Sunday, February 10, 2008

Can Allen Bestwick Save "NASCAR Now?"

The sound you hear in the distance and the cloud of dust you see on the horizon is the TV cavalry riding to the rescue.

After a first year of chaos, and an unsteady first week of this season, Allen Bestwick is riding to the rescue of NASCAR Now.

The white hot spotlight of NASCAR TV was focused on ESPN2 last year as away from the track that network offered the only daily motorsports program on television. Instead of the general racing show that was RPM2Night, ESPN2 chose to deal with an even smaller slice of the auto racing pie and focused on NASCAR alone.

NASCAR Now last season promised fans the ultimate in coverage. There would be no NHRA, no IRL and no other news to turn the spotlight away from NASCAR. This show would cover the three NASCAR national touring series in-depth. It would provide the foundation for ESPN's coverage of the entire Busch Series and the final seventeen NEXTEL Cup races.

Unfortunately, things did not work out that way. NASCAR Now had a problem, and despite the pleas of the fans and the fundamental reality of the sport, nothing changed. The focus of NASCAR Now was on ESPN, and not NASCAR.

This TV series basically denied that the Craftsman Truck Series existed. NASCAR Now never had any reporter on-scene for features or interviews, and rarely used "soundbites" from the race winners. Normally, any video highlights consisted of the last lap and possibly a good crash or two. Even with a mid-week Craftsman sponsorship that forced a driver interview, the Truck Series was almost invisible.

Even more curious was NASCAR Now's brutal treatment of the Busch Series. Time and time again The Daly Planet asked why Saturday Busch Series video highlights were not even seen in the Sunday or Monday versions of this program. The anger culminated in April with this column, which called NASCAR Now "the new worst show in the history of TV."

Despite the fact that the Busch Series was the only NASCAR property on ESPN exclusively, it was the NEXTEL Cup that served as the NASCAR Now obsession in 2007. These TV rookies were hooked on the glamour of the Cup Series, and missed the big picture reality of the sport.

Over-and-over-again, polite Cup Series drivers and owners appeared on NASCAR Now both on-camera and by telephone for interviews. The questions they were asked by host Erik Kuselias were entry level fan questions at best. Often, you could actually see the subject being interviewed take just a moment to gather themselves before answering. The reason was clear. They were thinking to themselves, did he really just ask me that?

Now, the ultimate TV irony is about to unfold on Monday night at 6PM Eastern Time.

Allen Bestwick was fired from Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing on SPEED. Change was needed, the show was stale, and Bestwick was the problem concluded the new Production VP at SPEED. That show had been on-the-air for a decade, and was a time-honored tradition for fans. Monday nights would never be the same.

Moving to ESPN in the first year of the new NASCAR TV contract, Bestwick did everything except drive the TV trucks to the next race. A veteran of play-by-play, Bestwick watched Jerry Punch struggle in the booth. Allowed to call selected Busch Series races, Bestwick got rave reviews.

As a nationally know studio host, Bestwick watched Chris Fowler, Brent Musburger, Erik Kuselias and finally Suzy Kolber fill the lead anchor chair in the Infield Studio for ESPN and ABC. Bestwick was finally allowed to sit in that chair, but only for the Busch Series shows. He was the child at the small table looking over at the adults and wondering how to make the jump.

Now, the TV tide has turned for Bestwick. He has been placed front-and-center in the new ESPN/ABC TV package. He will host the pre-race shows from the Infield Studio all season long. Brent Musburger is gone, so Bestwick will be the only host for the broadcasts. He will have Rusty Wallace alongside for commentary, and Brad Daugherty in the mix to stir the pot.

The biggest piece of the Bestwick puzzle is his return into the homes of NASCAR fans on Monday nights. Even with NASCAR Now airing at 6PM, the TV technology in most homes will make sure to record this program every week. This re-vamped hour is going to be the key to the entire series gaining ground with the fans.

In 2007, the NASCAR Now Monday hour was a mess. No Truck or Busch highlights, no members of the NASCAR on ESPN team appeared, and analysis was left to a well-meaning Truck Series driver and commentary to a Dallas Morning News columnist with little NASCAR experience. Instead of allowing the analyst to conduct the live interviews, the show host read scripted questions to some of the top names in the sport.

Beginning Monday, ESPN has eliminated almost all those problems with one little change. Bestwick will host an hour that will feature all three series, live interviews, regular contributions from the ESPN NASCAR team and all of the NASCAR Now "Insiders" who held the show together last season.

The big addition will be a roundtable discussion each Monday. This new feature will use ESPN NASCAR announcers to both review and preview the racing, as well as deal with any top stories that may need some veteran perspective.

Bestwick will be backed by newcomer Nicole Manske and ESPN veteran Ryan Burr on Mondays. This duo will host the other weekday shows, but also travel to the races and file reports for Mondays' NASCAR Now. That is a key change, having a team member on-scene instead of an ESPN "pool reporter."

The first program should be interesting, but the unfolding TV dynamic over the course of the season should be fascinating. NASCAR Now has the potential to be as big a franchise for ESPN as Baseball Tonight or NFL Live.

Bestwick also gives this show the potential to leave the studio and hit the road anytime. Sunday night after the Daytona 500, ESPN will do just that with a special one hour edition of NASCAR Now from the speedway. The network executives may take one look at College Gameday and ponder the possibilities of NASCAR Now leaving the studio more often.

ESPN has made a lot of positive changes where NASCAR is concerned, and Monday night veteran fans will begin a whole new era in NASCAR TV history.

Bestwick's migration from the little-known TV host of Inside Winston Cup on SpeedVision to a key player in trying to restore the proud NASCAR heritage of ESPN is complete. Monday nights are about to get very interesting.

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In-Progress At Daytona: Pole Qualifying for Daytona 500

The NASCAR on Fox broadcast team returns at 1PM Eastern Time Sunday for the Daytona 500 pole qualifying session.

As fans may remember, this is a long process with fifty-plus cars taking runs. The challenge for the TV network, as usual, has always been the placement of commercials.

With no "top 35" rule in effect because of the Daytona format, the entire group will just run in continuous qualifying with no interruption. This should challenge the network to coordinate well in advance their commercial and promotional rundown.

Larry McReynolds is just the person to explain this new qualifying dynamic because of the COT. In pre-season testing he went in-depth about the emphasis on the motor because of the identical body styles of this new car. For those of us who are a little bit older, it will be interesting not to see the complaining about the body styles and who has the advantage. That was a given at Daytona.

SPEED previews this session with a Go or Go Home show at 11:30AM Eastern, and then follows it with a ninety minute NASCAR Live at 4:30PM.

This page will serve to host your comments about the Daytona Pole Qualifying coverage on Fox Sports. To add your comment, simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. Thanks again for stopping by.