Monday, November 3, 2008

TV Peek At NASCAR's Future Is Eye-Opening

The TV series on SPEED called NASCAR Confidential would have gotten the attention of the NASCAR fans this season if the network had ordered more than six episodes.

Tucked quietly away on Monday night, the fifth show in the series offered a profile of several young drivers with NASCAR aspirations. To say the least, it was an eye-opening confirmation that family money is the driving force behind this new breed.

In much the same way that parents awkwardly place children in adult-style beauty pageants, NASCAR Confidential was open in offering footage that sometimes showed the racing parents in unflattering situations.

Veteran journalist Mike Mulhern set the table for how the transition from established veterans to eager youngsters occurred when Jeff Gordon entered the sport. This program profiled five youngsters who were operating in very different environments while trying to make their way to the Sprint Cup Series.

Fans are certainly familiar with Joey Logano. ESPN reported on their E:60 program this summer that Logano's father had spent over a million dollars on his son's racing career. NASCAR Confidential documented the ups and downs this season as Logano tried to get a toehold in a Cup Series car.

14 year-old Logan Ruffin from Nashville was a new face on the racing scene for TV viewers. Ruffin's mother dropped her son off in her Range Rover because he is too young to drive on public roads. He has strength and conditioning coaches and has already made his way through several local and regional racing series.

Alex Yontz is 22 and is almost over the hill. In NASCAR terms, the "window" for him to be discovered and advance is essentially closing. Every TV show needs contrast and Yontz working on his own car in Ed Berrier's Late Model shop worked very well after seeing the resources surrounding both Logano and Ruffin.

Richard Childress is a NASCAR legend and has paid his dues in the sport during his career as a driver and an owner. To showcase a youngster from a racing family, NASCAR Confidential chose RC's favorite grandson Austin Dillon. This was a youngster that fans could relate to, as so many others currently in the sport are directly from racing families. Dillon is 18 years-old and races in the Camping World East Series.

Many fans know Marc Davis because of his recent TV interviews and exposure as a success of the driver diversity program. This 18 year-old African-American driver has been a success story and continues to climb through the ranks. Signed by Gibbs Racing to a development deal, it looks like Davis will see the big time in just a couple of seasons.

This show worked to weave the stories of the five youngsters together and show the wide variety of experiences in racing. Snapshots included the Logano struggle in the #96 Cup car and the success of Dillion as the Camping World Rookie of the Year. Most telling perhaps was the anger of Logan Ruffin's father being offset by the cool demeanor of his young son after a racing accident.

It is Ken Squier who opens and closes the shows in this TV series. As he ended this episode of NASCAR Confidential, it was clear he had chosen his words carefully.

"Today, the ability behind the wheel might not even be the number one criteria," said Squier. "The window for opportunity is shrinking, while the crop of drivers grows larger and younger. But, one thing is certain. The next generation will still be driven, first and foremost, because they love to race."

This episode of NASCAR Confidential re-airs at 1AM and 9AM Eastern Time on Tuesday for those who missed the original airing.

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Chad Knaus Watches His Pain Again

Host Steve Byrnes did his best to make it as pleasant as possible, but there was no way for Chad Knaus to escape it. In his new role as a panelist on This Week In NASCAR, Knaus gets to watch the Sprint Cup Series highlights and offer his veteran comments.

Needless to say, from the green flag to the checkered flag in Texas, there was nothing but pain and frustration for Knaus. "How many times do we have to see this?" said a smiling Knaus as the footage of Carl Edwards passing Jimmie Johnson rolled by from several angles.

Normally, regular panelist Michael Waltrip would be on-hand to assist Knaus with his painful journey. This week, however, Waltrip was very busy playing golf in California and it was NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney on the set. Blaney has a great dry sense of humor and it worked quite well on this program.

To add insult to injury, the ridiculous "Chase profile" this week was actually on Carl Edwards and the 99 team. These video profiles have served absolutely no purpose and taken valuable time from this heavily sponsored show. The Edwards footage was re-purposed from an earlier feature on Edwards visiting a children's cancer hospital.

The remainder of the feature followed Edwards through the televised practice and then the Texas race. It was the scanner chatter mixed with the radio and TV call of the race that fans have seen in each program. It included the mandatory shot of Edwards' mom but did not offer anything new.

Again this week, TWIN recapped both the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series highlights. A new feature popped-up with the SPEED truck announcers offering a preview of the Phoenix race. This is the type of synergy that SPEED should be employing for every Truck Series event with this program.

The preview of Phoenix offered Blaney's comments that this track reminded him of Richmond. Room to race and two grooves were the key elements of the track from the driver's perspective. Knaus got to smile when Byrnes led to the highlights of last season where the #48 team won the race.

Humpy Wheeler was again featured on the show, this time with a background profile on Phoenix International Raceway. He tried hard to tie-in the Native Americans who originally lived in Arizona with the current crop of NASCAR drivers. Somehow, he ended up lobbying to get the Polish victory lap back in the sport.

Programs like this remind regular viewers of the role that Waltrip plays on this program. Several times, both Knaus and Byrnes referenced Waltrip in this program and it was clear they both missed his personality and enthusiasm. The only original remaining member of this long-running Monday night series returns next week for the final two programs.

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Bestwick Reminds TV Viewers The Chase Is Not Over

All season long on both the ESPN Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series TV coverage viewers have heard the same message from the Infield Pit Studio. The source of the message was host Allen Bestwick. His favorite expression is borrowed directly from Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

Bestwick says to anyone who will listen that "it's not over until it's over."

In this case, it is not the Mets rallying to beat the Cubs back in 1973. What Bestwick has been trying to remind both NASCAR fans and the media is that the 2008 Chase for the Championship is not over. This week, on the Monday edition of NASCAR Now, Bestwick was beating the drum once again. This time, fans were listening.

Bestwick was joined by Ray Evernham, Boris Said and Mike Massaro on the one hour "roundtable" edition of NASCAR Now. This show is the runaway hit of the season and Bestwick is the reason why. Now, the ESPN brass have finally given Bestwick a semi-regular cast as the season winds down.

Carl Edwards gas mileage gamble and Jimmie Johnson's dismal performance combined to make for a program packed full of good comments and outstanding features. Bestwick led the panel through the highlights and the dominance of Edwards was again startling to see.

Bob Osborne's gamble was reviewed in both the words of the ESPN team who called the race and the comments of the NASCAR Now panel. To hear the doubts in the minds of Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree as Edwards continued to stay out put a good perspective on just how big the gamble really was. The weekly scanner feature was nicely edited.

"To win races you have to know your car," said Ray Evernham. He was talking about Tony Eury Jr. running Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of gas in the late laps. While teammate Jeff Gordon saved fuel and made it to the finish, the same luck did not hold for Junior.

"I think it was a good swing for the fences call," stated Bestwick. He was backing-up a comment from Boris Said. It was Said's contention that once Osborne realized Edwards could get caught by cars on fresh tires, he immediately switched to the fuel saving strategy that won the race.

TV viewers may remember Bestwick breaking into the live telecast with only five laps to go and emphatically making the point to Dr. Jerry Punch that Edwards and Osborne had to do this to have any hope of winning The Chase. They absolutely had nothing to lose.

It was the Gilliland and Montoya incident that stirred-up the panel. Evernham contends that Gilliland should be parked for the rest of the season. Said wanted to go back and see what happened before the TV cameras got to the situation. "Road rage" is what Said called Gilliland's actions. Massaro called it bad judgement and pointed-out that the poor season and lack of sponsorship may have contributed to Gilliland's incredibly poor decision.

Junior's recent comments on the state of NASCAR were up next. "The COT will stop costs from rising in the sport," said Evernham. Boris Said admitted he was not smart enough to figure out the big cost issues. His point was that so many employers overlap between the tracks and the teams that the financial equation is complicated.

"What if?" said Massaro when talking about Edwards and his championship quest. Massaro's point was that if Edwards came up a bit short then there are going to be some memories like the big crash at Talladega and other dark moments that may haunt the team during the off-season.

Thankfully, the panel reviewed both the Nationwide and Truck Series race highlights. Unfortunately, once again NASCAR Now offered an incomplete NASCAR TV calendar and excluded the Truck race because it was on SPEED. This type of juvenile behavior began several months ago and really put a blemish on this program.

These three veteran panelists meshed together quite well and the result was an enjoyable and informative show. At this time of the season, the issues under discussion are mostly very serious. Having several decades of NASCAR experience at the roundtable is proving to be a good way to close the first season of this new TV series.

Note: For the full-size picture, just click on it. Right click to save to your computer. Thanks to ESPN for all the NASCAR Now pictures.

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A Great Idea At The Perfect Time

The Craftsman Truck Series race on Friday night from Texas contained a little surprise for viewers. The entire pre-race show was done with all the SPEED announcers completely in Halloween costumes. Needless to say, watching Dorothy and Glinda the Good Witch interview tough guys like Ron Hornaday Jr., Todd Bodine and Max Papis was one of the most hilarious moments on NASCAR TV this season. Here are some pics sent to us by the folks at SPEED. Click directly on the pic to see it full-size or right click to save it.

This is SPEED's Truck Series Producer, Keith D'Alessandro. Often called "the people's producer," D'Allessandro has been the heart and soul of these outstanding broadcasts for years. All I know is that it looks hot in that monkey costume.

Here is Keith producing the show in the TV truck. Enough said.

The Craftsman Truck Series on SPEED has been the most consistent and enjoyable TV package of the season. The attitude and professionalism of the announcers has been complimented by the hard work of the TV crew and the singular focus on the teams and drivers. Once again, it appears the championship will come down to the final race. Does it get any better than this?

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