Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday's "NASCAR Now" Ready For Primetime

Ever since ESPN2 made the commitment to completely change Monday's one hour NASCAR Now program this season, the comments from the TV viewers have been mostly positive.

On this Monday, Allen Bestwick was hosting a "roundtable" discussion that featured Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and Mike Massaro. This combination proved to be completely effective in terms of bringing a level of credibility to NASCAR Now that could not be questioned.

After a solid discussion of the Bristol Cup race, the panel welcomed Richard Childress by satellite for an interview. RC is getting as much out of this one, two, three finish as possible. One of NASCAR's best interviews, RC did not disappoint with his frank comments on everything from Tony Stewart's problems to the future of Childress Racing.

In following the Childress interview, the panel launched into exactly the type of open and flowing conversation that has attracted NASCAR fans to this program. Bestwick floated all kinds of topics, and let each panelist contribute without interruption. Wallace and Evernham seemed to be working well together, and this chemistry between the two big fish on the panel really set the tone for good content.

This week, it seemed that NASCAR Now had carved out as much time as possible for discussion. Using video highlights and driver soundbites to enhance the conversations, Bestwick really showed his ability to weave these TV elements together in a very effective manner.

In turning this program around from last season, ESPN has made one of the most painful decisions possible for them. Gone is the high-tech studio set, along with all the bells and whistles that used to dominate this program. In learning what NASCAR fans wanted to watch on Mondays, the network realized that "less was more."

Bestwick raised the Top 35 issue with the panel, and used reactions from several drivers to address this topic. The panel was clear in the differences involving practice for the two groups of Cup drivers, and how the world was about to change for Cup regular Jamie McMurray. The panel spared McMurray a review of his brisk response to this issue on a NASCAR Now episode from last week.

In addressing the Dale Jarrett retirement issue, the program presented a behind-the-scenes all-access feature. Rather than just another re-hash of Sunday, this feature turned out to be very thorough and balanced in tone. Beginning with Friday practice, the words of Jarrett and his true feelings about stepping aside as an active driver hit home for many fans. Wrapping-up with his heartfelt words from the actual drivers meeting, the feature ended with the NASCAR reality of finishing outside the top ten.

The best way to put the cap on this subject was to use the roundtable panel to tell some stories. Wallace and Evernham came through with comments re-enforcing Jarrett's dignity, but Massaro got the best reaction when he referred to the years where ESPN reporters were banned from the NASCAR tracks. Massaro said he had seen a lot of Jarrett at the helicopter pads over the years, and he always had time for ESPN.

This program is maturing before our eyes. Now, it may be time for ESPN to address the fact that this outstanding program is on-the-air at 5:30PM Eastern and 2:30PM Pacific Time on Mondays. It does repeat at Midnight Eastern Time, but that still cheats East Coast fans who are not able to watch this program live or record it.

As the season continues, ESPN execs are not going to be able to ignore the fact that they have a hit on their hands. It should be very interesting to keep an eye on the Monday version of NASCAR Now, as primetime seems to be in this program's future.

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SPEED Still Working Out The TWIN Details

Host Steve Byrnes welcomed Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle to the Monday This Week In NASCAR on SPEED.

Looking to combine the key aspects of the old Inside NEXTEL Cup with some additional high-tech uses of footage and features, this new program is very different. The production staff has decided to begin this program with a preview of the next Sprint Cup race. To many viewers, this simply does not make a lot of sense.

A good case in point is this week where the next race is Martinsville. SPEED opened the show and spent more than twenty minutes talking about a race that does not take place for two more weeks. With all the current issues in the news, beginning the show with a preview rather than a review is certainly an interesting choice.

This week, the studio set was brighter and some tinkering continued with the background. A large table continues to be front-and-center in the studio, and it seems to be wrapped like a birthday package. As with any new show, the changes inside the studio will no doubt continue as the show develops.

Biffle and Waltrip cooperated to offer some good thoughts on Martinsville. The problem was that they had to do it for over twenty minutes. TV viewers who were looking for a follow-up on the stories of the weekend had to sit and wait until the extensive Martinsville preview was over. That was a bit tough.

Once allowed to look back at the Bristol Cup race, both Waltrip and Biffle proved to be on their respective games. Their review of the Bristol highlights was outstanding, and Waltrip was energetic and focused. His cooperation with Biffle made this segment a pleasure to watch. It was a shame that it did not lead the show.

Waltrip and Biffle both paid compliments to Ken Schrader, who had a great run going at Bristol until being caught-up in a wreck. This topic begs the question on the minds of many NASCAR fans. Where is Schrader? A staple on this show for years, Schrader has been a no-show for many weeks now without explanation from SPEED. As The Daly Planet mentioned in several columns, this new program needs Schrader to provide his veteran perspective and sense of humor.

One big change in this new re-vamped and re-titled show is the dependence on lots more video of all types throughout the program. In addition to review and preview functions, SPEED also presents a look at the network's favorite moments of the race weekend. It was a shame they did not use a bit more of Juan Montoya on Trackside. Some of those moments are destined to become classics.

The NASCAR Media Group dug deep into the archives to bring out a classic interview with Dale Jarrett from decades ago. This was a unique twist among all the DJ send-offs and provided a nice lift for the show. Mixed with modern era footage of Jarrett's accomplishments, the result was a strong and effective feature.

Byrnes has been working hard to find his footing as the host of this show, and his toned-down but enthusiastic approach this week worked much better. Byrnes has the same ability to poke fun at himself that other good NASCAR TV announcers posses, and purposefully showing a much younger version of himself interviewing Jarrett in shorts was a fun touch.

There is no doubt that SPEED and The NASCAR Media Group will continue to tinker with this program series. Monday's program contained several positive changes, and the surprising performances by both Waltrip and Biffle added to the good vibe.

Hopefully, SPEED will consider adding a third panelist in the future and continue to evaluate the show elements that are not working. It should be interesting to see what SPEED unveils in two weeks.

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