Monday, September 17, 2007
The Kinder And Gentler Chase Edition Of "Inside NEXTEL Cup"
Something was different right from the start. Dave Despain's nervous laugh was gone. Michael Waltrip was quiet and low-key. Kenny Schrader was having fun. Greg Biffle was talking about his race. The Monday "Chase" edition of Inside NEXTEL Cup was on the air at SPEED, in a much kinder and gentler version.
It may have been a stern lecture by a network executive. It might have been because it was a beautiful day in New Hampshire and almost everybody raced. It also might have had something to do with the fact that around ten shows remained in the season, and perhaps in the future, of this venerable series.
Inside NEXTEL Cup was on the air and there was no sniping. There was no ignoring the host, badgering the guest driver, or ego trips. Three drivers and a moderator sat down and talked racing for one hour. They even had some fun and some laughs along the way.
This leads to one very simple question. What took SPEED so long to sort this out? Over the course of the season, The Daly Planet and many SPEED viewers have voiced their concerns about this series on this site and on the SPEEDtv.com message boards.
Fans wanted this show to get better. Fans wanted this show to sort itself out. What they did not want was for Michael Waltrip to continue his antics. What they did not want was an angry and tired Kenny Schrader who was not even at the racetrack "phoning it in." What they did not want was Brian Vickers trying to play with the big boys like he had knowledge beyond his years.
Other than the one hour NASCAR Now on ESPN2, this is it for NASCAR TV programming on the Monday night after the race. That is what made this show so powerful over time, even when SpeedVision was a tiny cable network just in its infancy. The word spread by Internet message board and word of mouth about a show "you just have to see."
There was a time when the water cooler talk for racing fans was "did you hear what Mikey said last night?" It was always funny, sometimes crazy, and always entertaining semi-chaos that showed off another side of the drivers that the fans loved. That feeling has been gone since Allen Bestwick and Johnny Benson were dismissed by a new SPEED VP who himself is now gone.
The new show, hosted by Dave Despain, struggled to get an identity in the shadow of the old classic program. While fans wanted the old style fun, things had changed. The format of the show was altered and the guest and the fun features eliminated. There were also a lot of changes taking place with the panelists.
This season, the "regulars" Waltrip and Schrader find themselves in very new positions. The strain of this year's disappointments resulted in a stretch where a very angry and arrogant Michael Waltrip showing up with an agenda.
He only liked Goodyear and NASCAR, everything else was awful. Of course, Toyota was above all this and Waltrip was given free reign to interject Toyota references, which he did frequently. Big hair, tired eyes, and an ego set on high defined him at that time.
Schrader suffered the same fate as Benson, but was not dismissed from the show. Benson lost his Cup ride, and even though he was a veteran and driving in the Truck Series, that did not matter. Schrader drove in the New Hampshire Cup race, but was replaced earlier this season for a wide variety of logistical and performance reasons as a fulltime driver. His weeks on the show during that down time were tough.
As the elder statesman of the show, Schrader epitomizes a type and style of driver that we do not see very much in the Cup ranks these days. Long past his heyday, Schrader is funding a wide variety of other racing activities from his continuing Cup rides. He is possibly the most versatile base of knowledge about auto racing currently appearing on any TV show.
What his future plans are in terms of TV or racing are never discussed on this series. Even as Waltrip continues as an analyst on SPEED's Truck Series races, Schrader is conspicuously absent from the SPEED airwaves. We have not seen him welcomed on Trackside, NASCAR Live, or RaceDay. He is a mystery man.
Now, on this "Chase" Monday Schrader was at attention, well rested, and back in good spirits. Waltrip was shaven, his hair was combed, and nothing on his person was wrinkled. Whether forced or voluntary, for this one night the boys were back in town.
Despain and Biffle made the most of this opportunity. Between the four panelists, the show was the smoothest flowing it had been all season. When Despain talked, everyone stopped. That is the role of the host. In return, Despain allowed continued talk on a wide variety of subjects once the "leash law" had been established.
Biffle is more of a veteran than many people give him credit for, and on this show he asked a lot of questions in addition to offering his opinion. While his TV skills might be lacking, the potential for a strong and well-spoken NASCAR TV personality is there. This program may have been his best in a long while. His opinion was respected, and often sparked other discussions.
Even out of his element, Despain kept the program flowing right up until the end. In every show, there has to be an "alpha male." Someone has to be the person to lead the parade, set the tone, and take the heat. Despain seems to have suddenly discovered he can do that without getting angry or flustered. WindTunnel, this is not.
As this string of final shows winds down, let's hope that SPEED announces soon if this will be the final season of this series. If so, it would be nice to see some of the memories of the past during the final shows, and maybe even a special aired in the off-season. If the series continues, let's hope the network makes some changes in both the format and personnel for next season to liven-up this franchise.
Ten years is a long time for one show to be on the air in today's cable network environment. SpeedVision Executive Producer Bob Scanlon's simple idea of one driver from each manufacturer, one host that knows the sport, and a bunch of video highlights sure did stand the test of time.
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