Monday, July 16, 2007

Bestwick Replaces Kolber At Gateway

One week before the network steps into the big time with The Brickyard 400, ESPN will swing by Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis to cover a Busch Series race. This Saturday night affair will feature Allen Bestwick returning to the host position for qualifying, the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show, and the infield studio during the race.

Last week, when the Chicagoland race was on ABC Sports, the ESPN production team brought in Suzy Kolber to host. This next week, the race will be shown on ESPN2. It seems that Allen Bestwick is somehow relegated to the non-broadcast races.

This would only make sense because Kolber is about to embark on a four month journey on both ABC and ESPN as the host not only of the Busch Series races, but also as the very public face of ESPN's NEXTEL Cup coverage. She will handle everything from the infield for both series. At the track, other than the announcers actually calling the race, Kolber will be the quarterback.

While she has been a professional broadcaster for a long time, Kolber is new to NASCAR, and kindles the debate as to whether the sport would be better served with "ESPN experience," or "NASCAR experience." This season on ESPN, the question is still unanswered.

In the broadcast booth, ESPN has firmly planted Dr. Jerry Punch. As you may remember, Punch chose to stay with the network during the six years that ESPN did not have any NASCAR racing. Although he made his original TV reputation as a solid pit reporter and feature journalist, Punch had long since transitioned into his current role as an ESPN "house announcer."

College football, X Games, SportsCenter pieces, ESPN News liveshots, and other ESPN-related activities are what the in-house "talent pool" provides for the multi-network monster that must be fed twenty-four hours a day. NASCAR fans have seen "talent pool" announcers like David Amber and Wendy Nix report on NEXTEL Cup events this season for NASCAR Now and other shows.

Punch has a long personal history with NASCAR, and has picked up nicely where he left-off when the network was neck-deep in all things NASCAR. He has, however, changed his personality on-the-air. It often feels like he is struggling for words, and winds up repeating himself quite often in the Busch races. His catch phrases, like "that young man" and naming driver's hometowns over-and-over again are well known.

How Punch will handle a four hour intense NEXTEL Cup race on ABC will certainly be interesting. Fans almost always compare the play-by-play announcers with Mike Joy, who may possibly be the best ever. Mike also began his career patrolling pit road, and in his middle years grew into a tremendous presence in the booth for both Fox and NASCAR.

No doubt most viewers will be pulling for Punch, who seems to have finally gotten a shot at the big time this season. Installing Punch in this position blocked the growth of other announcers with "NASCAR experience" only. Guys like Steve Byrnes and Allen Bestwick did not get the ESPN/ABC job, and that is a bit tough. It begs the question of whether Punch would be in that position had he also left ESPN and followed the NASCAR broadcasting trail. In some way, he is being rewarded for leaving NASCAR behind and becoming an ESPN full timer.

In the ESPN Infield Studio, it might have been nice to see a fresh NASCAR face like Krista Voda, Mike Massaro, or Matt Yocum. At least in many fan's minds, the infield anchor should have been somebody loyal to the sport, and not necessarily the network. This season on NASCAR Countdown, we have seen ESPN try Chris Fowler, Brent Musburger, and Erik Kuselias with less than stellar results. If only they had tried someone like Krista Voda from the start, they may have already found their infield star.

Backing the activity at the track is the daily studio show, called NASCAR Now. Recently, this program has added an email address displayed on the screen at the end of each show that asks for viewer input. Daly Planet readers have been emailing in droves, and making it quite clear that this program needs to step-up and establish new priorities.

On Monday's show, things continued to change. The program's reporters were allowed to speak directly to each other, although they were not allowed to actually converse. At ESPN, things move slowly. Host Erik Kuselias is still a NASCAR novice, but he seems to be understanding that he is only the "traffic cop," and not the star of the show. His recent guest stint on Mike and Mike really showed fans who this man is at heart, a true stick-and-ball guy.

Its a shame that ESPN will not allow new faces to host mid-week versions of this show on a regular basis. One name that pops to mind is Lyndsay Czarniak, who just finished the TNT package. Another is Shannon Spake, who has been the hardest working soldier on the ESPN NASCAR beat this year. As the grind of the season continues, and the other fall sports begin, maybe ESPN will allow some NASCAR types to host an episode or two.

Well, it is here. The exclusive ESPN/ABC coverage of both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series begins for the first time. It should be interesting to watch this major network make its way down the NASCAR trail all the way to Homestead.

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