Sunday, July 20, 2008

SPEED's Sneak Peek Worth The Wait

Another program from the fine folks at The NASCAR Media Group hit the air on SPEED Sunday night and did two things. One, it confirmed the fact that NASCAR contains some of the most interesting TV content of any professional sport. Second, it showed the TV viewers one hour of something they had never seen before.

Produced specifically for this off-week, NASCAR Confidential was something that will help to re-focus fans on the overall excitement of the sport. In a first half of the season beset by stories away from the track, this show may help to get the attention of the sport back on "the show."

In typical NASCAR Media Group style, there was no high-profile announcer during the one hour program. It was simply TV veteran Ken Squier who provide the on-camera segments that served to open, close and transition the show between segments.

This type of unblinking look at NASCAR is exactly what the fans love to see. Everything from the safety briefing to the inner-workings of Race Control were on display. No doubt that TV viewers were seeing something new. When is the last time that happened with a NASCAR TV show?

NASCAR Confidential always leaves fans thinking about one concept. When can we get more of this type of quality programming? There are many stories that should be continued and many personalities that should be profiled after being introduced in these episodes.

This limited six episode program series has returned to the focus that first brought it to the attention of TV viewers earlier this season. The thought of seeing some quality NASCAR programming like this on a weekly basis is something fans will be thinking and talking about long after the memories of Race Control have faded.

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Delays At Gateway Make It A Long Night For Punch

ESPN closed the Infield Pit Center for the weekend and sent Allen Bestwick and Brad Daugherty off on vacation. All Jerry Punch and the ESPN crew at Gateway would have to do is host one little Nationwide Series race without them. What a task that turned-out to be.

It was Dave Burns expanding his pit reporter duties and stepping-in as the semi-host of the pre-race show. Burns has come a long way in his TV career and has recently started doing feature reports for ESPN2's NASCAR Now. This was another new assignment that he handled quite well. Burns directed traffic early-on before handing-off to Punch in the broadcast booth.

The "big boys" were on hand for the network as both Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were well-rested and ready to make the long run to the end of the season in November. Petree comes alive when he is with Jarrett and the duo was informative and confident in their comments and analysis throughout the race.

Jerry Punch is working hard to figure-out how to add excitement to a telecast that sometimes may not be exciting. Punch is very loud on the ESPN network promos and he enjoys introducing pre-recorded features. Going to commercial break is apparently very exciting and his volume rises quickly.

What really has not changed is his confusion when something happens on the racetrack. Several big accidents, including one that caused an extended red flag elicited nothing more than partial phrases and terms like "oh" and "ah" to sum-up the action. Jarrett and Petree are quick to jump-in and help, but the damage is done.

When Punch gets nervous or put on-the-spot, catch phrases like "young man" and "sails it into the corner" come out over-and-over again. Carl Edwards once again became a "young man" as he crossed the finish line to win at Gateway. Punch was like a starting pitcher in the ninth inning, out of gas and in need of some relief.

Standing in front of Punch are seventeen of the highest-profile Sprint Cup races of the season. That load is going to be heaped upon his existing Nationwide Series commitment for the rest of the year. ESPN is also adding practice and qualifying sessions for both series, as well as making Punch appear on the weekend editions of NASCAR Now. Talk about needing a relief pitcher.

ESPN was admittedly short-staffed at Gateway. Jamie Little and Tim Brewer were also on vacation. Little was missed as the three pit reporters scurried about to fill time during the extended red flag. Brewer's fill-in DJ Copp did a good job, but was not used as much as he could have been in the red flag and caution periods.

There is no doubt that the ESPN crew is going to walk away from Gateway needing a hot shower and a good night's sleep. They only have a couple of days to relax before coverage from The Brickyard begins next Friday. After that day, there will be little rest until Homestead in November. Seventeen straight weeks on the road will put anyone to the test.

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Reporters Take Center Stage Again On "NASCAR Now" (5PM ET)

The TV executives in-charge of NASCAR Now seem to take great pride this season in changing the ingredients that host Allen Bestwick must use to create a brand new one-hour show each Monday.

Even after an off-week for the Sprint Cup Series, the Producers have been smart enough on this next Monday to invite a variety of NASCAR writers and reporters to the show. They are going to offer a season-to-date perspective and talk about some top issues in the sport. It certainly is an all-star line-up.

The outspoken Jenna Fryer from the Associated Press will be there. Fryer is a frequent guest on the Tradin' Paint program on SPEED and her discussions of various NASCAR topics with panelist Kyle Petty have been memorable. Fryer is also heard on Sirius Satellite radio and offers a weekly opinion column along with her AP news stories that are circulated worldwide.

As an African-American, Gary Graves from USA Today should offer some interesting views on many current NASCAR news topics. Graves has a long history in motorsports and many racing fans may know him from his recent NHRA coverage of the Kalitta accident. This will be his first appearance on NASCAR Now and hopefully not his last. Graves has a lengthy sports journalism background and his perspective will be interesting to hear.

Finally, ESPN's own Lead Reporter Marty Smith will round-out the panel. An original member of NASCAR Now, Smith suffered through a painful first season with this TV series. This year, revitalized by new hosts and a new format, NASCAR Now has been storming through the TV landscape and Smith has been an integral part. His ability to relate on-camera to the viewer and his laid-back style have worked well for him at ESPN.

This panel has the potential to produce one of NASCAR Now's best shows. The key to the hour is going to be Bestwick. This season, he has sometimes chosen to actively participate as a panelist and sometimes chosen to simply be the host. This is a tough call, as he is a NASCAR veteran with a tremendous amount of experience in the sport. On this particular Monday, he may be better served to toss out a topic and then direct traffic.

In 2008, it has only been ESPN that has confronted the sometimes difficult issues associated with the sport. NASCAR Now has not shied away from controversy, and all three on-air hosts of this series have done quite well with these types of issues.

On this Monday, Bestwick has a menu available to him that swings wildly from the COT to Mauricia Grant. Tony Stewart has just shocked the sport and several other historic teams are currently on the verge of collapse. With the news this week that GM is pulling-back on NASCAR sponsorships, it will be Bestwick's challenge to weave his way through these topics with this unique panel.

On the Monday before ESPN begins Sprint Cup coverage for the season, Bestwick has the opportunity to send the network down the road with what might be the highest-profile "roundtable" of the season.

There will be a full column up on this program shortly after it concludes. Your comments about the panelists and the season-to-date are welcome on this post. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.