Monday, October 29, 2007

"NASCAR Now" Staggers Toward Season's End

This past weekend was big for all three of NASCAR's national touring series. It was also a big weekend for ESPN, who split their crews and produced two races. Several ESPN on-air talent flew from Atlanta to Memphis, and worked both the Busch and Cup Series events.

With a high-speed Truck Series race from Atlanta on Saturday as well, this gave NASCAR Now on Monday plenty of rich racing content to relate to viewers in this one hour show.

The Saturday Busch Series race was huge in so many ways. Finally, this series was able to run a stand-alone event that was free of the domination of the NEXTEL Cup drivers who cross-over and run Busch races. In addition, the Memphis track is perfect for these cars and their rough-and-tumble short track racing styles.

The field included Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and NASCAR veteran Sterling Marlin. Youngsters like Brad Coleman and Brad Keselowski were racing alongside of stars like Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray. Also in the field was a disappointed David Reutimann, who had failed to make the Cup race in Atlanta.

It was clear there would be plenty of stories for ESPN's Marty Reid, Rusty Wallace, and Randy LaJoie to follow during their live telecast. Allen Bestwick would patrol pit road.

On Monday evening NASCAR Now came out of a commercial break with heavy metal rock music blaring. Suddenly, there were video highlights of a race with cars crashing and spinning. One car ran through the mud. There was a picture of Jack Roush just standing there.

Then, there was a picture of David Reutimann very happy and climbing on his car. Program host Erik Kuselias said nothing. In-studio analyst Boris Said was silent. The screaming rock video was thirty seconds long. Thirty seconds long.

This was all that was to be seen of the Busch Series race from Memphis. ESPN's telecast crew had not submitted a "wrap-up" of the race. There was no mention that it was Michael Waltrip Racing's first win for Toyota in NASCAR. There was no mention of the fact that it was David Reutimann's first Busch Series victory in sixty-three starts. But, there is so much more to this story than just that.

As the race was telecast live on Saturday, ESPN2 chose to leave after the race and go directly to a live college football game which was not yet in-progress. The first win for MWR, the first for an MWR Toyota, and the first for Reutimann did not matter. Nothing was followed-up on ESPN News or SportsCenter. The distraction of a Busch race was finally over, and the network returned to stick-and-ball sports.

Now, it was Monday and the one hour ESPN "NASCAR only" show had chosen to bypass the single NASCAR series that ESPN carries from start to finish. No one from the ESPN crew at the track had interviewed the winner, no one had taken five minutes to send a "wrap-up" back to Bristol. No one had found Carl Edwards and interviewed the series points leader who had crashed in the event. No one followed-up on the rough driving penalties, the short tempers, or the fate of Dario Franchitti.

There are three races left in this season for the Busch Series, and NASCAR Now showed only thirty seconds of unexplained highlights with rock music replacing the announcer. Unless you had already seen the race, it made absolutely no sense at all. Then, as this program has done so many times this season, NASCAR Now added insult to injury.

After this Busch Series music video, viewers then watched a full one minute and ten seconds of a random NEXTEL Cup music video. It was complete with cars turning left, fans pointing at the cars turning left, and even Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon ducking in and out of the Port-O-Lets right before the race. Airplanes flew, pit crews huddled, and cute girls in the stands jumped up and down. One minute and ten seconds. On national TV, that is an eternity.

Had this time been given to ESPN's own Busch Series coverage, NASCAR Now could have saved a shred of dignity. Interviews could have been done, a "wrap-up" could have been shown, and with only a couple of races left, ESPN could have promoted the very series that they promised NASCAR they would build-up with the power of their ESPN brand. The power of the ESPN brand and NASCAR.

Saturday at Atlanta, the Craftsman Truck Series took to the track. With only a handful of races remaining, this series is a battle between veterans Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner for the championship. This has been one of NASCAR's most watchable series, and the racing at Atlanta featured an incredible feat by Kyle Busch.

As a "truck-whacker" with no points on the line, Busch held it wide open until he had a big problem. His window net was falling down, and he knew NASCAR would black flag him and bring him into the pits for repair. So, he did what any driver would do at one hundred and ninety miles an hour on a steeply banked track. He held it up with one hand and drove with the other until he got a caution flag.

"That was awesome" said fellow driver Hornaday. "He had that thing sideways driving with one was impossible...and he did it." With the net fixed, Busch pulled away from Hornaday on the final restart and won the race. The SPEED TV compound is right alongside the ESPN compound at Atlanta. The race was live on SPEED nationwide.

NASCAR Now decided that the best approach to this race and the exciting finish would be to pretend it did not happen. That's right, there was not one mention of the Truck race on the one hour weekend wrap-up show. A national points race coming down to the wire. Great action in front of an enthusiastic crowd. One of the NEXTEL Cup "Chasers" driving around Atlanta with one hand and then winning the race. They pretended it did not happen.

Last week The Daly Planet ran a column entitled "Ryan Burr Steps-Up To The Big Time." Burr hosted this very program the previous week and showed extensive highlights of the Truck Series race on SPEED. NASCAR Now even used the audio from the SPEED announcers in the highlights, and other show elements. The Trucks were presented as "news."

The program continued to sizzle with Toyota Shoot-Out highlights of NASCAR's Grand National Series finale which aired on SPEED. Burr interviewed young phenom and Shoot-Out winner Joey Lagano and led him through a fun conversation that promoted regional racing and let viewers in on this young man's plans for the future.

On this Monday, however, Erik Kuselias returned NASCAR Now to the disaster it has been for most of the season. Chad Knaus called-in by phone just like he did on Sirius Radio earlier in the day. Tired Boris Said talked in circles about racing that he has yet to conquer, and the "Insiders" once again responded to every scripted question with "I just talked to blah-blah today and..." Even for an entry level fan, this was tough to take.

Many Daly Planet readers had hoped that Ryan Burr would return for the rest of the season as the regular host of this series. At the least, he would return to bring credibility to the Monday one hour wrap-up show. It did not happen. News and information had left the building, hype and blaring music videos had returned.

Two of the three NASCAR series that tour the nation had been avoided, one of them completely. Every story from Toyota to MWR to Kyle Busch and the window net was untold, and unseen. David Reutimann did not even have his fifteen seconds to tell us about winning his first Busch race.

It seems ironic that when Reuitmann hit the wall earlier this year in California, NASCAR Now repeated that footage over twenty times in this very one hour show. Now he finally wins, and is ignored.

The season will soon be over, and memories of Doug Banks, the Eliminator, Driver Pick 'Ems, and Fantasy Editors will begin to fade. What this series accomplished for ESPN and NASCAR will remain a good topic of debate over Christmas. In January, we should know who will be hosting NASCAR Now for next season.

That announcement will finally tell NASCAR fans if ESPN is open to change, or if NASCAR will continue to be simply a source of amusement and curiosity for the Bristol, Connecticut network that holds the TV contract for seven more years.

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