Thursday, August 9, 2007

Best "NASCAR Now" This Season...Again!

What did they put in the water at ESPN? Something has gotten the NASCAR Now gang pointed in an entirely new direction. They are suddenly heading toward the "good side" of the NASCAR TV world at a high rate of speed.

After a super Wednesday show, NASCAR Now came storming out of the box on Thursday with a show that featured ground-breaking interviews and an acknowledgement that NASCAR is much bigger than its three national touring series.

This new version of the show bangs into the news as quickly as possible, with Thursday's show featuring both "Insider" Angelique Chengelis and "Analyst" Stacy Compton in a free-flowing conversation with host Ryan Burr. This mix was great, and Burr led the team through a wide variety of stories with great information, including much of it coming from Compton.

Speaking of something in the water, Brad Daugherty appeared in the next segment and just started dropping bombshells all over the place. First, he said NASCAR needs to dump their road course races in both the Cup and Busch Series completely. Then, after praising Montoya as the best road course "talent" in the garage, he picked Jeff Gordon to win The Glen because of the dreaded COT. On the Busch side, he clearly said Montoya was "head and shoulders" above the rest of the Busch Series COT.

As The Daly Planet said yesterday, we don't know what ESPN did to Daugherty to wake him from his season-long slumber, but keep on doing it. Not being a news "Insider," not being a feature reporter, and not being a veteran driver, both Daugherty and ESPN have struggled to define his role as "the voice of the fans." Now, in only two shows, he has made more opinionated and definitive statements than he has all year long.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Daugherty has an extensive and very unique NASCAR background as a fan, a former team owner, and a former NASCAR executive. The comments on his personal relationship with the late Bill France Jr. after his passing were extraordinary. ESPN needs to encourage Daugherty to speak-out, and slowly move Tim Cowlishaw back to Around The Horn where his sort of "experience" can be put to good use. He functions much better with a clock, points, and a referee.

Veteran NASCAR Now watchers might have had to be helped up off the floor when footage of NASCAR's Grand National West Series came on the screen. Brian Ickler was being featured, and some footage of him on the track was a good start to mending fences with NASCAR's regional series. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Just like that, there he was. NASCAR Now had a NASCAR regional racer from the West Coast on a liveshot in a show one day before Watkins Glen. Did anyone else feel the earth stop turning...just for a second? Young Mr. Ickler was smooth as silk and had a strong showing in personality and racing experience in his interview with Burr.

Then, the show actually recapped the current West Series point standings. Will wonders never cease? There is a tremendous world of NASCAR regional racing at ESPN's fingertips, and they could easily become the source for NASCAR regional highlights and information should they commit to doing so. With the season that Whelen Modified Division driver Donny Lia is having this year, having him on the show would really signal a commitment to the type of "diversity" that viewers would love.

Craftsman was smart enough to buy a commercial sponsorship on NASCAR Now, which was seemingly the only way ESPN would even acknowledge the Truck series existed. Thursday, Burr not only showed highlights from the previous race, but interviewed Tim Sauter on the phone about the upcoming Nashville race. That is exactly the type of "one-two" punch the show needs to maintain its credibility.

As The Daly Planet said earlier this year, DJ Copp has been the biggest surprise of NASCAR Now. Originally, trying to sell fans the idea of a "front tire changer" as a NASCAR expert was tough. Over time, the soft spoken Copp has proven to fans he knows his stuff, not only on pit road but about the nuances of the sport in general. His information is always interesting.

This week, Copp re-stated the issues with pit stops on a road course, confirmed again his dislike that NASCAR runs them, and re-enforced his love of attending local stock car races in the areas in which he travels. His gentle reminders to those "non-racing types" on NASCAR Now that he is a true "stock car" fan always brings a smile to me at home. Nice way to make a point, just attend races.

There is no way to avoid the Vault Cola "driver pick'ems," but at least Burr keeps this sales feature fast-paced and interesting. Stacy Compton always throws in good points while he makes his "picks," and when done right...this feature can be quick.

So, in one show we first got all the latest news directly from the reporters and experts first-hand. Then, we got strong commentary on a wide variety of NASCAR topics relating to this weekend's races, road courses in general, and that Montoya might be fast but Jeff Gordon is going to be faster in a COT.

Out of the blue, a NASCAR West Series driver showed-up in person, and was interviewed about...a regional series. The best part was, the host had his information correct, asked good questions, and did it all...without a script.

The Truck Series then got promoted for a race on SPEED with a video highlights package and a live phone interview with Tim Sauter, a series driver. DJ Copp showed up, reviewed the pit road issues, and talked about his favorite short tracks. Finally, Stacy Compton picked a winner and we all went home.

Can you believe ESPN packed all this into a thirty minute show? This was absolutely the best NASCAR Now to date, including the former "absolutely the best" show from Wednesday. Whether ESPN has finally hit its stride or they wiped-out the production team and started fresh, who cares?

This is what NASCAR fans deserve, what they will support, and what they want from their "NASCAR TV network of record." It may be coming at a perfect time for the network, and now that fans have seen the ability of ESPN to produce a show of this caliber, they will not accept anything less. After Wednesday and Thursday's efforts, all I can say

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