Monday, September 17, 2007

The Kinder And Gentler Chase Edition Of "Inside NEXTEL Cup"

Something was different right from the start. Dave Despain's nervous laugh was gone. Michael Waltrip was quiet and low-key. Kenny Schrader was having fun. Greg Biffle was talking about his race. The Monday "Chase" edition of Inside NEXTEL Cup was on the air at SPEED, in a much kinder and gentler version.

It may have been a stern lecture by a network executive. It might have been because it was a beautiful day in New Hampshire and almost everybody raced. It also might have had something to do with the fact that around ten shows remained in the season, and perhaps in the future, of this venerable series.

Inside NEXTEL Cup was on the air and there was no sniping. There was no ignoring the host, badgering the guest driver, or ego trips. Three drivers and a moderator sat down and talked racing for one hour. They even had some fun and some laughs along the way.

This leads to one very simple question. What took SPEED so long to sort this out? Over the course of the season, The Daly Planet and many SPEED viewers have voiced their concerns about this series on this site and on the message boards.

Fans wanted this show to get better. Fans wanted this show to sort itself out. What they did not want was for Michael Waltrip to continue his antics. What they did not want was an angry and tired Kenny Schrader who was not even at the racetrack "phoning it in." What they did not want was Brian Vickers trying to play with the big boys like he had knowledge beyond his years.

Other than the one hour NASCAR Now on ESPN2, this is it for NASCAR TV programming on the Monday night after the race. That is what made this show so powerful over time, even when SpeedVision was a tiny cable network just in its infancy. The word spread by Internet message board and word of mouth about a show "you just have to see."

There was a time when the water cooler talk for racing fans was "did you hear what Mikey said last night?" It was always funny, sometimes crazy, and always entertaining semi-chaos that showed off another side of the drivers that the fans loved. That feeling has been gone since Allen Bestwick and Johnny Benson were dismissed by a new SPEED VP who himself is now gone.

The new show, hosted by Dave Despain, struggled to get an identity in the shadow of the old classic program. While fans wanted the old style fun, things had changed. The format of the show was altered and the guest and the fun features eliminated. There were also a lot of changes taking place with the panelists.

This season, the "regulars" Waltrip and Schrader find themselves in very new positions. The strain of this year's disappointments resulted in a stretch where a very angry and arrogant Michael Waltrip showing up with an agenda.

He only liked Goodyear and NASCAR, everything else was awful. Of course, Toyota was above all this and Waltrip was given free reign to interject Toyota references, which he did frequently. Big hair, tired eyes, and an ego set on high defined him at that time.

Schrader suffered the same fate as Benson, but was not dismissed from the show. Benson lost his Cup ride, and even though he was a veteran and driving in the Truck Series, that did not matter. Schrader drove in the New Hampshire Cup race, but was replaced earlier this season for a wide variety of logistical and performance reasons as a fulltime driver. His weeks on the show during that down time were tough.

As the elder statesman of the show, Schrader epitomizes a type and style of driver that we do not see very much in the Cup ranks these days. Long past his heyday, Schrader is funding a wide variety of other racing activities from his continuing Cup rides. He is possibly the most versatile base of knowledge about auto racing currently appearing on any TV show.

What his future plans are in terms of TV or racing are never discussed on this series. Even as Waltrip continues as an analyst on SPEED's Truck Series races, Schrader is conspicuously absent from the SPEED airwaves. We have not seen him welcomed on Trackside, NASCAR Live, or RaceDay. He is a mystery man.

Now, on this "Chase" Monday Schrader was at attention, well rested, and back in good spirits. Waltrip was shaven, his hair was combed, and nothing on his person was wrinkled. Whether forced or voluntary, for this one night the boys were back in town.

Despain and Biffle made the most of this opportunity. Between the four panelists, the show was the smoothest flowing it had been all season. When Despain talked, everyone stopped. That is the role of the host. In return, Despain allowed continued talk on a wide variety of subjects once the "leash law" had been established.

Biffle is more of a veteran than many people give him credit for, and on this show he asked a lot of questions in addition to offering his opinion. While his TV skills might be lacking, the potential for a strong and well-spoken NASCAR TV personality is there. This program may have been his best in a long while. His opinion was respected, and often sparked other discussions.

Even out of his element, Despain kept the program flowing right up until the end. In every show, there has to be an "alpha male." Someone has to be the person to lead the parade, set the tone, and take the heat. Despain seems to have suddenly discovered he can do that without getting angry or flustered. WindTunnel, this is not.

As this string of final shows winds down, let's hope that SPEED announces soon if this will be the final season of this series. If so, it would be nice to see some of the memories of the past during the final shows, and maybe even a special aired in the off-season. If the series continues, let's hope the network makes some changes in both the format and personnel for next season to liven-up this franchise.

Ten years is a long time for one show to be on the air in today's cable network environment. SpeedVision Executive Producer Bob Scanlon's simple idea of one driver from each manufacturer, one host that knows the sport, and a bunch of video highlights sure did stand the test of time.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.

Mike Massaro Rides To The Rescue

This Monday on ESPN2 was the first time the one hour version of NASCAR Now has included The Chase. Even with all the hype of last week, the Chase actually began in New Hampshire, and this Monday things would finally be in-progress.

Easily moving through a thirty minute program during the week with scripted material, show host Erik Kuselias has struggled on the one hour Monday shows. The NASCAR gang is all back in the greater Charlotte area, and normally Kuselias is alone in the Bristol, CT studios of ESPN2.

The program has mainly consisted of Kuselias talking to a big TV monitor on a wall in the studio that plays host to driver interviews, the NASCAR Now reporters, and the opinions of Tim Cowlishaw and Brad Daugherty. Along with the extensive use of highlights and soundbites from the previous day's race, the show has relied on newcomer Shannon Spake to file a Monday report from Charlotte.

This Monday, Spake's report was already a day old and was taped in New Hampshire. Along with Kuselias, Spake wrapped the profiles of The Chase contenders and their good or bad luck in the race. Unfortunately, this left non-Chasers JJ Yeley, Ryan Newman, and Casey Mears out in the cold even though they finished in the top ten.

In trying to deal with The Chase for the first time, the network has re-discovered the fact that they have several very experienced NASCAR reporters in their midst. Both Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro have been doing the "NASCAR thing" for a long time. They have both been through the highs and lows of this sport professionally and personally. What they both have is a commitment to NASCAR racing.

This season, Bestwick has been moved into the Infield Studio for the Busch Series telecasts on a regular basis. He has also hosted several race telecasts earlier in the year, when Dr. Jerry Punch was on vacation or the schedule was split. A couple of times he has even hosted an episode of NASCAR Now. It seems that for The Chase, Bestwick will be relegated once again to pit road reporting on ABC.

Mike Massaro has hosted NASCAR Now, and contributed to other ESPN networks and media outlets this season. Just like Jerry Punch, ESPN owes Massaro a debt of gratitude for almost single-handedly keeping the ESPN coverage of NASCAR alive during the difficult days several years ago. NASCAR was so angry with ESPN they literally locked Massaro out of the tracks. Luckily, that ESPN administration has passed and tempers have cooled. Several hundred million dollars has a strange way of doing just that.

Back on NASCAR Now, Kuselias has led the show through a dry thirty minutes of NHIS highlights and then a strange interview with Clint Bowyer. Big credit goes to Bowyer for taking a deep breath and keeping a straight face during some of the questions. As usual, Marty Smith came by and did his professional job of delivering the news in a manner that fans can understand. It certainly is hard after seven months to continue to have questions read to Marty one-by-one from the host. Isn't it about time to just "throw" to him for "the news?"

Kuselias then retreated to the Home Depot Garage, which might have seemed like a good idea in a Sales meeting, but in real life...not so much. The orange car on the ESPN2 set surrounded by some tools and a video wall is certainly...interesting. Luckily, when the camera opened up, viewers saw Mike Massaro standing to the left.

All Kuselias has to do was read his scripted questions and get out of the way. That much he can do. Massaro began to talk, without a script or a teleprompter, and things on the show began to change. Once again, just like when Bestwick hosted the program, viewers got the feeling there was finally somebody talking to them who absolutely brought top of the line credentials.

In just an instant, Massaro was on a roll and talking about things that viewers want to know behind-the-scenes. He addressed his comments to both the viewers and Kuselias, and spoke in no uncertain terms. He addressed the Childress drivers, The Chase dynamics, and related many personal conversations he had with the participants.

One of his best comments concerned having both the "racers" and the "Chasers" on the track at the same time. In his own energetic style, he talked about the in-race dynamics and the different scenarios that may play-out as The Chase races on.

In closing, the camera showed Massaro and Kuselias once again in the Home Depot Garage in Connecticut. Massaro was confident and smiling, while all Kuselias could do was mutter that Massaro would be on-hand Mondays in the studio for the rest of The Chase.

The program then re-aired for the third time a profile on Jeff Gordon used on Sunday's NASCAR Now, in the ABC pre-race show, and once again on Monday night. After the mandatory Aerosmith video, it was time to go home.

This program is the most valuable tool for NASCAR to get across the excitement and the true dynamic of what is transpiring in the sport. Not only in The Chase, but for the entire season and into next year. Kuselias alone is crushing, not because of his scripted text, but because his live interviews are beyond rudimentary.

No specifics are ever addressed, no "racing language" is every used, and nothing is every accomplished when they are over. Essentially, its just a big waste of time. With Mike Massaro at ESPN and in the studio, perhaps he can be given an opportunity to step-in and conduct some interviews of these high profile guests as the time left in the season trickles down to single digits.

As one emailer put it, "NASCAR Now does not know what they are missing, because they never had it in the first place." Massaro instantly knows what they are missing, and adds a credible on-set element that has been sorely lacking on this one hour program. Increasing his role can only have positive benefits for the network, and the sport. Right now, ESPN really needs some positive NASCAR exposure.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.