Monday, September 28, 2009
Monday Night Doubleheader Worth The Wait
Just as the top teams are hitting their stride during the Chase, ESPN's three year-old NASCAR Now program is also looking good down the stretch.
The Monday version used to be called the roundtable until ESPN changed the furniture on the set. Now, host Allen Bestwick looks even more comfortable with his new TV table as he hosts three panelists in a one hour conversation about all things NASCAR.
The three people that seem to really click on the panel are Ricky Craven, Ray Evernham and Randy LaJoie. They were present on Monday as Bestwick led them through a review of Dover, a preview of Kansas and a live guest interview.
In this Monday format, Bestwick shows a highlight and then allows all three panelists to comment. LaJoie is painfully honest and keeps the thoughtful Craven and Evernham on their toes with his humor and racing wit. This show was no exception. When things get complicated on the set, LaJoie has a way of putting racing into perspective.
Craven and Evernham may have traveled very different roads to arrive at ESPN, but they have formed a cohesive team in terms of offering commentary on racing issues. The key is not what they say, but what they don't say. Each works hard to offer comments within their own area of expertise and then quickly defers to the other for more details.
Topics in this program ranged from strategy on the track and tire choices to driver mindsets and team dynamics. Bestwick did a solid job of allowing each member of the panel to deliver complete thoughts and then follow up as needed. Opening up the overall discussion worked well and the racing information really flowed.
The Monday program has a guest and this week it was Chad Knaus. The inside joke was that Knaus had added a denim suit jacket to his t-shirt with a wink to the infamous ESPN dress code. Ray Evernham made sure to point that out. As we have repeated this season, the interview segments on this program are tremendous when all the panelists are allowed to ask questions.
Knaus himself was outstanding with his answers as he reviewed the decisions he made before and during the Dover race that resulted in a win. He was the perfect guest for this panel and the good humor in the conversation presented the interview in a very positive light for NASCAR. No problems, no controversy, just smart racing talk.
One poignant moment in this program came when the panel discussed the roll-over accident of Joey Logano. After diagnosing what happened and explaining the reasons why, Bestwick had both Craven and LaJoie look at footage of their own violent roll-overs and talk from a first-person perspective.
Craven's big accident long before the COT in Talladega was huge. His car soared above the track wall and into the catch fence before returning to the track in pieces. "When this is unfolding, you don't have any idea of when it's over," said Craven. His comment echoed that of Logano after the Dover accident.
LaJoie's amazing crash at Daytona featured his car actually going airborne, impacting the large concrete infield wall and then rebounding through the grass on the frontstretch. As usual, LaJoie put his explanation in the simplest terms. "First time at Daytona. They said just hold it wide open...OK!"
The panel offered a preview of Kansas and closed the show by differing on the race winner. Evernham and Craven stayed with the Hendrick cars while LaJoie said Juan Pablo Montoya was ready to break through. All in all, an enjoyable show from four NASCAR personalities clearly comfortable with each other on TV.
Later on Monday, SPEED offered the first grouping of Jimmy Spencer, Michael Waltrip and Knaus on This Week in NASCAR. From the start, Steve Byrnes set the tone by allowing everyone to speak but it was no easy task. By the second segment of the show Byrnes was definitely herding cats.
Knaus seemed to be the calm in the storm. Ironic that this crew chief who makes his living keeping everyone on the same page would be the only one to consistently offer detailed and accurate information for the entire hour.
Waltrip and Spencer have not yet established an on-air relationship. Spencer is the new element in the TWIN mix. Several times Spencer spoke directly to the TV viewers, asked his own questions of Knaus and made statements that included calling for Steve Addington to be fired as the #18 crew chief. That was only the beginning.
After showing the Nationwide race highlights that included the Denny Hamlin dust-up with Brad Keselowski, Spencer decided to add his opinion. "Keselowksi, I am going to tell you something bud, you are going to get your ass whipped one day by telling people you are sorry after the fact," he said.
This is not exactly the type of comment offered so far this season by either Waltrip, Knaus or fellow panelist Greg Biffle. Kudos to Steve Byrnes for calling Spencer out immediately on his own past incidents that involved spinning cars out from behind. "I won!" said a blushing Spencer. There was silence from Waltrip and Knaus.
Knaus offered a great preview of Kansas with good information from a veteran perspective. Spencer made sure to salute the full grandstands while Waltrip offered a good place for barbecue. The one-liners were flying.
"Chad looks like he is watching a tennis match," said Byrnes. Knaus was the meat in a Waltrip and Spencer sandwich. "There is a lot going on," smiled Knaus. "Spencer's not jaded," remarked Waltrip. "You guys are on drugs," Spencer shot back.
To wrap the show, Byrnes tosses out topics to the panel and for the first time Knaus raised the issue of mid-week racing to avoid college football and the NFL. It was supported by everyone on the show. His point was well-timed after two straight weeks of low TV ratings for Sunday races scheduled directly against the early NFL games.
This interesting show ended the way it started, in semi-chaos. But, that is exactly what has been missing from the previous dry-as-toast shows that lacked a spark. The best news for viewers is that the exact same panel will return next week after the Kansas race. Maybe this single move by SPEED of adding Spencer will pay dividends for a show rumored to be on the chopping block for next season.
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