Friday, May 11, 2007

ESPN's Busch Series At Darlington: The Cream Finally Rises

Andy Petree said it best. "The cream seems to rise to the top at this racetrack." With about twenty-five laps to go, things at Darlington were absolutely cooking. ESPN had finally put together a solid performance from the infield, pit road, and booth announcers. Things on the track were intense and the field was just "hauling the mail." Darlington has a way of making everyone look good...for a while.

After Allen Bestwick set the tone for the broadcast with an outstanding pre-race show, Dr. Jerry Punch settled in as the play-by-play announcer. Punch had been on vacation, and was replaced by Marty Reid. Many fans and The Daly Planet noticed that Reid fit in immediately with both Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett in the TV booth. Punch now returned to the air with the bar clearly set, and he worked hard to keep his comments on track and focused. Many of the phrases that Punch was known to repeat endlessly in his early attempts at play-by-play are now gone, and he is rounding into a veteran leader.

Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree continue to be a great combination. This crew chief and driver perspective really works well, and these two have hit it off since DJ stepped into the booth. Many Daly Planet readers belive DJ and Petree compare quite favorably with Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip from NASCAR on Fox. On tonight's Busch Series broadcast, DJ and Andy were fantastic.

Continuing to be key to the solid coverage of this series is the pit reporting and the directing. With a rotating group of reporters, the pit road coverage has been surprisingly informative. Even newcomer Shannon Spake has enjoyed a nice high-profile presence on the telecasts with ESPN showing confidence in her ability to speak to the "big boys" from NEXTEL Cup and handle challenging interviews.

The directing was outstanding for 99% of the race, and featured even better in-race reporting, "split pit" coverage, and an aggressive non-stop approach to covering the actual racing on the track. On the flip side, the "full throttle" feature still uses too many cars, and continues to be confusing. What is the point? As with the challenges facing the NASCAR on Fox gang earlier this season, ESPN missed inserting graphics as the top cars finished, and then cut-a-way from the field even as the announcers tried to continue calling the race to the checkers. Maybe we really don't need to see the winner slowing down while the remainder of the field is at full throttle racing to the line. That was a tough one to take, and I missed my driver finishing even though he was on the lead lap.

ESPN's Producer also made a strange choice late in the race. As we have said since Daytona, the "new" ESPN loves violence. When the field was red-flagged for clean-up, the Producer called for footage of Richard Petty's Darlington crash from the 1970's. This included graphic and violent footage of Petty hitting the inside wall, then his head, arm, and shoulder hanging outside the driver's window as the car flipped. It concluded with Petty hanging upside down and unconscious on the front stretch. Despite Jerry Punch's best efforts to tie this footage to the Labonte accident, the graphic violence shown really took the telecast off-track, and reminded viewers that somewhere out there...NASCAR Now was lurking.

On a slightly sour note, the high profile of NASCAR, and the excitement of Darlington, did not deserve to be rushed off the air. Kudos to Shannon Spake for a solid Mark Martin interview, and of course we heard from the winner, but there should have been more. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman talking about their chance encounter. Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and others being interviewed on pit road would have given this telecast the feel of a classic Darlington race on ESPN. Unfortunately, the network had to rush off to boxing, and the closing transition was awkward. If the network rushes off a NEXTEL race to boxing, I believe the ESPN phone may be ringing...with NASCAR on the other end. Boxing?

But, all-in-all a solid effort and a nice night of racing produced by a good group of people practicing very hard for their NEXTEL Cup debut. It seems that the only real challenge for ESPN's NASCAR team is convincing NASCAR Now that Busch Series highlights, and other features on the series, are worth showing. No Busch Series highlights in a one hour NASCAR Now is tough to swallow after a good race with great TV coverage...on the same network.

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ESPN's NASCAR Countdown At Darlington: Bestwick In Charge

The transformation of ESPN's Busch Series pre-race show is almost complete. Only several weeks after making a bold move and installing Allen Bestwick as the host, things on-air have a completely different feel. NASCAR Countdown is now a show worth watching.

When the camera revealed Richard Childress on the set, it was clear that the influence of Bestwick had been felt throughout the garage. After Dale Earnhardt Junior announced his departure from DEI, many NASCAR fans began clamoring for "RC" to hire Junior. Only Bestwick could get "RC" to step-up and be a guest on-set for the entire show. This helped establish the credibility that the network has been striving for since Daytona.

Bestwick sent the broadcast down to reporter Marty Smith, who finally had an interview with Dale Junior. Marty asked great questions and then stepped aside, allowing a still tender Junior to answer in heartfelt and revealing terms. This might have been the best moment of NASCAR Countdown to date. Then, Bestwick and Andy Petree followed-up the interview with direct questions of Childress. ESPN had finally made the connection with the NASCAR fans they had been seeking.

As usual, the pit reporters gave solid pre-race interviews, and the Mother's Day feature on David Stremme's mom was outstanding. What more could a NASCAR fan ask for from a pre-race show? This was simply NASCAR TV the way it should be.

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