Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Nationwide Series Announcement Lacks Some Info

There is a big shift this season in NASCAR's second-tier national series. As fans know, Busch Beer is gone and coming on-board as the new series sponsor is the insurance company, Nationwide.

This transition is completely different from the NEXTEL-to-Sprint change that the Cup Series will undergo for the 2008 season. While that is the merger of two cell phone giants, Nationwide comes aboard out of the blue and steps directly into the NASCAR spotlight.

One key element for Nationwide in sponsoring this series is that all of the races are carried on the ESPN family of TV networks. That consistency is what NASCAR always wanted for this series, and what only ESPN can deliver. The media company has designated ESPN2 as the "home" of the Busch Series, with an occasional race stepping-up to both ESPN and ABC Sports.

After Nationwide came along, ESPN pledged support for the overall effort to turn this brand around and NASCAR pledged to get some consistency in the rules about who can compete in the series. NASCAR desperately needs to turn this series from a Cup practice session into a full-fledged national caliber racing series. 2008 is a pivotal year.

Along those lines, the ESPN PR group has a well-written press release out about the series, including the new schedule and the details of their efforts for this second year of live national TV coverage. The information details the extensive TV distribution and the high-tech electronic toys that the network will bring to their coverage.

While this press release is interesting for what it contains, it is much more interesting for what it is missing. Nowhere in the nine paragraphs of ESPN information about the Nationwide Series are there the names of the ESPN TV announce team. There is not even the name of one ESPN on-air NASCAR personality.

January 18th is the first day that the Nationwide teams take to the track at Daytona. So, it is now less than 25 days until the sport returns, and less than 50 days until the grind of practice, qualifying, and racing begins.

Back in October of this year, several of us began receiving email "tips" that Rusty Wallace was perhaps not returning to do all of the races on ESPN in 2008. One thing led to another, and that same day ESPN VP Norby Williamson put out a statement.

"Rusty Wallace is our guy," said Williamson. "We have a long-term contract with him and he is the voice of NASCAR on ESPN." In light of the current Nationwide press release, this begs one very good question. What happened?

The ESPN press release mentioned the Dish Tech Center, the Infield Studio, the Draft Track and ESPN Deportes, the Spanish language network. It described in detail ESPN's "multi-platform" approach to NASCAR. ESPN.com website traffic was up over one hundred percent they pointed out.

What ESPN forgot to point out was who would be calling the 35 live races...on ESPN.

Will Jerry Punch return for the Busch races as the play-by-play announcer for the entire season? Since Rusty Wallace has a long-term contract, why wasn't he mentioned? Where was Andy Petree, didn't he sign a multi-year deal with the network?

The reason these questions come up is because ESPN did an extensive job of promoting their NASCAR talent for the Busch Series in 2007. What changed? Is this simply the function of Christmas vacation and a wait for the New Year?

After an impressive first season on-the-air with ESPN, it should be interesting to see what role part-time driver Dale Jarrett will play in the Nationwide Series coverage.

Fans remember that DJ was limited to the Infield Studio in 2007, but often wound-up being the focal point of the telecast even from that location.

Along with Jarrett, fans watched the musical chairs in the Infield Studio until ESPN decided that Allen Bestwick would host the Busch Series pre-race show. Bestwick stayed off pit road, and also handled the Infield Studio duties during and after the races.

Despite his hard work in many substitute roles in 2007, Bestwick's "TV place" in the upcoming Nationwide Series could range from handling the play-by-play to going right back on pit road. It is TV...after all.

As the 2007 season wound-down, we saw Brad Daugherty get the opportunity to move up to the announce booth and call a Busch Series race with Rusty Wallace and Jerry Punch alongside. Daugherty changed the rather "dry" dynamic of the ESPN booth immediately with his inquisitive nature and his endless enthusiasm. It was almost like having a fan from the stands join the guys in the booth. It was kind of...fun.

Looking back at ESPN's first NASCAR season, one thing is certain. By the time that the Brickyard 400 rolled around for this TV announce crew in July, the primary on-air talent were fried. Even with a vacation, these same three guys were basically looking at around 33 Busch races and 17 NEXTEL Cup events.

50 races is a lot of races for one announce team. Throw in a bunch of practice and multi-hour qualifying sessions, and by late summer only one thing remained in the ESPN announce booth. Burnt toast.

Perhaps, ESPN will be a bit more flexible with the booth teams for 2008, and let other talent step-up during the Nationwide practices and qualifying. Even on some Busch Series events, Randy LaJoie brought a breath of fresh air to the series, and Allen Bestwick and Randy seemed to click in the booth. That Montreal memory is hard to shake.

We also saw Mike Massaro host the Infield Studio, and Brad Daugherty worked very well on live practice and qualifying. He asks good questions, which in turn make the analysts and pit reporters step-up to give good answers. Also on the ESPN crew is Shannon Spake, who co-hosted a TV series from the NASCAR infield a while back on the SPEED Channel. ESPN is clearly not lacking in available talent.

Later columns will talk about the changes in NASCAR Now and the Sprint Cup coverage on ESPN for the 2008 season. That is going to be interesting.

Now, the focus is on the struggling Nationwide Series, which clearly received short shrift from ESPN in 2007. Hopefully, we will all soon learn what announce team ESPN has assigned to their biggest NASCAR TV race package. It would have been nice if that info was in their first Nationwide Series press release.

That kind of makes one wonder if some things for 2008...are still in discussion.

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