Sunday, March 30, 2008
The two Monday NASCAR TV shows will be back in full force this week. NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and This Week In NASCAR on SPEED will both have the usual one hour shows.
First-up is NASCAR Now at 6PM Eastern Time. The network has a rotating panel of analysts and this week they have hit on a great combination. Whoever arranged late last week for the guests on this program should make sure to play the lottery this week.
Host Allen Bestwick will be joined by Johnny Benson, Mike Wallace and Mike Massaro.
Benson is fresh from being spun by Kyle Busch on the final lap of the Truck Series race, and then having some post-race festivities on pit road involving the crews. He is also the subject of much speculation about a future Cup Series ride.
Mike Wallace just spotted for his daughter Chrissy as she piloted her way to a top twenty finish in her very first Craftsman Truck Series race. Mike flew directly to ESPN after the race, and co-hosted the one hour Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now with Ryan Burr. ESPNEWS viewers then saw him on-the-air with post-race analysis and commentary Sunday evening.
Mike Massaro is the journalist on the panel, and has been a great spark for discussions when he has been included in these "roundtable" programs. Massaro has a great perspective as the only ESPN employee who stayed on the "NASCAR beat" during the entire time the sport went away from the network.
This group should really set the table for Allen Bestwick to cover a lot of ground on Monday. Bestwick has come into his own since being upped to a high-profile position on the NASCAR on ESPN package. For those fans who used to enjoy Inside NEXTEL Cup on SPEED, the irony of Bestwick on ESPN2 hosting a one hour show with three panelists is not lost.
Speaking of SPEED, they are up next with the new This Week In NASCAR show hosted by Steve Byrnes. This week, Chad Knaus and Michael Waltrip will be the "expert panel" for the full hour. Max Siegel from DEI will be a featured interview.
This is a new program that is more driven by video highlights and features than by the conversation of the panelists. The new dynamic of spending an extensive amount of time previewing the next race at the top of the show has been a tough change to swallow.
Byrnes is a TV veteran, and he will work until both the program format and the personalities are right. This may take some time, as the current format is scattered and the series is currently searching for an identity. The off-beat antics of the INC show are gone, and with Kenny Schrader no longer a panelist, things are very different.
There will be columns up shortly after both of these programs are over on Monday that will serve to host your comments.
The task for the veteran NASCAR on Fox crew was simple. Deal with the awful spring weather in Martinsville, Virginia.
The temperature was in the 40's, the skies were gray and the threat of rain was constant. TV viewers knew from the drop of the green flag that this race would probably be to the halfway point.
Mike Joy and crew were upfront about the weather from the start of the telecast. Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds used their experience to continually update the race strategies crews were considering with all the weather elements. This really added a nice touch to the broadcast while it was in-progress.
The gray skies and the on-and-off drizzle put a damper on the mood, but the pit reporters continued to follow the stories and worked hard to update the TV viewers. Their reports often featured the reality of the outdated Martinsville pit road.
Fox continues to try and use the quad-split effect that shows four cars during the pit stops. The theory is that each car's stop can be seen, timed, and then a wideshot can catch the race off pit road. At least that is the theory.
The reality of a winding pit road at Martinsville forced the Director to often leave the "effect" before all four cars were done and the chaos of the departing cars sometimes left viewers lost. Sometimes, theory is better abandoned when reality suggests things should change.
Fox has embraced "Digger" the Gopher Cam, but there is no feedback to suggest viewers have done the same. Used as an occasionally "different" camera angle, this track-level view first used on Thursday Night Thunder on ESPN is interesting.
Used regularly as the race is in-progress, it becomes distracting and slowly grinds down the patience of the viewer as the laps are interrupted by this now sponsored element. Fortunately, the constant racing action forced the Director to limit his use of this toy. Only a few wrecks and passes were missed while "Digger" was on-the-air live under green flag conditions.
Mike Joy never faded with his commentary and worked to keep the storylines fresh even as the soggy laps continued to grind-down. Once the race went past the halfway point, the real stories of the event began to emerge. From the Top 35 in points to Cup rookies to Hendrick Motorsports, Joy did a solid job of relaying a big amount of information throughout the event.
Unfortunately, after a very long race in very unfavorable conditions, the Achilles Heel of the Fox coverage reared its ugly head once again. Over the last twenty laps, the announce team did their best to "set the table" for the racing action that was about to reach a fever pitch. With only a few cars out of the race, this was going to be a dash to the finish that would be remembered for a long time.
Over the past several races, the Fox Director has made very interesting decisions on the final lap of the race. Martinsville would be no exception. Despite the racing for position throughout the pack, TV viewers saw only winner Denny Hamlin cross the finish line. No other cars were shown finishing the race.
After Hamlin crossed the line, viewers saw his in-car camera as he began to slow down. Meanwhile, the announcers were still calling the action and watching the rest of the field beat-and-bang to the finish. It was only the TV announcers and the fans in the stands who watched the field finish the race.
Once the race was over, things got awkward on-the-air. Fox tried to replay some of the cars on the final lap, but it made no sense and the announcers never knew it was coming. The bottom line is, once again TV viewers were shut-out of the live race finish.
It was somewhat ironic as the Fox pit reporters talked to several of the top finishers. The questions and answers focused on the race finish, which apparently was quite exciting for many teams. TV viewers will never have that perspective, and the NASCAR on Fox crew made the decision not to replay the finish of the drivers that were being interviewed.
As they left the air, this now off-balance crew did not update the critical Top 35 points list that will set the table for next week in Texas. Perhaps, the fact that no one in North America except the fans in the stands saw the finish of the race had finally sunk-in.
Fans of Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson had to be sitting in front of the TV and asking the same question. Why? Fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had watched him run an outstanding race wondered why his hard-fought sixth place finish was not shown. For some teams, the final lap at Martinsville might have made the difference between making the Top 35 and being sent to "Go or Go Home land."
Each TV network chooses how they approach the finish, and Fox has the right to do as they please because they paid for the rights to telecast the events. If the focus on the winner fits their network agenda, that is what viewers will see until their portion of the Sprint Cup TV package is done.
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Once again, the NASCAR on Fox crew will be dealing with a dicey weather situation when they take to the air at 1:30PM for a scheduled 2:15PM Eastern Time green flag. The Sprint Cup race follows the Fox presentation of the Craftsman Truck Series on Saturday, as no Nationwide event is scheduled for this weekend.
Mike Joy will lead the veteran Fox crew with Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip alongside. Waltrip provided the color commentary on the Truck Series race, and did an outstanding job of relating his personal experiences about the Martinsville track to the viewers. Look for him to be on his game once again today.
Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond will anchor the Hollywood Hotel, with Myers hosting the pre-race show and continuing to provide a presence during the race. Hammond works both with Myers on the set and then outside that trailer as he provides tech information with the Fox cut-a-way car and other equipment. With the temperature in the 40's, that should be an interesting transition.
Fox has the most veteran pit road team led by Dr. Dick Berggren. This quiet man co-founded Speedway Illustrated magazine, and continues to be the Executive Editor. Berggren has a doctorate in psychology from Tufts University, and was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame back in 2002. His TV career started in 1981 as a pit reporter for ESPN's brand new coverage of NASCAR on cable TV.
Joining Berggren will be Steve Byrnes, Matt Yocum and Krista Voda. Byrnes and Voda will be sorely missed when the Cup coverage transfers over to TNT. Yocum continues with that package, and then all three are gone from the air when ESPN takes over in late July. Viewers have come to rely on these three for access to NASCAR personalities throughout the sport. Although they may sometimes not press for an answer, they live in a world where they must walk a fine line on race weekends.
Fox continues to struggle with the "ticker" portion of its graphics package. Somehow, the same information that gets passed along to other networks and online sites covering the race just does not make it to the Fox ticker in a timely fashion. Now, the network has moved to a top ten listing and made other changes to this feature which have resulted in even more confusion. Hopefully, this situation will be resolved shortly.
Fox also continues to use four video boxes on the caution flag pit stops, which covers the entire screen. This does not allow for a view of pit road, so while one additional car is seen, the perspective of the race off pit road is lost. It does not seem like the trade-off is worth it, because any car that takes only two tires or just fuel can be first out of the pits and not featured in one of the four video boxes. Lots of times, the effect is meaningless and the viewer is left asking "where did he come from?"
"Digger" the Gopher Cam is quickly becoming the Draft Track of Fox Sports. If they eventually tell us that when cars go by at speed "Digger" accomplishes "Gopher Lock" it will be all over. Using this video angle when it has meaning is one thing, using it because you can is another. This camera angle was so dominating in the Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday that viewers missed many wrecks and several key moments. In this very long race, it should be interesting to see how this technology is used.
Finally, this race will not have Dale Jarrett or Kyle Petty for very different reasons. Jarrett has retired to a TV career, and Petty simply missed the race. Look for the announcers to mention Jarrett, but to deal with the bigger issue of teams like Petty, the Woods Brothers and Yates beginning to fade as the super-teams dominate.
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Once again ESPN has slowly been focusing on the NASCAR programs that fell through the cracks last season.
The Sunday morning NASCAR Now in 2007 was an hour of opinion and commentary. Host Erik Kuselias made the announcers "pick" and "choose" and answer his biting questions. In the entire hour, the Busch Series and the Truck Series were usually never mentioned. Hype and innuendo ruled the day.
This Sunday, Ryan Burr was joined in the ESPN2 studios by Mike Wallace. Reporting from the track was Marty Smith, who worked very hard in 2007 to keep the news portion of this TV series current. This season he has adopted the Lead Reporter role and has been participating in more on-air roles for the ESPN Networks.
Burr and Smith work well together, and it certainly helps to have a current NASCAR personality like Mike Wallace along for the ride. The fact that Wallace had been featured spotting for his daughter Chrissy on Saturday as she drove in the NCTS race made it even better.
Burr welcomed Robby Reiser to the program from Martinsville and got a nice dose of NASCAR reality. Burr asked Reiser about "his mandate" from Roush in his new role. The look on Reiser's face was priceless. This is racing, not rocket science.
Now understanding his subject much better, Burr toned-down his high-brow questions and walked Reiser through a review of his transition into management and some of his frustrations with being "in the office." Mike Wallace put a nice cap on the interview with a summary of the Roush season in 2008.
A feature on Petty Racing's pit crew seemed to be strange, as Kyle Petty had missed the Martinsville race. A snippet of a post-race crew meeting and a look at the workout and practice routines of the group was a bit strange on a Sunday morning race preview program.
NASCAR Now again played the Jack Roush quotes from the Martinsville Media Center. Roush continues to ignore common sense and public relations advice with his comments. The program brought-in reporter David Newton who followed-up with the information that Michael Waltrip had already "plead guilty" to the Roush charges, and the incident actually happened back in 2007.
Mike Wallace is a plain-spoken guy, and he put a "bigger picture" perspective on the issue of missing parts. Wallace pointed the conversation in the direction of the teams and the unspoken code of honor in the garage area. His re-directing of the discussion back to reality and away from the hype was exactly what the program needed.
Burr finally brought-up the topic of Chrissy Wallace and her Martinsville performance. Mike lit-up immediately and provided some of the real emotion that is so often lacking on the NASCAR Now set. A great touch was having Chrissy Wallace by satellite from Martinsville after the highlights.
Burr sometimes makes NASCAR a bit too complicated, and the Wallace family brought him back down to earth by emphasizing once again the simple fundamentals of racing. Mike got to ask his daughter a question, and it made her look a lot more like a teenager than a NASCAR driver. What other sport brings the mom and dad connection right into the event while it is in progress? The Wallace interview put a nice family spin on this show.
Burr got another learning experience when he asked Mike Wallace about Martinsville and got a professional lesson from a veteran driver. Wallace showed his value and his years of experience as he laid-out point-by-point the dynamics of both the track and the race itself. This was an outstanding preview of the Sunday race.
As a continuing statement about the growth of the NASCAR Now production team, a feature report on the late Alan Kulwicki suddenly appeared on-the-air. Featuring veteran journalists and NASCAR personalities, a profile of the unique owner and driver emerged that was outstanding.
Educating new fans and reminding older ones of the past has been a tough challenge for NASCAR Now. The voices of Bob Jenkins and the late Benny Parsons on the old ESPN telecast went a long way to filling that void.
In closing the piece, NASCAR veterans Paul Andrews, Kyle Petty and journalist Steve Waid put an emotional stamp on the feature with their memories of Kulwicki's transporter leaving the Bristol track after the plane crash that took his life.
Mike Wallace once again pointed-out just how small the NASCAR family really is by relating that Paul Andrews was in Wallace's wedding, and the family originally thought that Andrews was also on the plane that crashed. This is exactly the type of commentary and first-person perspective that NASCAR Now needs to embrace and continue this season.
Marty Smith re-appeared in the final segment with Elliott Sadler to update his health situation and his plans for the race. Having a veteran like Smith at the track in this role instead of a "general assignment" reporter like David Amber or Bob Holtzman has made all the difference in the world for this Sunday show.
NASCAR Now has gone through a very public process of pulling itself up by its bootstraps from the disaster of 2007 to the emerging success of 2008. Individual programs like this one go a long way toward cementing in the minds of the fans that ESPN is back and committed to this sport for the long-haul.
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