Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Now Confirmed By TNT: Weber Out For Last Two Races (Updated)

Bill Weber is gone from the NASCAR on TNT coverage for the final two Sprint Cup Series events on the network. TNT confirmed this with The Daly Planet on Wednesday morning.

Weber was scheduled to call the Wide-Open coverage for the network from Daytona on Saturday night. The summer race in Daytona is TNT's showcase event for the network's six race TV package.

Ralph Sheheen will handle the play-by-play duties for Daytona and Chicago with Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach alongside. TV ratings for the Sprint Cup Series race from Loudon, NH were up slightly and that may have played a role in this decision.

Weber was involved in a late night incident last Friday night at the TNT hotel in Manchester, NH. It spilled-over into Weber being sent home by TNT executives on Saturday and now his release from the TV package.

TNT has been tight-lipped about the issue and gave no indication whether or not Weber would continue with the network in 2010. Here is the official TNT release:

Bill Weber will not be part of TNT's NASCAR coverage of the Cup Series for the network’s last two races. Ralph Sheheen will handle play-by-play duties for The Coke Zero 400 in Daytona and the 400 from Chicagoland. Sheheen will be calling the races alongside analysts Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach in the booth.

Several reporters suggested that this was coming, but TDP waited until the official information came from the TV network that held Weber's contract.

Click here for a great story from SPEEDtv's Jade Gurss about Sheheen and his Loudon experience.

2PM Update: Adam Alexander has been added as a pit reporter for TNT's coverage of Daytona. He will replace Ralph Sheheen who will handle the play-by-play duties.

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Waltrip's Monday Night Future May Change

He is a franchise for SPEED who dates back to the early days of the network being called SpeedVision. He is an institution who has outlasted multiple show hosts, many panelists and several US Presidents.

He has survived tough personal issues, a devastating start to his Sprint Cup Series team and several mediocre seasons behind the wheel. Now, he appears to be on the verge of another major change that may well affect his TV career.

Michael Waltrip Racing is scheduled to make a major announcement next week. It is widely rumored that Waltrip will remove himself from driving in 2010 and hand Martin Truex Jr. the keys to the #55 car. This will allow Waltrip to focus on his team ownership and his TV career in the broadcast booth.

It was Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader who partnered with Waltrip for many years on Monday nights. The show on both SpeedVision and SPEED had several different names as the sponsors changed for NASCAR's top series. It began as Inside Winston Cup Racing from a hole-in-the-wall studio at Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC.

Over the seasons, TV executives had also come and gone behind the scenes. Johnny Benson was rudely dismissed from the show without as much as a goodbye or video tribute. Benson did not have a Cup Series ride and the former SPEED management wanted younger Cup drivers on the show.

Eventually, Schrader also was eliminated when the program became This Week in NASCAR and moved to the new High Definition SPEED studios in north Charlotte. Schrader also no longer drove in the Cup Series, so he could react to the highlights but was now unable to speak from a first-hand perspective.

If Waltrip steps away from driving in 2010, he may join the list of former panelists who are no longer active in the series. In all the years that the show has aired, there has never been a Cup Series owner as a regular panelist, except for Waltrip.

Chad Knaus was the first non-driver to participate in the show on a regular basis. He brought a spark and a new perspective to the program that is missed when only Greg Biffle and Waltrip are on the show. Having a crew chief's view really rounds-out what the drivers are telling host Steve Byrnes.

Ironically, the first video clip on this Monday's show was Waltrip getting spun at Loudon by Scott Speed. Waltrip finished the race in 24th position and is currently 32nd in points for the 2009 season. The good news is that none of that seems to affect his TV presence.

Over the years, Waltrip has always been "the show" on Mondays and that continues. Now, paired with Byrnes, Waltrip runs a string of inside jokes during the show that almost always has his fellow panelist looking confused. Monday was no exception.

TWIN is now in HD, on a big TV studio set and surrounded by fancy artwork and graphics. In a way, it has become like many other modern TV sports shows. Stripped of the quirkiness that included the regular dumpster pick-up, Waltrip operating the replay control and Allen Bestwick on the verge of a stroke, the show is searching for a new identity.

SPEED provided a big boost when they allowed the program to begin showing the highlights of the weekend's race first and then previewing the next race. Having SPEED demand that the preview lead the show was a big mistake and put the show behind in credibility and viewership.

Now, things are hitting a comfortable stride with viewers. Knaus and Biffle are known quantities who speak well and are comfortable with Waltrip's hijinks. Byrnes is a steady presence who SPEED viewers see regularly on the NASCAR trail and comes to the show with tremendous racing credibility.

While the technical issues have come a long way, Monday's program still suffered from the audio troubles of this season. When the first highlights were rolled, the NASCAR Media Group tried to mix the "natural sound" of the cars under the commentary. The zooming of the cars drowned-out the announcers.

On the next video clip, loud rock music rolled under the pit crew highlights. Once again, it was hard to hear the panelists until the video was over and the music stopped. Then, the race highlights had both the rock music and the "natural sound" of the cars. Needless to say, it just did not work.

One element that may affect this is the studio layout. The talent wear clip-on Lavaliere-style microphones but have to turn their heads each time to speak to a different member of the panel. Poor Greg Biffle was in the middle and swung his head from side-to-side during the entire show. It might be time for a change.

TWIN provided a solid recap of all three races from the weekend along with some great features and a preview of the upcoming Daytona race. Drawing from the NMG library, this show cannot be beat for exclusive footage and outstanding editing.

There is little doubt that the Monday TV franchise for SPEED will continue next season. However, there may be some issues to iron-out before the 2010 shows begin in February. We will all know next week if one of those issues involves a certain Sprint Cup Series owner who may well retire as a driver.

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Ralph Sheheen And Double-File Restarts Save Loudon

The biggest story of Sunday was supposed to be the threat of rain. As it turned out, rain was the last thing on the minds of the TV crew at the start of the telecast.

Play-by-play announcer Bill Weber had been involved in an incident at his hotel late Friday night and had been sent home. TNT did a great job of hiding that issue until Sunday morning, when (click here) this brief statement was released.

Weber's absence caused some changes in the on-air line-up. Pit road reporter Ralph Sheheen is a TV veteran and he was asked to move into the play-by-play position for this event. Unofficially, the Weber suspension is for one race. We will pass along Weber's status for the upcoming Dayonta event when TNT makes it official.

TNT's own Marc Fein expanded his duties from hosting the one hour pre-race show to handling everything right up to the green flag. He hosted NASCAR on TNT Live with Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds and then handled the Countdown to Green show with Wally Dallenbach.

Fein has come a very long way from his first season of NASCAR coverage. On this Sunday, Fein bridged the gap left by Weber and handled the entire pre-race like a pro. While TNT never even mentioned Weber, the professional approach to the pre-race telecast set the tone for the race coverage.

Several weeks ago, Sheheen was the guest host on This Week in NASCAR on SPEED. After a couple of minutes, his presence was not an issue. Like a good basketball referee, Sheheen lets others have their time in the spotlight and just works to keep order.

On this day, it was apparent that Petty and Dallenbach were going to experience a very different on-air dynamic than Weber brings to the table. Sheheen was consistent from the start with his calling of the action and ability to let both analysts speak their mind. It was certainly a breath of fresh air.

Petty and Dallenbach continue to present a very different kind of commentary. Two very distinctive personalities have managed to blend into an enjoyable TV presence. One key to their success is the continual information provided to the booth by Larry McReynolds from the infield.

TNT allows all the members of the TV team to speak freely. This allows the pit reporters to interact with McReynolds in the infield as well as the trio in the announce booth. This race had the potential early to be another slip and slide COT event. Then, the restarts and the commercials began.

After some early boredom, a pattern emerged that should be validated when the TV commercial totals are posted over at on Monday. TNT was just forcing commercial breaks into this telecast early on. The situation was similar to last year's race, where we questioned if this had something to do with the upcoming Wide Open coverage from Daytona.

TNT's remaining pit reporters hustled to get the stories and things worked out well on pit road. The triple-splits on the pit stops really served to show fans the various strategies and ESPN should have taken notice. With so much passing on pit road under caution, this coverage was critical.

Petty is not afraid to speak his mind and he did so once again from start to finish. He has worked very hard to invite NASCAR fans to have fun during this six race stretch. In addition to riding his motorcycle to this event, Petty continually communicated with the fans directly via Twitter as did Marc Fein during the race.

NASCAR's new restart rules injected just the right touch of excitement into this race and created stories for the TV team that lasted long after each new restart. This new dynamic lent itself to fans getting more interested in who was where because now it actually mattered.

Rain continued to be a threat, but TNT followed the lead of other NASCAR TV partners and did not update the weather radar once the race was underway. In NASCAR's TV world, viewers only know the rain is falling when the caution flag comes out.

In the end, the Logano victory will keep fans talking until Daytona and give the sport a week of solid news coverage. TNT debuts the Wide Open commercial-free coverage on Saturday night once again this season. With RaceBuddy and continuous coverage on TV, the next Sprint Cup race may prove to be an elusive look into how NASCAR TV should be, but will apparently never be in the near future.

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Huge Wednesday Of NASCAR TV Stories For ESPN (Mayfield Wins In Court - Updated)

Update: New post is up with the official info about Weber being released from his TNT duties for this season.

Update 2: Jeremy Mayfield has won his temporary injunction against NASCAR and is free to race in Daytona. NASCAR Now on ESPN2 is at 5PM ET.

Normally, Wednesdays are a little bit of a slow news day in the NASCAR world. Trucks are on the road, suitcases are being packed and weather forecasts are being checked. Well, not this week. Wednesday is about to explode with news and ESPN will be the lone TV source for NASCAR fans.

Several big racing-related topics are going to be on the minds of many. Jeremy Mayfield will square-off with NASCAR over his drug suspension in US District Court. The latest bombshell was that NASCAR sent Mayfield's original urine sample to an independent lab and the testing results were the same. Meth and Mayfield may well be linked like Aaron Fike and heroin by Wednesday afternoon.

While not directly a NASCAR story, this item led the Tuesday edition of NASCAR Now and has huge implications on the American racing scene. The George family has removed IRL head Tony George from his position as President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This cuts his ties with the Hulman-George company's finances and forces the IRL to suddenly balance its own checkbook.

Robin Miller from SPEED broke this story several weeks ago and then appeared on NASCAR Now wearing a vintage t-shirt that said "Got SPEED?" The details of his story have now been confirmed, but the fallout for open wheel teams and drivers is only just beginning. Miller suggested that Tony George had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars from the Hulman-George company into his IRL efforts.

Update: Tony George story is in regular rotation on ESPN's SportsCenter today.

Recently, Danica Patrick's name has been all over the NASCAR media. Jimmy Spencer said on SPEED's RaceDay that Patrick could never make it in the Sprint Cup Series. Legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler said on Wind Tunnel that she might bring fans back to the track in droves with her presence in NASCAR. Either way, the Tony George news will no doubt fuel the Danica flames.

Finally, TNT will eventually have to release a statement and clear the air where Bill Weber is concerned. Everyone has problems in life. If the incident involving Weber in Manchester, NH last week ends his TNT career, his life will go on. If he returns in Daytona after an apology to those involved, his life will still go on.

NASCAR Now has been good this season at dealing with touchy subjects like this in a straightforward manner. Quoting TNT's eventual statement on the matter will work just fine. If Mike Joy or Jerry Punch had suddenly gone missing from the air, fans would wonder why. Clearing this issue up once and for all will be a welcome relief.

ESPN has done a good job of using ESPNEWS for breaking stories like the Mayfield lawsuit. It should be interesting to see if the Tony George or Bill Weber stories migrate over to that network inside the auto racing update.

NASCAR Now on Wednesday will be at 5PM ET and hosted by Nicole Manske. She often seems to be at the helm when a lot of motorsports news is breaking and this show should be jam-packed. The program repeats at midnight ET/9PM Pacific.

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