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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