Saturday, May 5, 2007

With Bestwick In Place, ESPN Needs to Fix "NASCAR Now"

One day after Allen Bestwick stepped into the host role for ESPN's NASCAR Countdown, things returned to "normal" at the network. Studio host Erik Kuselias presented the one hour NEXTEL Cup pre-race edition of NASCAR Now. Along for the ride this Saturday morning in the studio were Stacy Compton and Tim Cowlishaw. It was a bumpy ride.

Kuselias faced an audience that was still pumped-up over Bestwick's return to their living rooms. ESPN had shown that their original NASCAR TV "talent experiment" was coming to an end. Things needed to return to a level of credibility and trust that would allow the ESPN NEXTEL Cup telecasts to succeed, because the clock is ticking.

Unfortunately, Kuselias continues to be unable to demonstrate the kind of "politeness" that NASCAR fans have come to expect from professional TV hosts. His treatment of the drivers who did not make the race was crude, and his comments about them saying "honey, I'm home" or watching from their transporters were amateurish and embarrassing. When he deviates from the script, his antagonistic sports radio side shines through clearly.

The NASCAR Now credibility problem was exposed in this show when a tired ESPN veteran Mike Massaro came on to answer the "four on the floor" group of questions from Kuselias. These are scripted in advance, and Kuselias just reads them. Today, Massaro forgot one driver name when answering a question, and asked Kuselias to fill-in the blank for him. The easy answer was Jimmie Johnson. Kuselias did not have a clue, and could not handle this actual request for NASCAR information. He knows nothing about this sport. A flustered Kuselias could offer absolutely no help. He was put on the spot, and revealed to be a fraud.

On March 7th, The Daly Planet ran a column entitled "Those Who Know." At issue was the difference between those who clearly know NASCAR, like Alan Bestwick, Randy Pemberton, or Mike Massaro, and those on the other side. This year, the other side features those who "ESPN says" know NASCAR. This group has featured Erik Kuselias, Doug Banks, Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler, and Tim Cowlishaw. Its a fascinating culture clash occurring inside ESPN.

This problem happens when Kuselias asks if Indy 500 winner Juan Montoya knows "how to win on an oval?" It happens when Kuselias asks Brad Daugherty "which driver is in need of a strong finish in Las Vegas?" It happens when Kuselias questions Mark Martin's personal decision to mentor his son instead of competing at Bristol. It happens when host Doug Banks says its shocking that Kyle Busch's HANS Device "broke." It happens when someone named David Amber shows up on NASCAR Now asking laughable questions of NASCAR drivers. I guess he is an ESPN reporter. People just seem to come and go like the wind, and that is part of the problem.

Marty Smith did not have a presence in this program until the end. Smith summed-up in his own way many of the previous stories that were painfully presented by Kuselias. Smith shifted into high gear, and was off to the races. He put-out more information in his one segment than the entire rest of the program. Its very clear to NASCAR Now viewers that Marty Smith and a new host are keys to this program.

While the other reporters bring solid credentials to the table, Smith is the front-line person who can get and hold the attention of the fan with his information. He is clearly plugged-in to the scene, and whether you like him or not, he tells it like it is. In the re-vamping of this series, Smith needs to assume a stronger role.

With Bestwick hosting the pre-race show, names like Randy Pemberton, Mike Massaro, and ESPN's own Ryan Burr have been mentioned as possible new hosts for NASCAR Now. Put any of those three alongside Stacy Compton, throw in Angelique Chengelis, David Newton, and Terry Blount with the news, and its a strong line-up. When hard-working reporter Shannon Spake is added to the mix, a new host would really have a NASCAR Now line-up that would serve the network well throughout the season.

Let's hope that ESPN strikes while the iron is hot and follows-up on the tremendously positive reviews that Bestwick received on NASCAR Countdown. There has never been a better time for a change that can produce positive results immediately for NASCAR Now and ESPN.

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