature was based around Denny Hamlin. ESPN’s SportScience department rigged up Hamlin and his car as a rolling lab during the Coca-Cola 600 back in May. They measured Hamlin’s heart rate, core temperature and multiple other aspects in order to give viewers a better idea of what drivers go through during a race, especially a race where there really weren’t all that many breaks, like this year’s 600. I was skeptical going in since the piece was described as something that mainly covered reaction time. They had already done something similar with Carl Edwards a while back. That piece was in a controlled lab environment and Edwards was put through a number of random tests. This was much different. I really enjoyed this piece. Stuff like that interests me, but I cannot necessarily say the same for everyone else.
As the rains continued to pelt down on the track, ESPN aired additional interviews. Ultimately, 20 drivers were interviewed before the race finally went green (Mark Martin was interviewed twice, once in a regular interview and a second time in the Pit Studio). There was also a strange discussion of Brad Daugherty shooting three’s during his NBA career, complete with clips of Daugherty in his Cavaliers days. Weird. Guess they had to fill time due to heavy rains and lightning (although this lightning didn’t hurt anyone).
The actual race coverage was not all that great. Maybe it was because of the long runs that we got on Sunday, but there really wasn’t all that much action for position shown all day. We got some nice action in the first few laps (Montoya’s pass backs on Hamlin, Earnhardt, Jr. making his moves up the order, etc.). However, once we got past that, it was mostly single car isolation views. It was a shame to watch, especially after the coverage we got Saturday night in Iowa.
I really wish we could have gotten anything at all. Yes, Jeff Gordon won the race, but I don’t remember seeing him before he got into the top-10 (remember, he started 27th). It is the classic dude coming out of nowhere scenario. ESPN shouldn’t put themselves in a situation where they have to explain something like this when their pictures and regular commentary could have done the talking for them.
As we all know by now, post-race was dangerous. As a result, ESPN could not bring viewers their accustomed coverage (Bestwick described their coverage as “haphazard”.) This was not because of lack of desire, but due to legitimate safety concerns. All of the wireless cameras were pulled off of pit road prior to the red flag. As a result, the only interviews that took place during the red flag were audio-only. Bestwick explained that the wireless cameras send signals to the TV Compound via handheld antennas. In a situation like Sunday, they’re basically lightning rods. Thus, I can understand the move.
The big lightning strike that resulted in all the injuries (and one death) occurred right after the race had been called, but before the winner’s interview. When that occurred, ESPN was knocked off the air briefly. Following a brief commercial break, they returned. Admittedly, some of the on-air staff were scared. Nicole Briscoe tweeted during a break, “A bit freaked right now. The #PitStudio is ROCKING!!!” Also, the Pit Studio reportedly started leaking as well. That will likely be fixed by this weekend in Watkins Glen.
Once the race was officially called, ESPN only showed interviews with drivers under cover. Jeff Gordon’s was in a makeshift Victory Lane, delayed until they could get a hardwired camera there. Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne was in the Pit Studio. There was also a check of the unofficial results and point standings before ESPN left the air. No updates were given on the condition of anyone injured in the lightning strike due to the fact that we didn’t know that anyone had been hurt until after the telecast ended. This method actually angered third-place finisher Martin Truex, Jr., who thought he was being disrespected. If this was like David Gilliland not making air after finishing third in last year’s Daytona 500, he’d have a case. Not so much on Sunday.
That’s all for this week, folks. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will be back in action at Watkins Glen International in Dix, New York for 340.5 miles (not including possible GWC’s) of road racing. The Rolex Sports Car Series will also serve as tertiary support.
*Friday, August 10*
*Time Telecast Network*
*12:00pm-2:00pm* Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
*2:00-4:00pm* Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
*4:00-5:30pm* Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
*6:00-6:30pm* SPEED Center SPEED
*Saturday, August 11*
*Time Telecast Network*
*9:30am-11:00am* Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN 2
*11:30am-1:00pm* Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN
*2:00-2:15pm* NASCAR Countdown ABC
*2:15-5:00pm* Nationwide Series Zippo 200 ABC
*6:00-8:30pm* Rolex Sports Car Series Continental Tire 200 SPEED
*8:30-9:00pm* SPEED Center SPEED
*Sunday, August 12*
*Time Telecast Network*
*9:00am-10:00am* NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
*9:30-10:00am* SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
*10:00am-12:00pm* NASCAR RaceDay Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
*12:00-1:00pm* NASCAR Countdown ESPN
*1:00-4:00pm* Sprint Cup Series Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen ESPN
*~4:00-4:30pm* NASCAR Victory Lane by Good Sam Roadside Assistance SPEED
*4:30-6:30pm* V8 Supercar Championship Series Coates Hire Ipswich 300 SPEED*
*7:00-8:00pm* SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
*9:00-10:30pm* Wind Tunnel SPEED, SPEEDtv.com^
*- Tape Delayed
^- Available via free online streaming
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