Sunday, July 5, 2009
NASCAR Coverage On ESPN At A Crossroads
The ingredients were in place, the weather was great and the driver line-up was solid. It was time for the much anticipated Nationwide Series race from Daytona.
NASCAR had given ESPN a bonus by installing the new double-file restart rule and there was little doubt that it was going to change the dynamic of the event.
Rusty Wallace is over in the UK at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. So, Allen Bestwick was joined by Dale Jarrett and Brad Daugherty in the infield pit studio. Daugherty's excitement for this race was infectious.
Bestwick recapped the rain-delayed qualifying and set-up the race in his usual professional style. Then, he passed the telecast to Dr. Jerry Punch. It was clear from that moment that something was very wrong.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have teamed-up this season to become one of the most enjoyable and informative pairs of NASCAR analysts on TV. The respect these two have for each other is evident. Jarrett presents the driver's point of view and Petree is right on target with his crew chief perspective.
Unfortunately, these two have become very good at something else. Friday night in Daytona they were once again put in the position of supplying any shred of excitement that the ESPN TV viewers would experience during the Nationwide Series coverage.
NASCAR fans have watched this sport since February. They know the car numbers, the driver's names and their hometowns. They can see what lap it is and who is leading from the on-screen graphics. They know what racetrack it is and that this is the Nationwide Series. Essentially, this is the extent of the information provided by Punch during the entire race.
In earlier years, Punch was a vibrant and excitable pit reporter who took the NASCAR world by storm with his personality and honest on-air presence. Years later, he began the transition back to NASCAR from college sports with a tremendous job of hosting a defining TV series. Ultimate NASCAR was a wonderful way for ESPN to step back into the sport.
Now, ESPN is in the third year of hosting the Nationwide Series coverage and about to begin another seventeen race stretch of Sprint Cup telecasts. Punch has served as the anchor and face of this coverage since the new TV package started in 2007.
The Nationwide Series cars were bouncing all over the track and rarely single-file from the start of the event. Punch never raised his voice above a monotone except leading to commercial break or reading an ESPN promo. Crashes and incidents occurred on the track and there was the now familiar response from Punch. Silence.
Petree urged a driver to exit a flaming car and Jarrett called out the action on the track as the only constant from Punch was deep sighs and repetitive factual information. Toward the end of the race, Jarrett and Petree just took over the broadcast. Punch had finally sunk to his lowest point in this entire NASCAR TV saga. He was invisible.
There is no bigger mystery in the NASCAR TV package than the complete failure of Punch in this high-profile role. We have written about it, talked about it on radio shows and fielded thousands of emails and website comments on this topic.
Over the last three years, ESPN has bravely changed all the announcers on the daily NASCAR Now show. In the field, they moved Bestwick to host of the infield studio and then asked Wallace to join him there. ESPN added Jarrett full-time and then signed Ray Evernham as a utility player. This season, the network has smartly kept Ricky Craven as a regular in the studio. This is not a company that is afraid to make changes when they are needed.
There is little doubt that eventually Punch may be considered for a nomination to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In the 1980's he helped to shape the public's knowledge of this sport on TV. NASCAR was very different then. Being a pit road TV reporter meant hot, dirty and dangerous times for Punch. Sometimes, his medical skills were called into play. Wallace will be the first to say Punch cleared his airway after a practice crash had rendered him unconscious. Literally, Punch saved his life.
Now, someone needs to throw a lifeline to Punch and give him a hand. If the problem is physical, mental or emotional it should not make a difference. Something is fundamentally wrong and it needs attention. This is not the same man we have all known for decades in our homes through ESPN.
The ESPN Producer can figure out why they missed interviewing so many drivers involved in accidents. He can stop the in-car camera views after double-file restarts. Maybe, he can even ban Jamie Little and Shannon Spake from using the words "how do you feel about that" ever again on television. But, something else also needs his attention.
It's time to sort-out what is wrong with the good doctor and let us all breathe a sigh of relief when the problem is solved. Whatever it is and however it is dealt with can be private and totally confidential. It just has to happen.
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