Friday, May 9, 2008

Punch Leads Nationwide Series TV Comeback

Some fans watching on TV were a little bit apprehensive going into the Friday night Nationwide Series race from Darlington, SC.

ESPN2 was going to host the live telecast as usual, but Rusty Wallace would be handling his normal pre-race duties and then stepping-into the broadcast booth for the vacationing Dale Jarrett to call the race. Rusty was going back to a role that he had vacated after only one season "in the seat."

Allen Bestwick set the crisp and fast-paced tone for the evening with the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show. Brad Daugherty and Wallace have proven to be an unlikely success in their pre-race roles in the Infield Pit Studio. Daugherty asks a lot of questions, and can usually get Wallace excited about a number of subjects in thirty minutes.

Wallace got all charged-up once again on Friday, and then transferred his energy to the booth where he joined Dr. Jerry Punch and Andy Petree. Last season, this group worked hard but the chemistry was just not there.

As NASCAR fans know, the ESPN solutions included moving Wallace to the Infield Pit Studio and bringing-in Bestwick to replace Suzy Kolber as the host. Daugherty was retained, and then Dale Jarrett was hired as the Lead Analyst in the broadcast booth. This was a shake-up aimed at results.

The new combination proved to be effective right out of the gate. Now, as ESPN rests their talent before the long run through the Sprint Cup, Wallace was once again going to be on-the-spot with Jarrett absent.

Once underway, it was clear that Wallace was not the only one pumped-up about this track and the new surface. Punch brought a new level of enthusiasm and focus to this telecast that had been lacking earlier this season. It seems a vacation had re-charged Punch's batteries quite well.

Once Petree joined the party, the results were perhaps ESPN's finest Nationwide Series broadcast of the season. Punch worked hard to include all of the pit reporters and Jamie Little finally stood-out with her ability to ask the right basic question and then...listen. What a change from last season on pit road for the entire team.

Great pictures and sound framed a beautiful looking broadcast that once again showed the positive aspects of the ESPN graphics package. Simple and informative, this time the production team kept the information basic and on-target. The hype was gone, except for the one poor decision to replay Kyle Busch being introduced to the crowd. That made no sense, and left Punch sounding awkward on-the-air.

What more than made-up for that was ESPN having Sprint Cup pole-sitter Greg Biffle join Bestwick and Daugherty in the Infield Pit Studio during the Nationwide race. Essentially, this was ESPN promoting a NASCAR on Fox live race. Last season on ESPN the "F-word" was never even mentioned.

Now, Biffle joined the panel not only to promote the Cup race, but stayed to comment on the live Nationwide race in-progress. His comments were outstanding, and even with all of the ten voices on the telecast at that point, things never got out-of-hand. Very nice job by the Producer and Pit Producer.

The telecast struggled for a moment to understand why Matt Kenseth (the ESPN in-race reporter) was so upset when he had a solo spin late in the event. Credit goes to the TV crew for replaying all the angles and then following-up with Kenseth to finally determine that he was pretty upset with the pit crew and his pit stops.

The good old Darlington red flag played a role in this telecast, but viewers would not really notice because the conversation and information was flowing. Wallace and Petree had finally hit on a combination that let each of them express their own individual views without the issue of "who is right" having to be settled each time. That happened a lot last season.

To cap-off the race, ESPN used a classic camera angle seen for many years at this track and showed a big wideshot of the cars as they raced off the final turn and all the way to the start-finish line. Although there were only one or two side-by-side battles, this was the perfect way to let everyone see the lead-lap cars finish.

This telecast was notable for the new element of Wallace feeling free to directly ask Petree questions about crew chief oriented topics. The result was a strong performance from Petree, with many of those answers then followed-up by Tim Brewer in the Tech Center.

It seems that for once Brewer was not forced into the telecast, but used when he was needed to illustrate a point. The fuel issue at the end of the race on the restarts was a perfect example.

Even running late, the NASCAR on ESPN gang got the right interviews and asked the right questions. This Friday night in Darlington may finally be giving us a clue about the potential of this TV team to tackle the final seventeen ESPN/ABC Sprint Cup races down the stretch to the championship. It seems that right now the big ESPN NASCAR engine is finally hitting on all eight cylinders.

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Bill H said...

Overall the broadcast was good, but I did have a few issues with it:

1) Towards the end they seemed to spend an inordinate amount of camera time on the 64 and the 66 while Rusty discussed David Streeme and Steven Wallace. Given these cars were running 6th and 7th at the time, but this seems to happen during every race that Rusty announces on and you cant help but get the impression that it is part of the "package" that he as the car owner has sold to the sponser (ie "Sponser my car and I will get you X amount of TV time every race while I talk about the cars").

2) Dr. Punch needs to work on his emoting. It seems his voice level, inflection and talking speed never change no matter what is happening on the track. It is always the same monotone.

3) They (ESPN & FOX) need to think more on their bumper music. I am not sure what country song ESPN used last night (i tried to figure it out when they played it at the start of the race) but they then kept using snippets of it when rolling out to commercials and if you don't know what song it is, it just sounds like noise. Why can't Nascar / ESPN / FOX / SPEED come up with a "Nascar" song that is used consistantly (ie like the Monday night football intro, the Sunday night football, the old Wide World Of Sports theme etc) instead of using the race "music" either as an audition for songs or (not sure if they do this but why not) selling the "audio space" to a record label as if it was a commercial (the more I think about that last statement the more likely it is they do do this).

4) Not an issue but more of a technical question, the infield studio desk has the wavy screen on the front of it. Is this a curved flat screen, projection screen or some sort of blue screen? And the "windows" behind them, are they actually windows or blue screens like the Hollywood Hotel (I can't forget the giant hand wiping off the rain on the camera lens behind Hammond and Myers last year)?

And for what it is worth:

A pet peeve of mine, but I wish they would spend a few minutes on the "also rans". For instance, Derrick Cope, a running gag in my house where my wife and I try to figure out when he is going to park for the night, was actually still running and being competitive (23rd place, 1 lap down) with 65 laps left when he wrecked. They showed the wreck, but didn't mention (as far as I heard) was he ok, or show him getting out of the car, or what caused it, (tire, contact etc). I know he isn't anyones fan favorite, but...

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Bill H on every point but number one.
One of the stories of the year in the Nationwide series is the RWR cars suddenly being very competitive, even with the Nationwide-wackers that dominate the series. I'd like to see a report on why the Stevie and Stremme show has improved so much.

Lou,Kingston,NY said...

I watched the race early this morning on the replay on ESPN2. It was ok, Enjoyed the final lap as they all crossed the finish line. Good to see them finish on the wide angle shot. I understand how hard it is for Rusty w/the 64 and 66. But they were in the top ten so I thought it was ok for him to mention them.

Thornton, Colorado said...

The constant RWR updates is annoying. Granted, they are running well, but that is no reason to strike up the band. It's the same at FOX at the numerous MWR sightings, even if they are parked in the garage.
The lowlight for me is still Jerry Punch. Kyle Busch spins and hits the wall, and you'd have thought we were in Church when Punch spoke about it.
A little improvement but still a long way to go. Get rid of the good Doctor. NOW.

Ken-Michigan said...

I didnt see much improvement at all with the Darlington ESPN Nationwide race.

I skipped all of the Pre-Race ( I do that alot lately).

It still boggles my mind that ESPN AND FOX continue to miss on track incidents.

Last night the race wasn't even 2 laps old and they totally miss the Carl Edwards hard crash in turn 1 because they are showing a FULL SCREEN replay of the 60 "brushing" the wall in turn 3.

Green Flag pit stops with FULL SCREENS of ONE CAR pitting. That misses a whole lot of action on NASCAR's historic race track.

All year many of us have asked for the producers and directors to use some sort of "split screen" to show MORE on track action. They ( the networks ) continue to get burned week in and week out by missing passes for position or other incidents because they dont utilize the technology given to them.

It's LAZY producing and directing, plain and simple. They go thru the motions without giving the viewers what we really want.

How can I sit here and give compliments to a "lazy" technical ESPN telecast ? There isn't anything to compliment.

The truck didn't have the Kyle Busch "Boo" tape cued up when Punch called for it.

Punch got chopped going to a break because of a lack of OR not paying attention to the countdown to the commercial.

At this level, THAT can't happen. It's LAZY !!!

JD : If this is YOUR idea of an "ESPN Nationwide Series Comeback", I think you are setting your expectations way too low.

Daly Planet Editor said...


I guess it all depends on what someone is "coming back" from. Did you read the older column I had linked inside this one? Now, that was a bad race.

It should be interesting to see if Jerry can continue to work himself toward the play-by-play role where he is calling the action, and escape the reporter role where he lets it happen and then comments on it without emotion.

This has to be a tough role for him after all those years as a reporter.


Anonymous said...

Great job buy Punch petree and wallace they were great to listen to.They really seemed to flow. This was the best broadcast all year long.Very exciting.

Dwight said...

I thought perhaps they bent over backward and gave Steve Wallace and David Stremme less attention than they deserved. In particular, when they talked about the aftermath of the the big one Mark Martin caused there at the end, we learned the fate of a number of the cars which did or didn't escape, but they left us wondering what happened to them.

Credit should be given when due, even if it is Rusty's team and Rusty's son. They were running extemely well in a difficult race, against the best the cup teams have to offer, and have been lately. Steve Wallace has come a long way, and Stremme is looking better than he ever has since his early days in the Busch series.

bevo said...


I've been as critical as anyone about the job ESPN has done but last night was a big improvement. We're never going to have a perfect presentation of a race, there will always be missed cues, restarts and the such. Punch (still not my choice for play-by-play) was more into the role as JD said. Wallace (I prefer DJ) was much better, and the pit reporters finally asked the right questions. Above all else we finally saw the ending!

My wish list is still for an easier to read scroll at the top like Fox started using this year, much cleaner with a great font on an easy background. I don't like the car numbers on there like they are on the cars.

Ken-Michigan said...

JD :

Yes I did read that "Punch needs a doctor" link.

If ESPN is going to make a "comeback" to provide better NASCAR coverage, Punch is only one element, but a very important one.

He belongs on Pit Road. Punch has had plenty of time to better his play-by-play, but he is not cutting it.

If they continue to swap the 3 booth guys ( take time off ), they will continue to struggle and seem rusty for the rest of the season.

The production truck needs to step it up too, as I stated earlier. I'm not sure how they do the staffing of the production team, but I often wonder if the same people are in the truck for each race. It sure seems like different people have different techniques and to the trained eye - it shows.

If this is as good as it gets for ESPN , the rest of the 2008 NASCAR season on ESPN /ABC will be brutal to watch.

David said...

Jerry Punch did a great job, Rusty however just didnt feel like he fit in my opinion. He did okay, but still lacked something. The energy was there but still, nothing for me.

Good to see Jerry finally had some enthusiasm in his voice though.

Anonymous said...

Icould not believe they did not interview Steve wallace after the race.after another great top five finish. Jerry punch did great. You punch haters get a life.

Anonymous said...

If they continue to swap the 3 booth guys ( take time off ), they will continue to struggle and seem rusty for the rest of the season.

ESPN is the only network that goes to pretty much EVERY NASCAR race with only a few weeks off here and there. They have 17 Cup Races and ALL NAtionwide races. This sint like FOX with only about 9 races, and TNT with only 6. The announcers and pit reporters need a break before the long cup season begins at Indy.

Alex said...

While I don't think that I'm a "Punch hater," I still think that it's a MAJOR problem when you get more excited to lead a viewer into commercial or an old clip of video than you are calling the action on the track.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

Also, @ Bill H...

NASCAR on Fox used to have a theme song, but either they have elected not to use it (or the supplementary bumper tracks that came with it) or the license they had on its use expired.

"NASCAR Love" is the song they choose to use. ESPN has theme music, but it's much more subtle and they choose to use either production music or popular country/rock tracks to lead into commercials.

Desmond said...

Alex, I believe in the first possible explanation as to why the old NASCAR on FOX music has been dropped. Two reasons:

*The music was produced by the same company (NJJ) that also gave the network the NFL on FOX and Major League Baseball on FOX themes. Both of those themes are still in use.
*FOX, as I have written, is a hype-driven network. The exclusive use of NASCAR Love in exchange for its sale on iTunes fits right in. And don't forget whose voice and signature call is in the song.

As for Friday night on ESPN2, the broadcast was above average and Dr. Punch has improved.