Monday, July 14, 2008
ESPN's Toughest Call: Punch Or Bestwick In The Booth?
After a long first half of the 2008 season, ESPN is closing-in on that network's coverage of the final seventeen Sprint Cup races. Some of these events will be on ESPN, but the final ten will be on the ABC Broadcast Network. There is no bigger stage in TV sports.
ESPN has come a very long way since the 2007 NASCAR season, which signaled the return of the network to the sport. This Friday night, the NASCAR on ESPN crew was at Chicagoland Speedway. While normally the Nationwide Series races are on ESPN2, this first night race from the track was on ESPN.
The TV production experience that ESPN brings to NASCAR is second-to-none. At Chicagoland, the pictures and sound were once again flawless. The graphics were crisp and easy to read. The TV production effects for racing elements like green flag pit stops and restarts worked just the way they were planned. While the in-race reporter continues to need work, the helmet-cam on a pit crew member has been fantastic.
The network has also gone out and made some wholesale changes in the on-air talent. In came Dale Jarrett to be the Lead Analyst while Rusty Wallace migrated down to the Infield Pit Center. Wallace has also worked selected races in the booth, like the Chicagoland event, with great success. Wallace has come alive with this one simple change of scenery.
Jarrett has been the consummate professional since he arrived. He continues to walk in the footsteps of his father with a good word spoken and a bad word held back where NASCAR commentary is concerned. Jarrett has also proven to be a master at learning the "TV skill set" as he works seamlessly with the other members of the NASCAR on ESPN announce team.
The biggest change this season is the addition of Allen Bestwick. This multi-faceted on-air talent has seen the highs and lows of this business first-hand and longtime NASCAR fans certainly know it. Once the play-by-play announcer of NBC's NASCAR coverage, Bestwick later found himself as a pit reporter for ESPN2 on the Nationwide Series.
One thing fans have seen from Bestwick over the years is determination that matches his legendary preparation. From standing in pit road for ESPN2 as a reporter in 2007, Bestwick earned a promotion to become one of ESPN's most vital connections with the fans. Whether hosting the pre-race show, dealing with weather delays or coordinating post-race interviews, Bestwick has been the face of NASCAR on ESPN this season.
On Thursday of this week, a practice session rained-out for the Nationwide Series. Instead of Bestwick and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Studio, ESPN put the telecast crew of Punch, Wallace and Andy Petree in that location. The timeslot for this practice session was one hour and thirty minutes.
The task for Punch was to fill this entire time with conversation among his panelists and various guests that would come to the set. Over the next ninety minutes, Punch welcomed drivers Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Stanton Barrett and Carl Edwards. It was wonderful.
This was a chance for some NASCAR fans to see Punch in the setting in which he thrives, interviewing. Punch is a TV reporter and a darn good one. He led this program through five different drivers on-the-fly, always had his information correct and kept the conversation entertaining and humorous the entire time.
Friday night, ESPN put Punch back in the setting in which he is not thriving. That is calling the play-by-play for multi-hour NASCAR races. For those of us who watched both programs, it was a painful reminder that ESPN should perhaps consider making one more change to the network's NASCAR line-up.
It is time to flip Jerry Punch and Allen Bestwick. The current situation is not working for the fans and does not seem to be working for Punch either. Perhaps, just like Wallace, one change would allow both Punch and Bestwick to thrive.
This feeling was reinforced by Punch's wonderful Thursday hosting of the "rain fill" program from the Infield Media Center. In what had been Bestwick's chair, Punch looked right at home. He was animated, happy and kept the energy high even as the rain poured down.
Last season, ESPN used Allen Bestwick to cover some stand-alone Nationwide Series events. Partnered with Randy LaJoie, Bestwick showed that he still had the TV skills to handle the play-by-play role with no problem. Bestwick is a very good "TV traffic cop" who can direct traffic on-the-air and let the other announcers use their skills to tell the story of the race.
Now, with Dale Jarrett on the ESPN team full-time, there is little doubt that Bestwick and Jarrett would be a potent team in the announce booth as The Chase rolled through the final ten races on the ABC Broadcast Network.
Punch would equally be a major player in his infield host role with interviews and the ability to use his outstanding reporter skills once again in the sport he clearly loves.
Every single NASCAR team is forced to make changes as the season progresses. Fans have seen drivers, crew chiefs and many team members come and go. The one reason this happens is to improve the performance of the team. The key to accepting the changes is the commitment to be as good as possible while the race is on.
It is time to ESPN to take a look in the mirror and see if they are as good as possible with the network's on-air announcers in their current positions. The big question is going to be, can change take place if it is needed for the overall good of the team?
The Allstate 400 at The Brickyard begins ESPN's seventeen race Sprint Cup coverage on July 27th.
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