Saturday, June 28, 2008
Jarrett Sizzles As Punch Struggles On ABC
There is finally a star on the horizon for ESPN and NASCAR. There is finally a reason to be optimistic about watching "The Chase" on TV this season. His name is Dale Jarrett.
After a tough first season that featured Brent Musburger, Suzy Kolber and some of the worst motorsports television production in years, ESPN has righted the ship and named a captain. The Nationwide Series race from New Hampshire was a great example of what NASCAR fans can expect down the stretch from Jarrett.
After a planned vacation, Jarrett returned to the ESPN/ABC team that will produce the remaining Nationwide Series races and the final seventeen Cup events. His return was accompanied by the appearance of Ray Evernham in the announce booth replacing the vacationing Andy Petree.
In TV terms, Jarrett has "all the tools" needed to be an outstanding analyst. His background is well-known to even the casual fan who may only remember his Daytona 500 victories. His appearance is professional and his vocabulary is a dream in a sport where this is often an issue for TV personalities.
What makes Jarrett top-of-the-line for the ESPN Producer and Director is his ability to understand the inner-workings of the sports TV business. In the Nationwide Series race on Saturday afternoon, Jarrett performed flawlessly when his TV skills were put to the test.
In the analyst role, Jarrett handles the replays of the incidents on the track as well as providing the commentary about the on-going action. His Dale Carnegie training allows him to speak in measured terms while also expressing his thoughts clearly and without bias. It has been very effective.
Something else is fun to watch with Jarrett. During the race he "throws" down to the pit reporters for interviews, talks live with Allen Bestwick and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Pit Center and often asks questions of his fellow analyst in the booth. Jarrett makes every on-air personality involved in the ESPN/ABC NASCAR coverage an active part of the on-going TV conversation.
This ability to "include" rather than "exclude" all of the other announcers is a tremendous key to being a good TV analyst in this sport. In just the short time that he has been actively involved with ESPN, Jarrett has proven his ability to deal with a wide variety of topics and personalities on-the-air.
Fans may remember that this was the downfall of Rusty Wallace last season. Often, after Rusty spoke on a certain topic there was nothing more to say. Either you agreed with him or if you did not agree Rusty was there to belabor the point and continue the conversation. Rusty "excluded" the other members of the TV team without even meaning to do it.
Several times during the Nationwide Series race from NHMS, Jarrett was forced to step-in and talk about the action on-the-track. Covering for his friend Jerry Punch has become almost second nature to Jarrett as it has for Andy Petree. Punch is having a problem in his play-by-play role and everyone knows it.
Almost all of us remember the fine work of Punch as a reporter on the earlier ESPN racing package and also his follow-up career in college sports for the network. What many people do not remember is his attempt to handle the NASCAR play-by-play role when ESPN had the Craftsman Truck Series. It was not memorable.
Punch has outstanding racing knowledge and a thorough understanding of NASCAR from a tremendously unique perspective. What he does not have is the play-by-play experience to handle a four hour live race. That is an entirely different TV skill set.
Those types of skills are on display with Mike Joy, Rick Allen and Marty Reid. Even former ESPN NASCAR announcer Bob Jenkins keeps his voice on-the-air by calling the action in the IRL support series. Racing fans see and hear others like Bob Varsha, Rick Benjamin and Greg Creamer on other motorsports series. They are all "play-by-play guys."
Punch is often more excited talking about an ESPN promo or introducing a pre-recorded feature than he is calling the side-by-side action on the track. At NHMS, with less than 10 laps left in the Nationwide Series race, he began a discussion with Jarrett and Evernham about Patrick Carpentier getting the Sprint Cup pole for Sunday's race.
This is often the quandary that Punch finds himself in after a multi-hour event. His focus and energy are often gone and he struggles to even describe the action on the track. This is a TDP column from last season about just such a moment.
ESPN did a good job of correcting the problems and moving the personnel around this season to solve the first year issues. From hiring Jarrett to promoting Bestwick to creating the newly-improved Rusty Wallace, the results have been nothing short of fantastic.
Now, as the ESPN/ABC Sprint Cup Series coverage approaches, it is our old trusted friend Jerry Punch that is having a tough time. It was suggested a while back that perhaps Bestwick and Punch would trade positions for one race just to see if that helped, but the network has not seen fit to try that experiment.
Later this summer ESPN begins the big grind of handling both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. It will be Punch alone handling the practice, qualifying and then the races for both. There is no Steve Byrnes to step-in for relief and no break in the schedule.
This is a TDP column from last August describing the ordeal for the single ESPN announce team at Watkins Glen. NASCAR fans are used to seeing changing TV faces with every practice and qualifying session, but ESPN has only one team. That philosophy is going to once again be put to the test long before Homestead rolls around in November.
So, the good news for ESPN is that they finally have experienced a solid beginning of the season while tuning-up with the Nationwide Series. The bad news is that in just a couple of weeks, there will no longer be an opportunity for change and ESPN will have to "run what ya brung" for the four months of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series coverage.
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