Monday, September 3, 2007

ESPN's "NASCAR Now" Still Searching For Perspective

All eyes are on the Monday night one hour version of ESPN2's NASCAR Now. This show was expanded from thirty minutes to one hour earlier this year.

The ESPN press release said this was to "provide more time for recaps and analysis of the weekend's NASCAR races." Viewers tuning into this show have walked away scratching their heads and asking themselves one simple question.

Is the Monday edition of NASCAR Now about NASCAR racing, or just about the NEXTEL Cup races on ESPN and ABC?

Over the last seven months, The Daly Planet has suggested that NASCAR Now include The Busch and Craftsman Truck Series on these Monday shows. We have also asked for the results and highlights of NASCAR's regional touring series. This would include items like the high-profile Busch East Series and the build-up now underway for the Toyota All-Star Showdown.

The strong answer to these questions has been a resounding no. This week is a great example. The Busch Series raced under the lights in Fontana live on ESPN2 with Jeff Burton holding off Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. In ESPN2's own one hour NASCAR show, the network was not able to show highlights or interview the winner. This could have taken less than two minutes.

One of NASCAR's other three national touring series, The Craftsman Trucks, raced at Gateway on Saturday live on national TV. That race featured some future stars like Regan Smith, Chad McCumbee, and Josh Wise. It also showcased veterans like Ron Hornaday, Mike Skinner, Jack Sprague, and Johnny Benson. The racing was great.

Once again, even in a one hour show, ESPN could not find time for highlights or results. The bottom line is, the Trucks race on SPEED Channel. Only when Craftsman purchases advertising time on NASCAR Now do we see the Trucks mentioned. To ESPN, the Trucks simply do not exist because they do not race on an ESPN network.

By the way, many regional touring series drivers are livid with the network. NASCAR Now has recently asked Modified and Busch East drivers to come to ESPN to be interviewed live in the studio. Since then, ESPN has never followed-up with their series race highlights or shown one page of results. ESPN also interviewed by satellite some high-profile regional drivers including Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath. Since that time they have never mentioned how either one of them is doing, or where they are racing.

This is the first year that ESPN has approached the big NASCAR "NEXTEL Chase for the Cup." This is the first year that ESPN has been back in the NASCAR business of televising races. This is the first year of ESPN's studio program NASCAR Now. Sometimes, it has looked like this is ESPN's first year in TV.

Add Kevin Harvick's name to the list of drivers not too happy with the endless ESPN hype about The Chase. Harvick's comment into an ESPN microphone after Fontana was that despite reality, ESPN "would jerk everybody around and make them think its a good story." As the ESPN associate continued to babble, Harvick said "I think you ask stupid questions." NASCAR Now, of course, used this on the air.

Over the weekend, we have seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. be very pointed in his relationship with ESPN reporters. His words are carefully chosen, and he speaks very slowly in a tone that borders on disgust. Last week in Bristol, ESPN's Mike Massaro made Earnhardt repeat for TV an earlier comment about his step-mother Theresa. The look on Junior's face told the tale. ESPN had pissed-off the biggest name in the sport.

Tony Stewart is now invisible on NASCAR Now. Stewart's comments that dealing with ESPN's news and pit reporters was like "a sharp knife trying to dig for dirt" really dented the network's ego. His further question of ESPN reporter David Amber was "do we always have to leave with a dagger in our back from ESPN?" That one made national headlines.

So, instead of a fun hour of NEXTEL Cup, Busch Series, Craftsman Trucks, regional action, top news stories, and analysis...we get NASCAR Now. The thrust of this week's hour was to pump viewers to tune into the Cup race at Richmond. Host Erik Kuselias told viewers it was "the deciding race" for The Chase. Unfortunately, no one told ESPN studio analyst Stacy Compton who said the race for the top twelve spots was over after Fontana.

Now, the network heads toward Richmond with a group of drivers who do not quite know what to make of their new TV partner. Some of ESPN's NASCAR Now reporters are quietly ending the good working relationship between the media and the drivers at the track. The days of casual conversation are going fast, and the trust level is falling quickly.

This ESPN NASCAR Now situation is a shame. We all know that racing money is tight, and the Busch and Truck Series teams are struggling for the very dollars to continue operation. This lack of exposure on a big one hour Monday NASCAR TV show is not going to help. Even the success of The Chase is being affected by the endless hype and seeming lack of racing knowledge by the host of this show.

I personally believed that this episode of NASCAR Now was crucial for ESPN. Next week, the Richmond races are at night, and will wrap-up on Saturday. NASCAR fans can then choose from any of the SPEED or ESPN News programs that show race highlights on Sunday. By the time Monday rolls around, the lure of NASCAR Now will be long gone.

Everyone will already know who is in and who is out of The Chase, and that news will be two days old. With the Internet a click away, this Monday show needs to broaden its wings to have any appeal. In an ironic twist, only true NASCAR diversity can right this ship.

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