Sunday, November 2, 2008
Sputtering To The Finish Line
Jimmie Johnson threw a wrench into the best-laid plans of the ESPN on ABC bunch. Once Johnson got down a lap and did not immediately race back into contention, the Texas Sprint Cup Series telecast began to sputter. It never recovered.
Drivers like David Reutimann and Juan Pablo Montoya suddenly began to get TV time simply because the scripted Johnson vs. Edwards scenario was not playing-out. In a matter of minutes, TV viewers saw drivers they had not seen since The Chase began.
The wheels were coming-off this telecast because the script could not be changed. ESPN still clung to every move Johnson made, despite the fact he was no longer a contender. TV viewers even got slo-motion replays of Johnson's crew chief and his "secret pit signs."
Several times during the event, infield host Allen Bestwick made rather pointed remarks to the team in the broadcast booth about what stories they should be following and why. It made no difference. In a matter of minutes, Dr. Jerry Punch had returned the telecast to the scattered and disjointed mess it had become.
The first race recap came with 88 laps run and did not last long. This race was essentially run under green with a few cautions. Long green flag runs did not work well for the ESPN team because Johnson was nowhere to be found. Instead, the car-hopping began and never ended. Random race cars came and went on the TV screen, some never to be seen again.
With over a hundred laps left to go, ESPN was missing all the drama of Edwards trying to lap as many cars as possible. This battle was lost as the network continually jumped from story to story and topic to topic. Punch was unable to put things in perspective for viewers and the big picture was left to Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. With no script to follow, things fell apart.
Several times during the race, the Infield Studio crew of Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty stepped-up and injected some enthusiasm and fun into the telecast. With 99 laps to go, this trio tried to reset the race and help the fans understand both the race and The Chase on the track. It was to no avail.
Drivers would suddenly appear after a pit stop in the top ten and TV viewers would have no idea where they came from. While Jarrett and Petree tried to keep things updated, that is not their responsibility. It was up to Punch to sort-out the racing reality and tell fans what it meant in terms of both the race and The Chase.
A restart with 82 laps left began a period of frantic high-speed racing, but the tone of Punch's voice never changed. At one point the ESPN production team had side-by-side races in two video boxes on the screen as the battles raged. If NASCAR fans wanted to hear the excitement, they needed to turn on the radio.
43 cars were still on the racetrack and ESPN had never done a full field rundown once during the multi-hour event. Cars seemed to come out of nowhere and then, by the next TV segment, were gone without explanation.
Pit reporter Shannon Spake had what may be her best race of the season. A lot of big stories just happened to fall into her lap and she handled them all with a very new sense of calm. While the other pit reporters worked hard, Spake really stood out on this telecast from beginning to end. She let David Gilliland off-the-hook, but it was clear he was clinging to his ludicrous explanation.
With thirty laps to go in the event the Infield Studio crew again reviewed the race with Bestwick leading the discussion. He covered all the race possibilities using all five of the ESPN race analysts and set the table for Punch to bring the race home.
Late pit stops for fuel shuffled the field and it was a tough task to put things back in order as the cars cycled through. The Carl Edwards fuel issue was being described by pit reporter Dave Burns and became the key issue of the late race. Lost in the shuffle was Johnson, who had suddenly faded to a non-story and was not seen again.
Jarrett and Petree were not buying the Burns story of Edwards going all the way on fuel. As it turned out, it was Bestwick from the Infield Studio telling fans with only five laps to go the real reason that Edwards would take this risk. Punch was silent and Bestwick continued to lead the telecast until two laps were left.
On the final lap, Punch tried to get the excitement flowing as Edwards sputtered across the finish line. It had been a very long four hours since ABC took to the air and it was fitting that Shannon Spake had the final interview with Bob Osborne, Edward's crew chief.
Johnson was now an afterthought and ESPN had a new story to follow. Edwards was now going to make things interesting right down to the end of the season. The TV crew closed-out the race with a variety of interviews and tried to get the stories of the race out to the fans.
This was a tough broadcast to watch without the assistance of a computer for additional information or by listening to the radio call of the race. NASCAR fans should not have to multi-task to learn where their favorite driver was running and how he got there.
Two races are left in the ESPN on ABC coverage this season. How did you react to the television coverage of the race?
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