Monday, February 23, 2009

Ricky Craven Finding A Home At ESPN

Last season on ESPN2's NASCAR Now, Ricky Craven was used as a part-time analyst. He would appear on select Monday night shows and sometimes lend his expertise to the Sunday programs as well.

In the Monday format, Craven would be paired with two other panelists and the program host, Allen Bestwick. On Sundays, Craven would be alone in the studio with a single host. All of Craven's appearances originated from the Bristol, CT network studios.

This year, it seems that Craven's hard work is being rewarded by the network as he has been featured in both of the Monday "roundtable" editions of NASCAR Now. Last week he was joined by Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham. This Monday it was Evernham and fan favorite Randy LaJoie.

This group works well together because of their diverse personalities. All of them clearly respect Bestwick, who continues to ask the right questions and address the issues still lingering from the weekend.

It is Craven, however, who has begun to stand out with his comments. Here are some from the Monday show:

On Matt Kenseth's final pit stop: "There's more ways to lose races on pit road than there are to win. You need to be nearly perfect. The 17 team is as close to perfect right now as you can get."

About the final restart: "A great indication of a good, strong race car is restarts. If Jeff Gordon comes out of the pits first, I think we would be talking about Jeff Gordon winning the race. I think the cars were that equal."

On Kenseth's focus on the final laps: "I don't think he wins this race if he had not won the Daytona 500. What the heck? He's got the wind at his back. If he loses or finishes second the world does not come to an end. He just won the Daytona 500."

On the first and second place finishers: "How good a weekend did Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have? Well, they beat Kyle Busch."

About Kyle Busch: "I have seen him drive cars all across the country. It does not matter what he is in, he is that fast. He finished third (in California) not only because of his driving talent, but because he perfected what he needed (on his car) throughout the course of the race."

On the Las Vegas track: "Speaking of change, it's always difficult. They have reconfigured the track and the progressive banking, I think, is the wave of the future. It gives you options and drivers love options. But like Ray said, the track has to age a little bit to be able to get better racing."

Craven has always been a class act and continues to contribute to the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR section as a columnist. Click here for a link to his latest column that contains many of the same themes as his NASCAR Now comments.

It is always interesting to see ESPN focus on developing a new talent and give them an opportunity to shine. Craven certainly seems to be making the most of this moment in time. Apparently, ESPN also likes the way things are going as it was just announced that Craven, Evernham and LaJoie will return as the "expert panel" next week for the program on Monday, March 2 at 5PM ET.

Have you watched Ricky Craven on ESPN? What is your opinion of his analysis and commentary on the first two races of the 2009 season? We welcome your comments.

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SPEED Still Dialing-In New HD Studios

This Week In NASCAR is one of the programs coming from the new SPEED HD studios in the northern part of the Greater Charlotte area. TV viewers can also watch The SPEED Report and Wind Tunnel on Sundays. While these two programs seem to be working quite well, SPEED is still trying to dial-in TWIN.

Several production issues were addressed since the last program, including the movement of the panelists closer together on the set which was very helpful. It is also clear after the Monday program that the lighting, the make-up and the audio continue to be challenges.

Michael Waltrip and special guest Aric Almirola joined host Steve Byrnes for this program. This trio turned out to be a good mix. Once Almirola got warmed-up, he turned out to be very TV-friendly with a good sense of humor. He also seemed to be able to handle Waltrip's dominant personality with no problems.

Byrnes ran the panel through the format which was very wisely switched last season to present the Sunday race highlights first. Both drivers added good comments and although Waltrip continues to reference his team a tad too often, Almirola and Byrnes balanced him quite well through the race review.

Make-up in a High Definition TV studio is tough to do. From local station anchors to soap operas, the TV make-up profession is going through some significant changes. Click here for an MSNBC article about the challenges that this new technology has brought to the on-camera personalities. Airbrushing vs. standard hand application is an issue that SPEED will no doubt have to decide sooner rather than later.

The new SPEED studio is big and TWIN continues to have audio problems. Mixing a very vocal announcer like Steve Byrnes with a low-key panelist like Almirola is tough to do. Add in the fact that the voices echo slightly when the volume gets high and this is a challenge that SPEED will no doubt address for the next program.

The real problem for regular viewers of TWIN is that Waltrip and Chad Knaus really clicked last season and that makes it tough to watch the other combinations of talent. Biffle has come a long way, but the combination of a crew chief and a driver really works well on this program.

The good news is that Knaus and Waltrip will reunite on Monday, March 2nd at 8PM for the next episode of This Week in NASCAR on SPEED.

If you watched this show, tell us how you enjoyed the new studio and the program in general. Just click the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, so profanity and hateful speech will cause your comment not to be published.

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The NASCAR On Fox Crew Grinds It Out

The letdown after Daytona is always interesting. The meager Saturday attendance at the Auto Club Speedway was the first sign that this was going to be a very long weekend of racing. Even with a doubleheader, the fans stayed away.

As usual, it was up to SPEED to set the table for the NASCAR on Fox team. Hours of programming ended with a disjointed RaceDay program that actually overlapped the live Fox pre-race show by thirty minutes.

Kenny Wallace has suddenly decided to lecture the TV viewers at every opportunity. Jimmy Spencer can barely put two words together and John Roberts is having a tough time directing traffic. The saving grace for RaceDay this season has been Wendy Venturini and Hermie Sadler.

These two have combined to form a cohesive crew that can handle a wide variety of assignments in a live TV program format. Venturini continues to grow in her prominence as a reporter who can tackle serious issues on the fly. Sadler continually uses his sense of humor to his advantage and is tremendously improved over last season.

This pair ended the program with live interviews of Cup drivers as they moved through the red carpet set-up to allow them to interact with the fans before driver introductions. Just like the pit walks Venturini used to do, it made for good TV that no other network offers.

The transition to the Hollywood Hotel signaled the difference in audiences and approaches to the sport. Chris Myers, Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip cater to a much broader audience and address only the larger issues in NASCAR. This Sunday, Waltrip spoke with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sounding more like a concerned father than a reporter, Waltrip drew comments from Junior in regard to his struggles at Daytona. Perhaps, the most telling was Waltrip pretending to be Rick Hendrick and suggesting Junior ease up on his "outside interests" and concentrate solely on racing.

Once Mike Joy and the race crew took over, they were in for a very long night. Rain delayed the race several times and never really allowed the action on the track to materialize. Kudos to the TV team for hanging in there and staying steady as the racing action tried to slowly lull fans across America to sleep.

Fox used Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel, Jeff Hammond at the cut-a-way car and even replayed a piece of the Earnhardt interview during some of the delays. The pit reporters offered all the information they could, but there were simply no stories to follow.

One interesting aspect to the broadcast was the decision by Fox to update the Oscar winners as they were announced. Addressing the movie fans who had chosen to watch NASCAR was a smart move. Unfortunately, Fox could not make the action on the track more exciting by simply opening an envelope.

Fox continues to feature the cars at the front of the pack and update the favorites. Those fans whose driver and team did not fall into those categories found themselves continually reading the scoring ticker and never hearing their driver mentioned. More full field rundowns would have been a great addition to this telecast.

Digger is always an issue. The announce team tried for a while to laugh at the animation, but then just let Digger do his thing while they talked about the racing action. The placement of the animation was better, but the distraction of meaningless movement really is now officially annoying.

The best part of this race was Darrell Waltrip. He stayed consistently interested and excited about this event from his appearance on the pre-race show through the final lap. Waltrip has developed an ability to find and then point out the parts of the race that perhaps might be overlooked by cameramen and even the Fox producer.

Time and time again Waltrip pointed out specifics that were then followed-up by the production team and paid off completely. Fox chose not to use as much in-car audio as viewers get from ESPN and even stayed away from the in-car camera hysteria that has sometimes troubled this production team.

All of this allowed Waltrip to team with Joy and McReynolds to offer a balanced and interesting broadcast. Each of the three has a very clearly defined role and it worked very well during this long and difficult telecast.

Did you hang in there and watch the entire race? What did you think of the Fox telecast and what would you like to see added to the coverage? We value your opinion. Just click the comments button below and add your thoughts.

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Monday TV Notes:
5PM ET - NASCAR Now on ESPN2: Allen Bestwick hosts with Ray Evernham, Ricky Craven and Randy LaJoie. Program re-airs at 9PM Pacific Time.
8PM ET - This Week In NASCAR on SPEED: Aric Almirola is the special guest along with Michael Waltrip and host Steve Byrnes for this program. Show re-airs at 9PM Pacific Time.

Stories to read:
Bored With The TV Broadcast? (The NASCAR Insiders)

Quote of the day:
"I shouldn't even have to say it, but I will. A 3:15 p.m. local time start meant that NASCAR absolutely wasted two hours, at least, during which cars could have been racing without rain. At some point we need a final decision on who runs this sport - NASCAR or television." David Poole, Charlotte Observer (click here).

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