Monday, September 22, 2008

Waltrip Repels The Bowyer Curse

Nothing solves a problem like success. It has been a while since Michael Waltrip could say that about his NASCAR career. Monday on This Week In NASCAR, he made the most of it.

Series host Steve Byrnes knows how to handle the panelists regardless of their good or bad days at the track. This week, Byrnes had Chad Knaus coming-off a fifth place finish and Michael Waltrip still over-the-moon about a top ten at Dover.

One of Waltrip's top TV assets is the ability to poke fun at himself. Several weeks ago when ESPN made extensive use of Clint Bowyer's derogatory comments about Waltrip's driving ability, Byrnes let Waltrip talk about it on the show. The results were hilarious.

This week, Waltrip closed that circle by relating the fact that Bowyer had approached him after Dover and said "maybe you can still drive." That really put the ESPN hype in the correct perspective. What a smart way to put that to bed.

One key issue in this TV series continues to be too much pre-recorded content. This week, it was a feature on Jeff Burton's career comeback and then his weekend in Dover. Ironically, last week this "Chase" feature was on Bowyer.

While this may fit a broader agenda of exposing The Chase drivers to casual fans, viewers watching this program know all of them and would have been better-served with other content.

When the SPEED executives grudgingly allowed TWIN to flip the program format, they could not have imagined the impact it would have. This episode was a good example. After letting Waltrip and Knaus get warmed-up with a discussion of Dover, the transition to a preview of Kansas resulted in some great conversation. Both panelists contributed observations from their own unique perspectives without missing a beat.

Humpy Wheeler continued with his stream-of-consciousness feature that is often strangely fascinating. Recently added to TWIN, Wheeler just shows-up in a pre-recorded feature and talks about something. This week he talked about The Chase in a monologue that ran the gamut from barometric pressure to world peace and all made sense.

The only national NASCAR series carried on SPEED is the Craftsman Trucks. It is no secret that this series is in deep trouble. There has been no sponsor announced for next season, Dodge has withdrawn factory support and on Saturday night in Las Vegas there was a field of only 31 starters.

Sooner or later, it is going to occur to someone at either SPEED or The NASCAR Media Group that devoting more time on TWIN to the Truck Series is perhaps a good idea. This week the trucks once again had a side-by-side duel to the finish line that resulted in veteran Mike Skinner getting his first win of the season.

TWIN did not have one moment of a winner's interview with Skinner. The video highlights consisted of Johnny Benson hitting the wall and then the final two turns of the race. Coupled with ESPN's horrible treatment of the trucks on NASCAR Now, what chance does this series have without the exposure of two of NASCAR's "official" TV series?

This is the first stretch run for This Week In NASCAR and with some small changes it certainly can continue to keep the momentum high through November. While fans might have been disappointed that Greg Biffle was not added on this episode as a third panelist, perhaps SPEED might consider heading in that direction for 2009.

Biffle will return next week with Waltrip and Byrnes as another episode of TWIN hits the air Monday at 8PM Eastern Time.

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"NASCAR Now' Rearranges The Furniture

When the NASCAR Now program first began in 2007, the on-air personalities sat behind a huge desk that dwarfed the announcers on the set. As the first season progressed, it was clear that the huge desk approach was not working.

This season, the Monday roundtable panelists perch on high stools in the studio. During the week, the on-air talent stands in front of a brand new set. The Tuesday through Sunday shows were going just fine, but the Monday show still needed some changes.

When the program featured female panelists, the "bar stools" were perhaps not the most graceful on-air approach for the hour. Also, on-air personalities with different body types from Brad Daugherty to David Poole were not well-served by trying to remain stylishly perched on their own little on-air "island."

This week ESPN2 unveiled the solution. Enter the huge desk once again. Host Allen Bestwick tried to smile, but the dynamic of the panel had changed a bit. Media guest Mike Massaro was now to Bestwick's left, while Boris Said and Ray Evernham were sitting at opposite ends of the huge desk. It will be interesting to see if this new interior design yields positive benefits for the panel.

At this time of the season, everyone is tired from the NASCAR teams to the TV crews. If there is one person who has a good excuse where being tired is concerned, it is Bestwick. He has been everywhere for ESPN and turned in a yeoman's performance for the company this year. Each week for Bestwick is capped-off by his appearance on NASCAR Now.

Massaro was once again informative and opinionated. If there is a change for next season, it may well be Massaro that steps into the host role on this program. After all the years of working diligently for ESPN, Massaro this season has been extending his credibility well beyond pit road with good results.

Boris Said has been focusing on keeping his on-air comments brief and it has paid-off with a much better presence on this program series. Said has a diverse motorsports background and works best when he has someone like Evernham to converse with on racing topics.

On this Monday, Evernham was subdued but worked hard to answer Bestwick's questions fully. There is no doubt that Evernham is almost always the most informed NASCAR personality on the panel and his comments showed the depth of his knowledge of the sport. If he makes a change in the off-season, Evernham may have a permanent place on the ESPN team.

Bestwick led the panel through the format of Chase talk, race reviews and a follow-up on topics in the news. After more than seven months on-the-air, the Monday show has a familiar feel and a good flow. Although this one episode did not feature a live guest, the panel did offer comments and highlights of the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races. A Mike Skinner winning interview would have been a nice touch.

Unfortunately, ESPN continues to shun other NASCAR racing series. Aric Almirola won an exciting Camping World East Series race at Dover and Matt Kobyluck took the season championship. While shows like The SPEED Report showed highlights and interviews, NASCAR's only daily TV show did not.

After a computer glitch gave the panel some additional time to talk, Evernham was once again front-and-center for his opinions about the remainder of the season. This gave him an opportunity to show just how easy it is for him to converse on various NASCAR topics. At this point in the season, there is no doubt that Evernham's TV stock is rising.

Next week's show should be very interesting. Evernham will be thrown-in with the Infield Studio duo of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. This is a good mix for ESPN and Bestwick seems to bring-out the best in all of these three on-air personalities. Monday's NASCAR Now airs at 5PM Eastern Time.

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Big Monday For NASCAR's TV Partners

The celebration by all concerned over an exciting Sprint Cup Series race from Dover is not going to end when the track is empty. Both ESPN2 and SPEED are giddy with the anticipation of putting together a Monday review show with this outstanding COT event as the centerpiece.

Although they use exactly the same content and race footage, NASCAR Now and This Week in NASCAR could not be more different. It is this difference that sets them apart and lets all kinds of NASCAR fans enjoy the Monday TV highlights.

Allen Bestwick and his three NASCAR Now panelists sit in suits-and-ties on a custom-designed High Definition set in the ESPN Studios. Perched on high stools like little islands, the only interaction between the four announcers is conversation.

Steve Byrnes and his two TWIN panelists sit in easy chairs on a Low Definition set in a studio where the dumpster guy and the UPS man can be heard through the rear door. This season the panelists have spiffy matching shirts, but where weekly panelist Michael Waltrip is concerned, socks are still optional.

The diversity between these two shows is a mirror of the diversity of the sport. At many tracks white wine mixes with cold beer and hamburgers sizzle side-by-side with Wolfgang Puck pizzas. When it comes to NASCAR fans, sometimes the action on the track is not the only show in town.

Bestwick resurrected a franchise that was in deep trouble and the results have been nothing short of fantastic. Erik Kuselias single-handedly made Monday evenings on ESPN2 a wasteland for NASCAR fans and the network let him finish out the entire 2007 season.

Now, Monday at 5PM and again at Midnight for West Coast viewers has become ESPN's NASCAR version of "must see TV." If there was a TV rating for a program being recorded for later viewing, this would be a good one to sample.

ESPN hits Bestwick with one of the most unique challenges in sports broadcasting every single week. Take a constantly changing panel and present a consistently interesting show. If the same combination of faces appear twice, it is never in a row and is usually for a logistical reason like travel schedules.

This Monday, Bestwick has Boris Said, Ray Evernham and Mike Massaro on-hand to discuss Dover. This fundamental combination of a driver, a crew chief and a journalist has worked best for this program all season long. Monday should be no exception.

While Bestwick enjoys the tight control and squeaky-clean atmosphere of NASCAR Now, Steve Byrnes loves the casual and chaotic atmosphere of TWIN. Originating from the NASCAR Media Group studios beside the highway in South Charlotte, Byrnes is effectively sitting in the exact same position Bestwick occupied for so many years while hosting Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup Racing.

This week Byrnes will have Chad Knaus teamed-up with Waltrip on a show that many folks believe needs one more panelist to be as good as possible. Three voices make for a conversation while two make for a difference of opinion.

Knaus has been the surprise of the season for TWIN. A regular on the NASCAR Performance show with Larry McReynolds, Knaus has come into his own this season on TV. Having a veteran host like Steve Byrnes on-hand has helped Knaus to establish his own identity alongside that of Waltrip. Over the years, Waltrip has frustrated many panelists and several hosts with his style. This trio seems to fit together quite nicely.

Both TV programs look back, look ahead and offer opinions on the various topics of the week. NASCAR is better off for having this kind of choice for TV viewers and race fans. After the fun at Dover and the good feelings about Greg Biffle, both Monday shows should be primed to hit the air.

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