Monday, February 18, 2008
Allen Bestwick Emerges From The Shadows
One person was not featured at the ESPN press conference in the Media Center at Daytona last Wednesday.
The network showed-off new stars Dale Jarrett and Ray Evernham. They brought along Jerry Punch, Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace. Once again, Allen Bestwick was the odd man out.
That is a shame, because NASCAR fans who have watched ESPN over the past four days know one thing from the TV coverage. Bestwick is now the man in charge of NASCAR on ESPN.
After a 2007 season that saw him host NASCAR Now, report from the pits, host the Infield Studio activity and call the play-by-play on selected races, Bestwick has finally been rewarded.
This season, he will host the one hour NASCAR Now on Mondays that includes the ESPN roundtable of NASCAR announcers. He will be the permanent host of the Infield Pit Studio for all of the Nationwide and Sprint Cup race weekends. His face will be seen on ESPNEWS, SportsCenter and ESPN.com. As viewers found out over the weekend, Allen Bestwick is suddenly everywhere.
Sunday night found Bestwick and company hosting a one hour NASCAR Now special on ESPN. That same cast of characters then flew to Connecticut for the first big NASCAR Now studio show with the season underway. After long year of Monday disasters, ESPN has stepped-up and changed almost everything about this daily TV series.
Bestwick set the new studio tone by introducing Rusty Wallace, Mike Massaro and Brad Daugherty as his roundtable participants. The free-flowing and non-scripted conversation was a total change from the past.
The program featured the Daytona 500 winning crew chief, although the pre-recorded nature of the interview did not allow any of the other studio panelists to ask questions. Bestwick walked through some very personal and difficult issues with dignity, and came away with high marks.
Then, the program took on a very familiar tone for Bestwick. As the man who hosted Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on SPEED for many years, Bestwick now had an "esteemed panel of experts" once again. In a style well-known to NASCAR fans, Bestwick made the most of it.
On the panel were a veteran driver, a former team owner and a veteran reporter. Along with Bestwick, ESPN had put together a very interesting dynamic. The conversation flowed well, everyone had the opportunity to make their point, and Bestwick set the tone with his normal good humor.
Rusty Wallace was fascinating to watch as he came alive. In this format, he could be outspoken and spontaneous without the fear of embarrassment. The spotlight was off, and Rusty could be himself. It should be interesting to watch him embrace his new role.
A nervous ESPN Director called for way too many buttons to be pushed. The only thing interrupting the panel discussions was the frantic cutting of the cameras. The wideshot of all four roundtable members worked just fine, and helped viewers to see the interaction and body language of all four men. As time passes by, and everything settles down, we should see a lower-key approach to this production element.
Lead Reporter Marty Smith filed a wrap-up from Daytona detailing the Monday ceremony at Daytona USA. His interviews included Ryan Newman and Roger Penske. Smith's story was strictly business, and when the details were over he was done.
The show rolled through the Nationwide and Truck series highlights with brief roundtable discussions following both. This commitment to embrace all three of NASCAR's national touring series is wonderful. For a veteran sports TV company like ESPN, it was also about time.
In previewing the California racing weekend, Bestwick set-up the panel with a factual introduction and then opened the floor for discussion. Each of the participants brought their own perspective, and that resulted in a great overview that this program never could have offered last season. Once again, it was like Rusty Wallace had found his TV groove. He was happy, enthusiastic and informative.
Bestwick ended the show with news and notes, including a quick recap of the 500. The final thoughts of the panel included a good perspective of how the Penske camp flew under-the-radar last weekend and what the COT will mean for the rest of the season.
This time, the music roll-out to close the hour was not a screaming rock video. It contained great sound from team radios, the TV and radio announcers and included a hilarious moment from Kyle Busch. It was great to hear ESPN include the NASCAR on Fox announcers as the 500 field crossed the finish line.
If this is the prototype of the new NASCAR Now, my only advice to ESPN is...don't change a thing.
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