Monday, November 17, 2008

"This Week In NASCAR" Ends A Successful First Season

NASCAR fans got word that SPEED was re-working the longtime Inside Sprint Cup TV series for 2008 and would make some big changes. While the timeslot and the studio stayed the same, SPEED wanted to freshen-up the Monday franchise.

Out as host was Dave Despain and in was the NASCAR TV veteran Steve Byrnes. In was Michael Waltrip and out was Kenny Schrader. Although very popular, one reason for Schrader's departure was the "expert panel" being cut from three members to two.

Greg Biffle was the sole survivor of the faces that had come and gone from the "second guest" chair since original member Johnny Benson had been fired several years ago. This was not the end of the changes, as SPEED had a surprise to unveil.

Chad Knaus would join the panel and rotate appearances with Biffle. This was the first non-driver on the program and it was going to be interesting to see how a crew chief perspective would fit-in with the rather unique views of Waltrip.

Click here for a TDP column that talked about some of the early struggles this new series faced in early 2008. Byrnes and Waltrip worked hard to establish a relationship on this program and it took a while before it clicked. It was interesting to watch these early shows when Byrnes was still doing his best Despain imitation and trying to keep order.

Only when Byrnes finally relented and let the frequent Waltrip tangents flow did the show find an order. One big reason that worked was Chad Knaus. At first, Knaus had a classic deer-in-the-headlights look at almost everything Waltrip would say.

Then, one day Knaus started to give it right back to "Mikey" and suddenly things clicked. SPEED's version of The Odd Couple was born and the show has never looked back. When both Byrnes and Knaus just totally take whatever Waltrip throws-out in stride, the shows are great.

Credit this season also goes to Greg Biffle. Finally emerging from his TV shell, Biffle has proven to be a focused and intelligent person. He enjoys Byrnes and Waltrip because suddenly Biffle's opinion counts. That was a struggle for Biffle in the earlier version of the program with a different host.

Speaking of the third voice, the only way the final show could have been any better is if Chad Knaus was present. Several times this year TWIN has done special shows with three panelists and the results have been a much more diverse conversation.

As the program heads into next season, the suggestions have been simple. Add a third panelist and eliminate the long edited features. Scanner chatter, race highlights and a Humpy Wheeler monologue are plenty to overlay on some good conversation.

Fans were very appreciative earlier this season when the SPEED executives finally put the review of Sunday's race before the preview of the upcoming event. Several format changes were also made, including extended email questions and a review of all three NASCAR races from each weekend.

Watching the final program on Monday night revealed three tired guys who had worked and traveled hard over the past ten months. The commitment of all four personalities involved in this show should be applauded. The flexibility of The NASCAR Media Group who produce the show should also be commended.

After a rough start, it seems that SPEED has once again put together a cast of characters very capable of entertaining NASCAR fans for an hour on Monday night.

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Tired Johnson Visits Final "NASCAR Now" Roundtable

"One hour of sleep," said a visibly exhausted Jimmie Johnson to NASCAR Now host Allen Bestwick. To Johnson, Bestwick was a very familiar TV companion.

It was Bestwick who handled the championship trophy presentation and the questions for Johnson on ABC's live telecast. Shortly after the race, it was Bestwick again with Johnson in the ESPN Infield Studio for the Sunday night version of NASCAR Now.

Here it was Monday afternoon and it was Bestwick and Johnson once again. This time it was the HD studios of ESPN2 and the duo was joined by Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham. After a very long Sunday night, Johnson was in Bristol, CT for the finale of "the roundtable."

Bestwick has single-handedly restored the Monday hour to credibility after a horrendous 2007 season. Simply by inviting three guests to talk about NASCAR, Bestwick has established this show as the "can't miss" NASCAR TV show on ESPN.

This season has seen a tremendous variety of panelists stop by the NASCAR Now studio on Mondays. From drivers to journalists, ESPN has served-up a wide variety of personalities and asked Bestwick to blend them into something NASCAR fans want to watch.

TV viewers may remember all three Wallace brothers, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliot and journalists like David Poole on the program. Regulars like Mike Massaro, Ray Evernham and Boris Said have also done their share to make this TV series a success.

On this Monday, Bestwick worked very hard to keep Johnson engaged in the flow of the program and it worked. All of the questions and comments were aimed at Johnson, who has proven to be one of the most TV-friendly champions in NASCAR history.

Evernham and Wallace easily adjusted to secondary roles on this program with Johnson on the set. The Producer chose to break-out the old bar stools and leave the huge table off the set on this show. The fact that Johnson was able to stagger his way through this program was admirable.

The highlights had been seen before and the questions were the same, but having Johnson on NASCAR Now in Bristol the day after the race was apparently a priority for the network. Unfortunately, this ended the opportunity for the panel to talk as journalists about the year and the various series championships.

The ability to talk about NASCAR and deal with the pressing issues was mostly pushed aside, except for a brief conversation about off-season testing. Johnson proved once again after endless interviews on multiple networks that he deserved some eventual time off.

It was certainly a shame that this final MondayNASCAR Now chose not to feature the memorable and humorous moments of this TV show from the entire year. This was done quite effectively on other NASCAR shows and the decision to completely omit any reference to the many guests who appeared on these roundtable shows was tough.

One major positive is that ESPN has reclaimed Monday as a very watchable and enjoyable hour of NASCAR conversation. As next season rolls around, it will be interesting to see if hard-working ESPN personalities like Mike Massaro and Dave Burns get an opportunity to share in the host role.

The commitment of Bestwick to travel back from every single racing weekend and host this show really saved this series. Only taking one weekend off, Bestwick was the ultimate ironman and appeared to be none the worse for wear. Hopefully, the one hour roundtable version of NASCAR Now will return intact for 2009.

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Monday TV/Media Links:
Click on the title to read the entire story.
Ho-Hum Evolution of The Chase (Sports Business Journal)
Is Cable TV the New Home of Champions? (Sports Business Journal)
A Tour of the Tech Center (Arizona Star)
Kyle Busch and NASCAR At Odds Over F-1 Test (UK - Home of Sport)
SPEED Announcers Weigh-In on Johnson (Florida Today)
Jimmy Spencer's Moment In The Sun (Yahoo! Sports)

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