Saturday, April 26, 2008
Punch In Need Of A Good TV Doctor
Few current NASCAR personalities have as much admiration from the fans as ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch. Throughout the early years of ESPN's coverage, Punch was a crusading pit reporter. His professionalism and good humor lent itself to the type of coverage the sport needed in the 1980's and 90's.
This is Punch's second season as the play-by-play voice of the largest NASCAR TV package. He leads the charge across ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. The ESPN TV package delivers all of the Nationwide Series races, seventeen Sprint Cup races and lots of qualifying and practice. Unlike some other NASCAR TV partners who come and go, the ESPN bunch is on-the-air from February through November.
Before this season's Daytona 500, ESPN held a press conference to announce a host of changes in their NASCAR television commitment. The network would change the studio show hosts for NASCAR Now. They would incorporate ESPNEWS and SportsCenter into the NASCAR coverage. They introduced Ray Evernham as a new member of the ESPN announcing team.
Finally, they got ready to talk about who would handle the race telecasts for 2008. Dale Jarrett was going the be the new lead analyst, and Rusty Wallace was moving to the Infield Studio. Suzy Kolber was also out, and the network then had to decide who would be the new infield host for all the races. They chose Allen Bestwick.
This put Jerry Punch, the veteran reporter, back in the broadcast booth as the play-by-play announcer for the entire year. When Punch needed a break, it was going to be Marty Reid who stepped-in as a substitute.
Returning Punch to the broadcast booth may have been well intended, but it has not yielded the desired results so far this season. Saturday at Talladega, it was painfully obvious that Punch is still struggling in this role.
Last year, this column spoke about the tough times in the broadcast booth for Punch. There was lots of opinion that laid the blame squarely at the feet of Rusty Wallace for ESPN's problems. Now, with Rusty "downstairs" and Dale Jarrett in the booth, it is quite clear that perhaps something else is off-kilter.
This season, ESPN has not been involved in many of the Nationwide Series practice or qualifying sessions. At Talladega, it was SPEED that carried qualifying on Friday, while the Thursday practices went without TV. Essentially, the NASCAR on ESPN gang showed-up for the race and then went home. That did not help gain experience for the new on-air team.
The good news is that Dale Jarrett has given Andy Petree the kind of freedom and respect that has taken Petree to the top of his game. Whether on NASCAR Now, ESPNEWS or a race telecast, Petree has become one of the top analysts on TV. This partnership has yielded outstanding results in only a short time.
Now, as ESPN takes to the air they have an outstanding team in place. Bestwick, Wallace and Brad Daugherty have fun in the Infield Pit Center. Tim Brewer has finally gotten comfortable in the Tech Center. Jamie Little has toned-down her act, and the pit reporters now present substance and not hype.
The only member of the on-air crew still looking for an identity is Punch. At Talladega, Dario Franchitti getting hit in the driver's door at full speed elicited no emotion from Punch. It was only the replay that told the story to viewers and Punch never stepped-in and took control. It is almost like he is stuck in low gear.
That was never more obvious than when Kevin Lepage chose to drive his Nationwide car directly in front of the Talladega field moving at full speed. The resulting violent accident involving many cars was met with nothing more than confusing phrases and awkward silence from Punch. Jarrett and Petree stepped-in and took control once again, as they often do when Punch is out-of-sync.
Even during the replays, Punch never raised his voice, changed his inflection, or exhibited the least bit of emotion. As Jarrett, Petree and the pit reporters followed-up on the incident during the resulting red flag, Punch's monotone continued. His total lack of energy was more than curious, it was downright strange.
Several times, Allen Bestwick appeared during the race to provide a break for the announcers during the red flag and offer race recaps. It was during this time that viewers were reminded once again of the excitement and energy that Bestwick seems to bring to each telecast. Since Bestwick has prior play-by-play experience, the thought has to cross the minds of the ESPN executives that maybe viewers would be better served with the roles reversed.
Punch has great credibility, a super personality and handles interviews with anyone and everyone with no problem. His days on pit road and then as an ESPN college football sideline reporter will never be forgotten. Perhaps, giving Punch an Infield Studio weekend and moving Bestwick to the booth for one race would give ESPN a baseline on which to fairly evaluate the network's late summer Sprint Cup on-air line-ups.
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