Saturday, August 30, 2008
ESPN's Silence Is Golden
Apparently, silence is golden at ESPN when unplanned NASCAR issues suddenly pop-up. Heading into the California weekend for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series, there are still a couple of TV-related issues on the table that sit unresolved.
In Michigan, Tim Brewer told ESPN viewers that Tony Stewart was directly involved in "magnet-gate" with the Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series teams. Subsequently, the Gibbs team members involved were identified and the drivers were cleared.
Despite several national media appearances on both ESPN and Sirius, Brewer refused to address his comments. An apology to Stewart on ESPN never happened.
Saturday night in Bristol, TN the ESPN Producer tried to raise the excitement level of the Sprint Cup race under a red flag by playing-back Clint Bowyer's now infamous "worst driver" comment about Michael Waltrip.
NASCAR's largest TV partner made sure to include the part where Bowyer dumps on NAPA for returning to MWR for 2009. That had to make the ESPN Ad Sales department go into group cardiac arrest. Keep an eye on the number of NAPA ads in Sunday's broadcast.
This recorded audio play-back happened several minutes after ESPN interviewed Casey Mears who explained how the accident occurred. Mears said Waltrip was not involved and apologized to the teams affected.
After running the Bowyer audio all weekend on SportsCenter, ESPNEWS, NASCAR Now and posting it on ESPN.com, many thought Monday would produce cooler heads.
The one hour edition of NASCAR Now is led by Allen Bestwick, who had worked alongside Waltrip for many years on SPEED Channel. Certainly, Bestwick would be able to put the issue to rest.
Instead, Bestwick avoided the topic for the entire program. Coming back from a commercial, NASCAR Now played an edited highlight from the weekend and there it was again. Nice and loud and just as out-of-context as it had been originally. Again from Bestwick, there was silence.
Finally, Saturday night brought another Earnhardt Jr. interview reminiscent of Mike Massaro grilling Junior after he fell out of Chase contention last season. This time, it was pit reporter Shannon Spake.
Everyone watching ESPN had seen Junior jump the start and never recover from the resulting penalty. Racing furiously all night long, he never got his lap back and finished 18th.
Whipped and embarrassed, Junior was perched on the back of his transporter looking just like a man who made a very stupid mistake and paid the price. Spake bent over to Junior and asked "...the last couple of races you seem to have fallen off a little bit, what do you think has changed?"
If Tony Stewart was on the receiving end of that question, we would probably still be talking about his answer. When Junior stuttered, Spake asked if it was a problem with the car set-ups or possibly the tracks? This had "big moment" potential.
Earnhardt took a very deep breath and politely told Spake there were probably other drivers that she should be interviewing rather than the 18th place finisher who was one lap down. That answer might put Junior on the short list for the next Nobel Peace Prize.
Squinting up at Spake, Junior did say that he "appreciated her pointing that out" about the team's lackluster performance. It was obvious to everyone but Spake that one very public error at the start had cost Junior a possible top five finish.
This footage was replayed on Monday's NASCAR Now. Although it made no sense and Spake's questions were ill-informed, Mike Massaro jumped-in without prompting to say he believed Spake's questions were fair.
Fans do not have to think very hard to remember Massaro pressing an upset and tired Earnhardt with repeated questions about his failure to make The Chase last season. No matter what Junior said, it was not enough for ESPN.
The media walks a very fine line with the drivers. Access is unprecedented in NASCAR for the TV network covering the race. When an ESPN reporter shows up, all interviews stop and all TV and other media step back. ESPN paid a lot for the exclusive live rights to the races and they get everything first.
In Bristol, ESPN avoided Tony Stewart like the plague. On Monday, Bestwick avoided the Waltrip issue completely. This weekend in California, it should be interesting to see if Spake avoids Junior.
There are twelve races remaining in the Sprint Cup Series schedule for 2008. Waltrip, Stewart and Earnhardt have already been on the receiving end of negative ESPN coverage in just the last couple of weeks.
In California, ESPN will once again be on-hand only for the races. SPEED will handle practice and qualifying for both series. The drivers will not have to deal with the ESPN pit reporters until race day.
It will be interesting to see how the three drivers mentioned above will treat ESPN if they are interviewed before or after the race. Despite the network's silence, there is bound to be some lingering bad feelings when unfounded rumors, incorrect statements and ridiculous questions are littered in ESPN's recent NASCAR history.
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