Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Manske At ESPN And Ready For "NASCAR Now"

After a very brief and non-emotional sign-off from The SPEED Report, Nicole Mankse has already made her way to ESPN and her brand-new program series, NASCAR Now.

Manske moves from a general motorsports hour on Sunday nights to one of the highest-profile TV positions in the country. Joined by Ryan Burr and Allen Bestwick as substitute hosts, NASCAR Now is trying to make a clean break from the show's first season and "begin again."

The big moves by ESPN several days ago show the concern by the network executives that things were not going in a good direction. More than that, however, they show that ESPN listened to both the NASCAR fans and the NASCAR community.

Rather than step-into the host "shoes" of Erik Kuselias, Manske will be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to create her own style on the show. She has been working regularly on SPEED, and hung-in there during some rather trying times for The SPEED Report when it first started.

This is exactly what ESPN needed to start this season. A new face in the NASCAR Now studio, a new face as the lead analyst in the announce booth for races, and some veteran NASCAR support for Brad Daugherty in the Infield Studio.

NASCAR Now with Nicole Manske debuts on Monday, February 4th at 6PM Eastern Time on ESPN2.

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Byrnes And Hammond Wrap Vegas Testing

With the SPEED crew working their way to Fontana, the Pre-Season Thunder series moved into the network's Charlotte, NC studios.

Steve Byrnes and Jeff Hammond have worked with each other for years, and they know how to put out a lot of information and have fun at the same time. This Wednesday night show was no exception.

Hammond again addressed the fact that this is going to be a first-time COT experience for teams at several tracks, and Byrnes reminded viewers that the original COT switch was supposed to be 2009. Instead, NASCAR decided to implement the change right now.

Bob Dillner reported on the final day of Vegas testing, and wrapped that test by comparing it with the earlier Daytona dates. As Dillner concluded, there was no comparison. The Vegas test was absolutely critical to the COT learning curve.

The featured driver interview was Denny Hamlin. His comments that the "switch to Toyota" was easy certainly set the tone for an optimistic interview. Hamlin's close to the season was tough, and even he admitted "they peaked too early."

Hammond followed-up with the fact that the key element to the ease of the Toyota change was the COT. No body or car issues, just basically new motors. The Gibbs teams have already shown plenty of power in testing. Hammond suggested that the Gibbs information was "filtering down" to the other Toyota teams.

Byrnes tried to pin Hammond down, and the question was "will all three Gibbs teams will make "The Chase" in 2008?" The answer was yes. It should be interesting to watch this very different Toyota dynamic play out in just a couple of weeks.

Larry McReynolds made his appearance to bring the Tech Tip. His information included the fact that the teams are quietly selecting primary and back-up cars for Las Vegas and Fontana. Regardless of the fans who insist testing is boring, they are not understanding that this COT test is different from all earlier testing.

Hammond and Byrnes made sure to point-out all the cars that had incidents during the test sessions, and talk about how it deeply affected the teams in continuing the high-speed testing. There are just not a lot of COT cars available to the testing crews, and the teams now down a car will have to be very careful at Fontana.

Once again, SPEED chose to use the "highlight package" format for on-track testing action. This allows more information, but less action and footage to be included.

As SPEED bounces back-and-forth between the studio and the tracks in terms of hosting the shows, it also allows viewers to see something else. This network has two of the most professional and versatile announcers in sports TV today with John Roberts and Steve Byrnes. Both of these men host an incredible amount of live national TV throughout the season, and are expected to shoulder the load for SPEED once again in 2008.

Hammond closed with an overview of what teams are doing right now for the Daytona 500. Even as one crew tests out West, another crew continues to be focused on the new dynamic for the COT, the restrictor plate, and the 50th running of the big race.

One has the feeling that there is a lot more NASCAR TV content out there during this week, and we might see SPEED thinking about expanding these shows to one hour for next season. Showing the balance between the activity at the tracks and the activity in the shops might be an fascinating off-season TV idea for the fans.

As testing shifts to Fontana, it will be interesting to see how SPEED closes out their Pre-Season Thunder series. This new and expanded coverage has gotten fans in the "TV mix" a lot earlier than before, and with very good results.

As we know, NASCAR really needs a "kick-start" for the season. This big commitment by SPEED in terms of travel, manpower and facilities might have done the trick.

ESPN returns NASCAR Now with new host Nicole Manske on Monday, but they have not provided a lot of NASCAR pre-season coverage other than some Marty Smith reports from Daytona. SPEED continues with team previews each night at 7PM Eastern Time beginning on Monday.

So, two more days of testing coverage on SPEED, and then the real build-up begins.

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Waltrip And Schrader Stay With SPEED

This time, it's official. SPEED has finally released word about the re-design of the Monday night "franchise" show for the network.

Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing will become This Week In NASCAR. Dave Despain steps aside as host, and Steve Byrnes will take that role.

In a widely anticipated announcement, SPEED has decided to return Michael Waltrip, Kenny Schrader and Greg Biffle as the regular panelists. This season, they will also be joined by veteran crew chief Chad Knaus.

“Although much of what viewers have become comfortable with Monday nights on SPEED will remain, This Week in NASCAR will no longer be all about ‘yesterday,’ “ said SPEED SVP of Programming Steve Craddock. “We want to do more than review Sunday’s race … we want to get NASCAR fans ready for what’s coming next.”

The new show will debut February 18th at 8PM Eastern Time. As expected, the program will shift in emphasis from focusing on the Sprint Cup Series to more of a balanced approach between all three of NASCAR's national touring series.

SPEED also hinted that other crew chiefs would guest on the program. What they did not address was a return of the Hot Seat, a weekly NASCAR guest or any other additional show features that may be new to this program. It is certainly possible that those additions are being worked on right now.

Steve Byrnes has served in a wide variety of roles on SPEED, including taking time to answer questions during the off-season for Daly Planet readers. Byrnes hosts the popular Trackside program and practice and qualifying shows with Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond. He also hosts from the studio The Chase Is On with Carl Edwards.

We expect SPEED to release more details about the show over the next two weeks as the original air date approaches. At least NASCAR fans and SPEED viewers now have one big question answered.

Michael Waltrip and Kenny Schrader will once again bring their very interesting personal dynamic to the fans, now on a new set with a new host and new format.

We will keep you updated as details become available. Please feel free to add your comment about This Week In NASCAR by clicking on the COMMENTS button below. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.