Sunday, January 20, 2008

SPEED Will Glimpse Nationwide Series Reality

Executives at ESPN will be glued to their TV screens at 7PM on Monday evening.

What they will be watching is SPEED's continuing coverage of NASCAR Pre-Season Thunder. This will be the first time that everyone gets a TV reality check on the health of the Nationwide Series for 2008.

The creeping concerns began last season, when the Busch Series often had teams filling out the field that were rather "colorful." When the series traveled to California, Las Vegas and Montreal the rumors of "tow money" to teams that made the trip were rampant. Needless to say, team sponsorship problems for the series made things rough.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the Nationwide schedule is ESPN's only full NASCAR Series. On the Sprint Cup side, they cover the final seventeen races, less than half of the season. The network is not involved in the Craftsman Truck Series telecasts. Where ESPN is concerned, the Nationwide Series in many ways is their franchise NASCAR TV property.

That may sound strange to some, but think about it for a moment. Without a doubt, the Sprint Cup has a higher profile. Unfortunately, ESPN does not become involved in that series until the Brickyard 400 is run in late July. The presence of the network in NASCAR racing from February through almost August is solely the Nationwide Series.

It would seem then that the network would focus their resources on the build-up of the first race at Daytona. Currently, their presence at the Daytona testing is reporter Marty Smith who has been reporting for ESPN News and SportsCenter.

As the teams continue their testing, it is going to be fascinating to see how many of the cars are independent Nationwide teams, how many are "race for fun" teams owned by Sprint Cup drivers, and how many are "driver training" teams run by current Cup owners. The first two days of this Nationwide test had no TV coverage.

The Monday evening program will give us the first "reality check" of the overall health of the series that ESPN will be producing for the entire season. Along with meeting the drivers who will be racing, we will be seeing what sponsors are coming along for the Nationwide ride, and what teams have just enough money for Daytona, and nothing else.

This was the situation that NASCAR has worried about since the decision to insert the COT into the sport fulltime. With the hard splitter, the fixed wing, and the inability to shape the body, one very big thing changed for 2008. Now, absolutely nothing is to be gained for the Cup teams by racing in the Nationwide Series.

No information about shocks and springs and set-ups or anything else will translate between the Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars. One popular school of thought was that the Truck Series would better serve the Cup teams as far as set-up information was concerned. It was going to be interesting to see which Cup teams chose which support series to run in 2008.

Now, we will get our first look at the number of teams, the quality of the teams, and who will be driving. SPEED is going to have an unusual opportunity to break new ground, as this is the first time that the Nationwide Series has raced alongside the COT. Hopefully, this issue will be explored by John Roberts, Phil Parsons and Ray Dunlap in Daytona.

So far, the SPEED team has done an outstanding job of interviewing top crew chiefs and drivers as both the Sprint Cup and Truck Series teams tested. Monday, however, may bring a brand new reality as many of the cars on the track at Daytona might not be seen after that race.

It will be important for SPEED to take the temperature of the Nationwide Series, and then report honestly on the overall health of the patient. After the Monday diagnosis, it may be the TV executives at ESPN that suddenly need a very good doctor.

Reminder: ESPN Classic's continuing series of Daytona 500 highlight shows airs at 2PM Eastern Time on Monday. Set those DVR's and TiVo's to watch Derrike Cope's moment in the sun. The Monday program is two hours in length.

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