Saturday, June 9, 2007

Bestwick Back In The Saddle At Nashville

Last week at Dover, the new host of NASCAR Countdown spent almost the entire thirty minutes asking questions of her ESPN2 on-set analyst, Dale Jarrett. Suzy Kolber was new to NASCAR, and decided that asking questions about anything and everything was the only way to get through the Busch Series pre-race show. She got through it just fine, but for NASCAR fans, it was tough.

This week, the Busch Series stopped at Nashville for a Saturday night race. Allen Bestwick was returned to the NASCAR Countdown anchor chair with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty alongside. The big story of the week was obvious. Our good friend Bill France Jr. had passed away, and this was the first Busch Series race since his death. Luckily, ESPN had all the right people in all the right places to deal with this issue.

Bestwick let Rusty Wallace talk about Bill France as a "fan" of the sport. Then, he let Brad Daugherty explain that France could also be a very good personal friend. After an excellent video tribute by Mike Massaro, ESPN's play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch and analyst Andy Petree shared their memories of Mr. France. Over the years, Petree was no stranger to the NASCAR trailer and the "up close and personal moments" crew chiefs often had with the NASCAR boss.

Each of the ESPN announcers had a truly unique perspective on this one man. It was exactly the kind of honest and emotional outpouring of respect which Mr. France deserved. It also required each on-air "talent" to step-away from the script and speak from the heart on possibly the most difficult topic of the year.

The network had all their NASCAR "big boys" on display, and they each lent credibility to ESPN's NASCAR Countdown with their years of NASCAR experience. This was the type of beginning to this show that fans deserve to see each and every race. This was not a week for Suzy Kolber to ask Dale Jarrett how it feels to go fast or if the race car has air conditioning.

Last week at Dover, Kolber switched the focus of NASCAR Countdown almost totally to the NEXTEL Cup Series. Not knowing anything about the sport, one might feel that this could be expected. Unfortunately for the Busch Series, this is their only pre-race show, and they were basically not even mentioned.

The Daly Planet has a column from June 2nd detailing the fact that somehow ESPN had decided the big story of the week was that Dale Earhardt Jr. had signed Jeremy McGrath to a driver development contract. This story was weeks old, and had absolutely nothing to do with the Busch Series. All the actual Busch Series stories were sitting right there at the track, untold and ignored.

This week at Nashville, Bestwick introduced the starting line-up right out of commercial. Rusty's son Steve was on the pole, and he has been exciting and controversial all season long. Bestwick then did a full track description, and even recapped qualifying with video highlights. With lots of NEXTEL Cup drivers trying to pull double-duty, Mike Massaro interviewed Carl Edwards who had arrived by helicopter with only minutes to spare for his qualifying effort. This was strong Busch Series information provided without the feeling of being overshadowed by the NEXTEL Cup gang.

This stand-alone Busch race allowed ESPN to finally focus on the series that they paid millions to acquire, and they did. Rusty Wallace shared his memories of how the Busch Series "saved" his career and gave him the toe-hold in NASCAR to become a superstar. He said "the Busch Series builds character." That is the message that The Daly Planet has been trying to get to ESPN all season long. No one is tuning-in to see a NEXTEL Cup practice session with a checkered flag at the end. Fans want to know who the new guys are, why there are here, and where they came from. The stories are right in front of ESPN's face.

As Bestwick transitioned to the team in the announce booth, once again it was clear that this role as the host of NASCAR Countdown is perfect for him. What problem ESPN has with him is unknown. Why the network is inserting a busy "non-NASCAR" football reporter into the mix is unknown. What is known is that ESPN has tried Chris Fowler, Brent Musburger, and Erik Kuselias in this role since February and they have all failed miserably.

ESPN adamantly refuses to accept a "NASCAR guy" like Bestwick as their host. It must be an "ESPN guy" like Fowler, Musburger, Kuselias, or now Kolber. This is despite the fact that all the "ESPN guys" have known absolutely nothing about NASCAR. Let me say that again. The "ESPN guys" assigned to host NASCAR Countdown have known absolutely nothing about NASCAR. I think Chris Fowler might still be in shock.

What does that tell the NASCAR fans? What does that tell the NASCAR management? ESPN was the network that promised to "partner" with NASCAR and continue the growth of the sport. Now we see flat TV ratings and empty stands at Busch races. How is it possible that the "2 + 2 = 4" concept is somehow lost on this network? Would ESPN take an "ESPN guy" who knew nothing about Major League Baseball and have him host Baseball Tonight? Never. The fans and the media would eat him alive.

But, this is NASCAR. The Daly Planet is the only site currently dealing with NASCAR TV issues on a regular basis. ESPN will never criticize itself, and the other networks will never criticize it. To NASCAR writers like Jenna Fryer and Ed Hinton, its all about the racing, not the TV shows. There will be no help from the NASCAR Media Center, even though The Daly Planet is read there every day. Thanks again for the "anonymous" notes of encouragement.

With TNT starting NEXTEL Cup coverage Sunday, ESPN continuing Busch coverage, and SPEED covering the Trucks, don't look for any open and honest discussions of these TV topics anywhere else...but right here. Only you can make a difference in what you see on TV when NASCAR is the subject matter. This season, many NASCAR TV issues have been affected, and many changes have been made, because of your feedback.

Instead of sending an email to ESPN's NASCAR Now and taking a chance that someone is reading it, post your comments here and know that top TV executives, NASCAR journalists, and influential people in racing stop here every day. Let's give praise where it is due, and work for change where it is needed.

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