Thursday, June 5, 2008

Four Months Later "NASCAR Now" Is A Gem

This column will officially put away the memories of the 2007 season of NASCAR Now on ESPN2. The fired host, the poor story selection and the endless hype are now in the past.

These days, Erik Kuselias is doing an ESPN Radio show on Saturday mornings at 7AM. Tim Cowlishaw has been shuffled to NASCAR's back burner. Stacy Compton left the show to drive in the Truck Series. Tony Stewart's favorite ESPN reporter David Amber is back to working the stick-and-ball beat.

Back in February, NASCAR Now welcomed Allen Bestwick and Nicole Manske to the show. They joined remaining host Ryan Burr to form a new trio of on-air talent. Each of these announcers has contributed to the development of this series in their own way.

It was this column that talked about Manske and her challenge to turn herself from a "SPEED cutie" into a respected ESPN studio host. This time, there was no co-host to blame and no contrived format to fit into. Manske was either going to sink or swim on her own and she was going to do it talking only about NASCAR.

Four months later, there is absolutely no doubt that she has succeeded. Manske now slides between her studio host and on-scene reporter roles with complete ease. Her relationship with the NASCAR drivers and personalities is fun to watch. She can push their hot buttons and make them talk about issues with her strong ability to ask good questions that was never seen on The SPEED Report.

Thursday night, Manske hosted Kyle Busch on a satellite liveshot interview before his big attempt at three races in one weekend from three different locations. Busch is a great example a driver who just seems to like being on NASCAR Now.

Manske asked all the right questions, pushed him a bit on some issues and then made sure to let him have the last word. Once again, Busch left smiling and happy. At the same time, the TV viewers got a live update on the story of the weekend from the person actually involved in it.

Manske's at-track interviews show more of a dry sense of humor and a toughness that the drivers, team owners and audience seems to like from her. Beginning at Daytona in February, Manske rarely stumbled and is now in full stride in her first season on national TV regularly. What a statement about the willingness of ESPN's NASCAR executive Rich Feinberg to make a big change and also about the natural ability of Manske that was finally allowed to emerge.

Partnered with Manske as a co-host is Ryan Burr. Last season, Burr was the savior for many from the chaos and ignorance of Kuselias. Burr is a former ESPNEWS anchor and brought a crisp and clear focus on NASCAR issues, despite admittedly not being a longtime fan. He acknowledged his learning curve, and asked for help when he needed it.

ESPN responded by bringing him back on a full-time basis for this season and the results have been solid. His straightforward news delivery is a good counterpoint to the conversational tone of Manske. Burr looks professional, sounds professional and is actually loosening-up and getting more informal this season.

All of that is due to the biggest single influence on NASCAR Now and ESPN's auto racing coverage since the series began some sixteen months ago. His name would be Allen Bestwick.

In much the same way that Manske was freed from the controlling format of The SPEED Report, Bestwick was plucked from the grind of pit road and moved into an entirely different position. Now, he would be the face of NASCAR on ESPN and ABC.

Mondays on NASCAR Now have become a showplace for the ability of Bestwick to handle different panelists on a weekly basis and still get from them the type of conversation that brings fans back again. Next Monday, Bestwick will host Ricky Craven, Mike Massaro and Boris Said.

Each week, Bestwick takes the overly formal setting and the bad chairs and the phony show car on the studio set and rises above it all. In order to do that, he introduced a concept to ESPN that had been lost for many years. That would be fun. Self-effacing fun that involves actual laughter and makes viewers feel good about what they are watching. To longtime viewers of SPEED, that concept might have a familiar ring to it.

There are no teleprompters, no big special effects and no fantasy racing updates. There are no experts in other studios or anchors falling all over themselves to use cool phrases. There are just three panelists and Bestwick sitting alone in the studio talking NASCAR. What a concept.

The production staff has followed the new direction and made every allowance to accept NASCAR as a sport and an extended lifestyle. Thursday's show led with highlights of Tony Stewart winning his charity race from Eldora Speedway. The network even had a reporter on-scene for interviews. This season, NASCAR Now "gets it."

A strong move for the series would be to follow in the award-winning footsteps of RPM2Night and begin to show regional racing highlights. The NASCAR Camping World and Modified Series are on fire with talent and every race is recorded. With ESPN in the sport for eight years and probably well beyond, it is time to look at the bigger picture and show fans the sport as a whole.

Dr. Jerry Punch and the NASCAR on ESPN team are six races away from beginning their high-profile Sprint Cup telecasts that will cover the final seventeen events. Now, for the first time they will have the solid support of a studio-based daily program keeping viewers informed and involved all the way through Homestead in November.

So, four months into the 2008 season we are going to officially stop talking about NASCAR Now incidents from 2007. ESPN admitted the problem, made some changes and the pay-off has been fantastic. Still, the 2007 gang did provide some memorable moments. Perhaps, a final reminder of how the changes started would be a nice way to close-out the topic.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are listed on the right side of the main page. Thanks for stopping by.

If you have an off-topic issue or would like to suggest a topic for a column, please drop us an email at rather than post in the comments section.