Monday, March 10, 2008

"This Week In NASCAR" Misses Kenny Schrader

A lot of good ingredients are in place for SPEED and the new This Week In NASCAR program. After several weeks, viewers finally got the pairing of Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus on the "expert panel" along with host Steve Byrnes.

This new program is driven by edited features, and consists primarily of the panelists reacting to the video that has just been shown. The format is different from the open discussions of the original Inside Winston Cup Racing, and also different from the script-driven controlled environment of the recent Inside NEXTEL Cup. The bottom line is, most of this hour is new.

Steve Byrnes is an enthusiastic and fast-paced host, who has a pro-active animated style that Waltrip is still getting accustomed to dealing with. As the show went along, Waltrip began to step-in quickly and his answers began to provide the type of interesting content that made him a fan favorite on TV.

Waltrip is once again happily driving in the Sprint Cup races this season, and his upbeat mood is a welcome change. The "moody Michael" was gone, and his personality that provided so many memorable moments on INC was again on display.

Knaus was still getting his bearings on this program. His NASCAR technical knowledge is outstanding, and it was nice to see his sense of humor on display. Hopefully, Knaus will become a regular member of this panel and provide the crew chief perspective that the program had been lacking.

With only two panel members, the show is much less effective than having a "three man crew" to grab a topic and offer comments. The dynamic of three just works better to promote fun and allow for the style of informal conversation viewers enjoy.

The Goodyear tire issue was a hot topic, and Michael Waltrip made his views clear. Following the Tony Stewart soundbite that most fans have heard, Waltrip made it clear that Goodyear was dealing with a new problem and that their long-term commitment to the sport is what should be remembered. His statement that Goodyear tires would remain on his Toyota truck was an interesting answer to Stewart.

Knaus seemed to often be trying to deal with the animated Byrnes and the unpredictable Waltrip through his most effective weapon. That would be silence. Byrnes did a good job of eventually pointing questions directly at Knaus and then letting Waltrip chime-in as "the closer."

The NASCAR Media Group that produces this program for SPEED has integrated a lot of video elements into the series that are not seen elsewhere. The profile of the Harvicks and their involvement in the Truck Series was a nice touch. This is not the kind of content that was seen in the old INC shows, and and the debate about this new wrinkle will rage-on for a while.

The lure of this TV series used to be that conversations not heard anywhere else could be heard on SPEED Monday night. The idea that those who participated would be along to relax and kid and offer behind-the-scenes information was a good one. Now, the dynamic has changed. The panel is driven by the video segments and not afforded the opportunity to take some time to chat on a a topic informally.

Since all three of the personalities on this Monday show are NASCAR veterans, they easily negotiated their way through the issues. Unfortunately, the lack of a third voice hindered the conversation when a political or team agenda was clearly on display. This tension was usually relieved in the past by one person. That person was Kenny Schrader.

Whether it was crew chief suspensions, a struggling Jimmie Johnson or the biting comments of Toyota's Lee White, Schrader would have been the one to put things in perspective and relieve the tension on the set. Even when one of the panelists was involved in a questionable accident, it was Schrader who kept things on an even keel with his keen sense of humor and extensive racing knowledge.

That element is missing in this show. Nothing is wrong, it is just missing. There is no "veteran voice" to give a broader perspective and provide a "bigger picture" view. Waltrip and Knaus were fine in dealing with racing topics. Byrnes was solid in his hosting skills. But, this TV cake needed one more key ingredient.

Next week, after Bristol, would certainly be a good time to have a full stage of three panelists and the host. In my mind, one of those panelists needs to be Kenny Schrader.

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Truck Series Ratings Up At Atlanta

SPEED was happy with a 31% increase in viewership for the Craftsman Truck Series race from Atlanta.

The SPEED TV package for this series did not change much this year. It is a solid and comfortable presentation, sometimes a bit on the dry side. Rick Allen has a certain style of play-by-play, and Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip share roles of providing commentary and analysis.

Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander cover both the garage and pits, and are very familiar with all aspects of the series. Krista Voda has been giving this TV presentation a "family feel" since she joined the program, and why she departs from the air after the pre-race show is still anyone's guess.

The series struggles with the lower exposure on SPEED. This is simply due to the cable systems distribution of the network. It is often on the added digital tier or requires a special purchase of a group of sports-related channels. Hopefully, SPEED-HD will eventually bring this network the level of visibility that it needs to grow in the public eye.

The total number of homes watching the race grew from 565 thousand to 753 thousand.

If you are a fan of the Truck Series, or have comments about the coverage on SPEED, please feel free to add them. Just click on the COMMENTS button below. Thanks.

"NASCAR Now" Finds The Right Combination

The amazing changes at ESPN continue where NASCAR is concerned. One of the most dynamic has been the new Monday "roundtable" version of NASCAR Now.

This one hour show has moved from a single-anchor scripted program to a vibrant discussion of very diverse racing topics. Allen Bestwick has been the key to leading this charge, and continued on this Monday to direct the conversation between a brand new group of panelists.

ESPN2 viewers found themselves looking at the most balanced group of NASCAR veterans the network has assembled so far this season. Mike Massaro has worked for years to represent ESPN where NASCAR is concerned, and his insightful commentary from a media perspective is straightforward and informative.

Ray Evernham is working hard for ESPN this season to overcome some credibility issues that arose from his personal choices, and continues to use his diverse background as both a crew chief and owner to his advantage. ESPN is going to use Evernham in a variety of roles this season, and he seems to be a natural on-camera.

Finally, it may have caused fans to do a double-take, but there he was. Sitting alongside of Bestwick was Johnny Benson. In NASCAR TV land, there was no bigger story a couple of years back than Benson and Bestwick getting summarily fired from the Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing program they had both anchored for years on SPEED.

The irony of a well-spoken and experienced Benson perched on his chair in the NASCAR Now studio was not lost on veteran fans.

Bestwick led the panel into the story of the weekend, which was tires. Evernham was diplomatic, and simply wanted both Goodyear and NASCAR to solve the existing problem. Benson had driven on the tire at Atlanta, and focused on the fact that simply lasting for one fuel run should be the simple goal for Goodyear. Massaro repeated the sentiments of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in saying Goodyear simply went way too far after early issues during testing.

The NASCAR Media Group continues to provide outstanding features that serve to wrap-up the weekend with all the drama that group has managed to create in their past full-length programs. ESPN would be well-served to consider growing that relationship.

In recapping the weekend, Bestwick led the panel into the topic of Carl Edwards and his struggles for the past ten days. The specific topic of the oil-cooler lid was reviewed fairly, and included video of comments on both sides of the issue.

Bestwick was curious about why the comments were so caustic. The panel was divided on whether this issue was just about racing innovation or actually personal issues among senior team management. Using the picture of Edwards car and the actual oil cooler lid at the end of the race was a great touch. This even-handed approach of exposing both sides of the issue worked very well.

Craftsman Truck Series highlights were next, and once again NASCAR Now followed through with a taped interview of the winner, Kyle Busch. Nationwide Series highlights followed, detailing the hard hit Kyle Busch took including his memorable interview with ESPN's Shannon Spake.

Benson's low-key intelligence and his extensive experience in all three series brought something to the show that had been missing. Whether discussing testing, drivers or track issues, Benson could instantly offer the most up-to-date information for one simple reason. He was there and involved in it.

The key activity of this "Monday after" was a Goodyear tire test at Darlington. NASCAR Now had Lead Reporter Marty Smith on-scene to provide a timely report on the activity and the mood. This is exactly the type of commitment that fans had been searching for since last season.

Smith's report included soundbites from all three of the drivers involved in the test, who specifically addressed both the issues from Atlanta and for Darlington. Once again, however, the ridiculous problem of noise from the cars affected this report. Smith had problems hearing the panel, and several of his comments were drowned-out by cars on the track. This is the third time that ambient noise has played a role in affecting what should have been a very good report.

In previewing Bristol, the Kyle Busch name surfaced again. Bestwick used the panel to remind us of the strange race from last fall at Bristol. All three panelists weighed-in with comments about the "good racing vs. no action" at this small track topic.

As the program wound-down, once thing was very clear. ESPN had hit on a combination of personalities and experience that got a lot of good information across to fans. A reporter, a crew chief/owner and a veteran driver had each been able to talk about the same topics from their own unique perspectives.

Viewers were free to agree or disagree, but Bestwick worked hard to get all the viewpoints on the table, especially for the controversial issues. This format has been a positive change, and the fact that ESPN has worked hard to back-up this one program with other changes in the network's NASCAR coverage is a positive statement for the future of the sport.

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Monday Morning Quarterback (2nd Update): Atlanta

Update: There is a new column up about This Week In NASCAR, please refresh your browser. Thanks.

Now that things have settled down, NASCAR fans can look forward to the two big Monday NASCAR TV shows.

The one hour "roundtable" version of NASCAR Now will air at 4PM Eastern Time because of college basketball commitments by ESPN2. It is that time of the year, March Madness. I had the pleasure of working at ESPN when the network had the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and that was a blast.

Allen Bestwick hosts the re-vamped one hour show, and he usually has two ESPN NASCAR personalities with him. It should be interesting to see how a veteran like Bestwick leads the discussions on tough subjects like the Goodyear tires at Atlanta and the 99 Team penalties from Las Vegas.

Update 10:30AM - Bestwick will be joined by Ray Evernham and Mike Massaro. The "guest" on the show will be Johnny Benson.

2nd Update 1:30PM - Johnny Benson will be sitting down for the full hour as one of the "roundtable panelists" for the 4PM Monday edition of NASCAR Now.

Later that evening, Steve Byrnes continues to work out the kinks in the new This Week In NASCAR program over on SPEED. This hour replaced INC and airs at 8PM Eastern Time. This week, Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus will be with Byrnes. Just like ESPN, SPEED is rotating the cast of announcers on the show.

The other TWIN team members appearing on the series will be Kenny Schrader and Greg Biffle. When possible, Byrnes will be joined by three others on the panel.

Replacing a long-running show is not easy, and drawing comparisons to the old series sometimes makes things even tougher. The new TWIN leans on a lot of fully produced features, as opposed to the continual conversation and banter of the old program. Byrnes is a dynamically different host than Dave Despain, who was forced to follow a tight script for the entire hour. It should be interesting to see what this Monday night brings.

As you look back over the weekend, what topics do you expect to see discussed on both of these shows? What points do you want to see made, and who do you want to hear from about those issues? Tell us now, and then we will see how the ESPN2 and SPEED offerings match-up with the comments.

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