Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Punch Works To Define Role In ESPN Booth

Over the past seventeen months, ESPN has been back in the NASCAR business. Like anything in life, there have been highs and lows. The Friday night Nationwide Series race from Daytona was not a high.

Looking around at the cast of characters working for the network, it was hard to believe that some things did not click on-the-air. Names like Bestwick, Punch and Jarrett are well known to NASCAR fans and have a distinguished history in the sport.

In many ways, this event was a dress rehearsal for the Sprint Cup race from the Brickyard that will signal ESPN assuming the TV coverage of that series for the rest of the season. Like many dress rehearsals, perhaps some changes might be in order before opening night.

Call it nerves or believe it was intentional, but once the fast-paced and exciting Nationwide race got underway, viewers were treated to a telecast that featured only the top five cars and emphasized the Sprint Cup drivers. The ESPN of old was back as the Director chose to show only the top of the field for almost the entire event.

One function of ESPN televising the entire Nationwide Series is to focus on the younger drivers and the Nationwide regulars that Allen Bestwick mentioned in the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show. Once things switched from the Infield Pit Studio and Bestwick's crew upstairs to the "Punch bunch," there was a very different story being told to the viewers.

ESPN still has strong points. The triple split for pit stops under caution is wonderful and the pit reporters work harder on these telecasts than any other NASCAR TV series. Good pictures and crisp graphics have become a trademark of ESPN this season where races are concerned.

Just like a NASCAR team, there has to be a point person designated to lead the effort once the race is underway. ESPN's on-air focal point is Jerry Punch. Last season, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree looked at Punch in the announce booth quite often for on-air guidance.

As we documented in this column, Punch struggled in his first season in the unfamiliar territory of the play-by-play position. Many of us remember Punch as a pit reporter on NASCAR and a sideline reporter on college football games for ESPN.

This season, ESPN has added Dale Jarrett as the Lead Analyst for the NASCAR races and kept Petree to provide the crew chief perspective. Punch is surrounded by two top-notch NASCAR professionals and two very good TV personalities. Unfortunately, as fans discovered at Daytona, it is not enough.

The veteran reporter in Punch likes to let things happen on the track and then react. His reaction is often in the form of a monotone question to his analysts. The role of the play-by-play announcer is to call the action as it happens and build the excitement of a live NASCAR race for the fans at home. That is not happening.

Throughout the Daytona Nationwide Series event, Punch would sometimes raise his voice and get pumped-up. Unfortunately, it was normally as he "threw" to commercial break or read a promo for an ESPN show. Punch also gets excited about ESPN's pre-produced features and other things like the Daytona skyline. What he does not get excited about is the racing.

Punch has represented NASCAR in a variety of difficult situations with dignity and class. He talks on a wide variety of racing-related subjects with the authority of a NASCAR historian. The Ultimate NASCAR series that he hosted was perhaps one of the finest pieces of NASCAR TV production ever done. Those who worked with him on that series enjoyed his professionalism.

What is not pleasant is watching someone you respect struggle in a role that does not fit their qualifications. It is even more difficult when they are doing it on national TV. Hour after hour and race after race it is becoming clear that ESPN needs to perhaps consider moving some additional personnel around on the NASCAR broadcasts.

Rusty Wallace was rejuvenated with his new role this season and has been sensational on NASCAR Countdown, NASCAR Now and other ESPN programs. Nicole Manske has been solid in the studio and Bestwick has been outstanding as the pre-race host. All of these changes brought positive results, so there is no doubt that change paid dividends for ESPN where NASCAR is concerned.

Last season, Allen Bestwick was several times dispatched to stand-alone Busch Series races. With no Infield Pit Studio or fancy announce booth Bestwick would host the pre-race show, call the play-by-play for the race and then handle the entire post-race show no matter how much time had to be filled.

Working with partners like Randy LaJoie, Bestwick embraced this role with the same professional enthusiasm that he has brought to the Infield Pit Studio and NASCAR Now. Whether the race was at an oval like Nashville or a big road course like Montreal, Bestwick was the first face fans saw and the last one telling them goodbye.

Perhaps, as ESPN closes-in on the network's Sprint Cup package, there might be an opportunity to give Punch a relief driver on coverage of some races, practice sessions or qualifying telecasts. Last season, Punch handled both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series alone and that was too much.

Everyone deserves an opportunity to learn a new position or come up-to-speed on a new challenge. Ultimately, it is also that person's responsibility to ask for help when the task is not exactly what they believed it to be. Maybe, just a little assistance with the heavy lifting would help the entire ESPN team as they get ready for their real opening night performance.

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Anonymous said...


Ditto! It is so painful to listen to Dr. Punch. It's hard when you genuinely like the guy and know the great work he has done in the past. He does not "get" being the play by play guy. It's just not him. The excitement he does show...yes, mostly going to commercial -:)...seems scripted and forced. I certainly hope somethng can be done, if not this year, then next, that would benefit all involved, especially the fans!! Diane

Dot said...

I hate to bag on Jerry because I really like him, just not in the booth. There's too much going on for him to keep up. He tends to misspeak. Such as, some driver tonight last changed tires on lap 15. He said that the tires had 15 laps on them.

He should be moved to the pre race (replace AB) or back to the pits. It's more his pace.

stricklinfan82 said...

My proposed changes to the ESPN lineup in 2009:

Booth: Bestwick, Jarrett, Petree
Studio: Manske, Wallace, Evernham
Pits: Little, Spake, Massaro, Burns, Punch

And no more covering practice or qualifying for ESPN. Leave that to a network like Speed that will actually show the on-track action (instead of ignoring it and covering it up with full-screen nonsense) and will show every session LIVE. "Tape-delay" and "no TV coverage" should not be associated with Sprint Cup practice sessions except in rare instances (and certainly not every week like we will soon face with ESPN covering the Cup Series), especially during this part of the year, which is the most critical part of the entire season.

Off the top of my head I think through Chicago next week there will have only been 4 Sprint Cup practices held with no TV coverage (the infamous car auction conflict at Martinsville, Charlotte because of Speed covering a Truck race live, and Thursday sessions at Phoenix and Darlington).

Now with the race to the Chase heating up, and the 10 race Chase for the Sprint Cup on tap... the number of untelevised Cup practices for just this final stretch of the season alone will be somewhere around 30 (maybe that number will lower slightly if ESPN has scheduling conflicts and a couple ESPN practices sneak onto Speed in their absence).

- unofficially 4 untelevised practices in races 1-19 (which isn't just Fox races by the way, that also includes TNT practices which were ALL carried by Speed as well)

- somewhere around 30 untelevised practices during races 20-26 leading into the Chase and races 27-36 in the Chase.

How does no one at NASCAR see a major issue with this ridiculous imbalance?

Anonymous said...

Punch could be sitting in his living room, watching the race on TV, based on how he calls it.

He never relates anything that hasn't appeard on the screen first, and even misses some of that action.

At least DW and crew look out he window and frequently beat the director to spotting the critical action. Punch never, ever does this.

And when was the last time someone on ESPN ever said, "Sounds like the #__ car has dropped a cylinder?" Answer: Never--because they don't pay attention to what's going on outside the booth--so they can't tell things like how a car sounds.

Punch doesn't appear to know what's happening much of the time and has to work it out, live on the air.

Bestwick is a lot better and ought to be calling the races.

bevo said...

Very good summary of the situation JD. If you had Punch as the lead pit reporter you would get better information and the other pit reporters could get some needed guidance on how to do a better job. Massaro and Little could learn how to interview a driver from Dr. Punch.

I would really like to see Bestwick in the booth but if ESPN is dead set against it how about Rick Allen? I don't know what his contract status is with Speed and I would hate to see the Truck series loose him but he would be a great fit.

Lou said...

I did watch the reair of the race from 0300 to 0500 hrs on ESPN. And in previous broadcasts w/Mr. Bestwick he has done well as we all expected. But I guess I have two more questions. Would Mr. Bestwick want to do play by play in the booth? Or is he happy where he is? And after listening to DJ, could he or does he want to be the play by play guy? Food for thought. As JD always says "Isn't TV fun".

Newracefan said...

Last year many of us thought the problem in the booth was Rusty (it was but evidently not the only problem). Rusty stepped up and got better and ESPN stepped up and got DJ. JP get's excited about the wrong thing, I multi task when I watch a race trust me I know when to lookup when Fox or even TNT for that matter is calling the race they get excited by the action on the track I do not react to JP anymore because he gets excited about commercials? The thought that this will be all we will get for the end of the season terrifies me.

Anonymous said...
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Lou said...

Newracefan 1019hrs,
I understand what you say. And as Rusty made a BIG change to our enjoyment.. I hope we can in some way still enjoy Dr. Punch. He knows so much about the sport. I can not describe it, but he has seen an awful lot of good and bad. Maybe in another time he will share w/us those times. I can not wait til he writes a book about NASCAR and his experience in the sport. I will be the first to get it signed by him. Or give it my best shot to be first.

Anonymous said...

I have said this since last year. Put AB in the booth, and Dr. Jerry on pit road. Rusty has improved greatly and I no longer cringe at the thought of listening to him for a whole race. That groan is now squarely on Jerry Punch. If ESPN or AB won't play ball, PLEASE at the very least, put someone ELSE in as play by play and put Punch on pit road where he shines.

Anonymous said...

JD -

I mainly caught the final 20 laps or so, which from what i remember were pretty much commercial free.... I enjoyed that part of it. ( maybe they had one break in there, but still cool )

Earlier this year I commented on Punch NOT being the play-by-play guy needed for ESPN. He simply cannot carry a broadcast and I agree he needs to move on. But moving Bestwick into the P-B-P chair may OR may not be an option for ESPN.
I dont think many of us actually know IF AB really wants to do it.

Maybe AB's "price" goes up if he does play-by-play... maybe ESPN doesnt want to "pay".

The fact is, we dont know how those personal contracts are written up. ( maybe you do JD )

It sure would be a feather in ESPN / ABC hat to get Bestwick in the booth again for 2008.
** disclaimer... personally, I feel AB is best in the business AND a real nice guy from my encounters with him. Joy is also up there. **

Back to Daytona -

I think they used the wrong cam for the finish.... they tried to show the finish, but they should've used that hi-cam a little farther down towards turn one AND used the drop down.

Real nice post race coverage in my opinion.
WOW, Mike Wallace was HOT !!
For those who thought Jamie Little went too far in her quesitoning... i disagree. She HAD to ask his thoughts on Steve Wallace hittin him. Thats good coverage, I WANTED her to ask him... and Mike handled it well. Tough questions are part of this business.

I was wondering where Rusty was in the post race. Now that would've been awesome TV to have Rusty comment on it.

Today we'll get to here Kenny comment on HIS UNCLE Mike... HIS COUSIN Steve.... and of course Kenny will throw in 2 or 3 "my brother Rusty" comments.

Vicky D said...

JD - great comments. I mentioned during the race last night that ESPN disregarded almost all the Nationwide Series only drivers and only showed about the top 4 or 5 drivers which just happened to be cup drivers. BK was lucky enough to lead the race and get shown though. What are those NW owners saying today - are they complaining to Nascar or ESPN? I personally think JP needs to be down on pit road and someone else doing the play by play - someone suggested Rick Allen I agree with that choice.

Sean said...

bevo and vicky. I think Rick Allen is great as well; but he'll probably replace Mike Joy when he retires at FOX(My guess). I hope ESPN makes some changes before Indy, but I doubt it

Sean said...

Oh and JD great picture for this article. That picture explains everything to me. It doesn't sound like they actually look out the window on the broadcasts. DW seems like he always is and catches wrecks/passes before anyone else does

Daly Planet Editor said...

If we can, let's keep the focus of the comments about the on-air team.

The only reason I mentioned Bestwick is because he is already on-scene and has expeience in the play-by-play role.

ESPN has the perfect right to do as they choose, but what we are trying to acknowledge to the network is that the fans at home know something is wrong.

The Nationwide races are shorter and the TV audience is smaller than the Cup events. Once ESPN makes the turn into the Brickyard with Punch, there is no turning back.

Last year, viewers went through the final 17 races without an exciting play-by-play announcer calling the action and building the excitement. That is just not fair.

Listening to Punch on the TV and listening to the radio call of the race on MRN or PRN is like hearing two different events. That is a sad state of affairs for the sport.


Anonymous said...

Ever since I started watching NASCAR in 1991 (I was 5 years old then), I have enjoyed Bob, Benny, Ned in the booth while Dr. Punch, Jack Arute and John Kernan were in the pits.

I don't hate Jerry as a play by play announcer, but he just doesn't click as a play by play announcer with the viewer.

I'm either hoping Allen Bestwick be moved to the booth or Paul Page. Maybe Bob Jenkins?

I did like last night's coverage from ESPN which gives me high hopes for the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Can't wait to hear Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. I'm really tired of Bill Weber and TNT.

Sophia said...

Well I might have mentioned the horrible camera work in last nights race...over use of bumper cams, tight shots and in car cams.

I do miss Fox guys in the booth excited about what's going on but their camera work of the above and the gyp at the finish race, negated all positive stuff on the station.

We better all enjoy tonights Daytona race.

ESPN DID remove Rusty from the booth and give him a different job. Rusty went from driving people crazy to being enjoyable to listen to in his enthusiasm as he offers his commentary.

To some of us who splurge for digital to get SPEED (for shows and F1 races,etc) we feel we should get the whole race on TV WITHOUT Multi tasking. You can have crickets in the booth but as long as I have EXCELLENT CAMERA WORK to tell me the story, and SHOW me a great ending, I can over look A LOT of announcing issues.

It's a Dear Diary moment when you reflect that the best part of "SEEING NASCAR races from my home were the six races on TNT".

And the topper, I am even enjoying Bill Weber and the other guys in the booth.

I do miss sweet Benny but we can't change that...but we knew he would be sorely missed.:(

Daly Planet Editor said...


I don't think you said the words "Jerry" or "Punch" anywhere in that post.

I'm leaving it up just because you are actually enjoying Bill Weber this season. That is a big change!


Sophia said...

Sorry, I DID mean to mention Punch.

I started watching NASCAR in 2004 after he left the races. But hearing the love and respect from all his long time fans, it is painful for me to see him put in this position.

JD I was going to say Punch's problems in the booth are symptoms of something else that we can't figure out yet. That said, I would hope ESPN would listen to the fans (like they did when they moved Rusty's position this year)

Especially since it's mentioned by so many people. I would love to hear from Dr. Punch and see what he would like to do but of course, that will never happen.

In other words, though we may complain we 'complain because we care' to twist a phrase of somebody else. :)

P.S. JD you posted about staying focused on the guys in the booth while I posted earlier but I did mean to mention JP in passing.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that the same camera people work for Fox, TNT and ESPN?

There is very little difference in how they shoot the race. I beleive that you are basing judgement on how the announcers make you feel during a race. Take out the overuse of the in-car cameras and a few other twists and you have the exact same camera work on all 3 networks.
Just food for thought.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 2:49PM,

I don't understand your point. Having a common tech crew including cameras does not make a difference in how the Producer and Director cut and present the race.

The crew simply does what they are told, if it is tight on the leaders for ESPN and wide on the pack for TNT, so be it.

Not quite sure the point you were trying to make there.


Anonymous said...

I like Dr. Jerry so I do hate to be critical of him. However, as I've stated last night and many times, he's *not* a PBP announcer.

I don't need to "jump out of my chair" when we're going to commercial...but I do when I'm posting on my various forums and missed a huge wreck was happening while my back was turned.

I would *love* to have Allen back, but I know to that he might be happy where he is. As you posted in your thread with the Standalone races how Allen can and does do it all :).

I love having Mr. Petree in for the CC perspective, DJ the driver and just need to get someone to do PBP who can do the job. Who is watching the action on the track and not on the monitors. The monitors should be for the replays.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that the same camera people work for Fox, TNT and ESPN?

...which serves to prove that directing, not shooting, makes all the difference in presentation of these races.

Sophia said...

JD, not sure either about the crew explanation.

All I know is if the camera work is WIDER and BETTER focused on a track, it doesn't matter about the talk in the booth if I am "Seeing" what is on the track.

I am happier.

Believe it or not. :-0

And if we the viewer at home can't tell if it's Daytona or Charlotte, Houston, we have a problem. Daytona and Dega both can look fantastic on TV. But it's the artistic ability of the camera man/woman and their bosses 'to allow it' to be SEEN from our homes.

EDIT: Yes, it's all in the directing. I would still like to send cookies to the TNT director. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have a question I have been thinking about this since last night.

Did Espn do a few "test" races with each crew ?

The only reason I ask is I was commenting to a friend who mentioned Kornheiser had mentioned it when he was trying out for MNF,
and said they must have put them thru this to check for on air chemistry.

I was wondering because we both were feeling Doc felt like he was out of his element- so to speak.

I really do like him a lot, and feel bad for him - but he is really hard to listen to when he does talk & is mostly missing last night.

Just wondering

Anonymous said...

Look people Rusty wallace has won more races than most .OK DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT.Put Wallace back in the booth with jarett then you will have two great champs telling us whats really going on. And punch will be just perfect. Also put petree with bestwick and brad d in the studio. IT WILL WORK THAN.

Anonymous said...

Punch does not work in the booth. Plain and simple. He has all the energy of a sloth on prozac. He was much better as a pit reporter. Please ESPN, put AB in the play by play. Punch would be better utilized even in the Pre-Race. By the way TNT have been outstanding this year. Never thought Id be saying that.Kyle Petty and Wally have some great chemistry. Even Weber is palatable this year.
Love this blog JD.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, paging Bob Jenkins.

What I would like to see is this:

Since we can't get BP back, we have Bob Jenkins or Eli Gold, play by play; Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. Put Dr.Punch in the pits with Glen Jarrett, John Kernan and the current pit guys.

Anonymous said...

I think you forget Punch used to call Busch Grand National races as well as truck races back in the last 90's.

I read what you don't like about him, but I think you just don't like him period.

From the way you've written about him from the start, its been quite obvious to this lurker.

Anonymous said...

Your proposed changes are pretty good stricklin fan, but for me, my preposed changes would take more of a retro look to the ESPN telecast

Booth: Bob Jenkins, Ray Evernham, Dale Jarrett
Studio: Just Bestwick, Wallace, NO daugerty
Pits: Jerry Punch(lead pit reporter), Mike Massaro, Dave Burns, John Kernan- used to be a pit reporter for ESPN, now on sirus satellite radio or something

Also, a change that needs to be made- ditch the new opening music and replace it with the "speedworld" theme from the 1990s