Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NASCAR Without TV On Friday Morning

The excitement building up to the big Friday and Saturday night races at the Richmond International Raceway has been right on schedule.

After a season of bickering drivers and complaining crew chiefs, Talladega put the racing back in the sport once again. NASCAR's momentum going into Richmond is fantastic. TV viewers can hardly wait to see this track and the races.

This is the classic "two day show." Open the garage Friday morning and let chaos ensue. Put the cars on the track for practice only one time and then qualify. Race the Nationwide Series on Friday, race the Sprint Cup guys on Saturday and then head home.

This format puts the emphasis on the action that will be taking place on the track on Friday morning. The Nationwide Series has their only practice session from 8:45 to 10:55AM Eastern Time. Immediately following a track inspection, the Sprint Cup cars take to the track at 11AM for a non-stop session that will last until 1PM.

The stories of what is happening in both those sessions will probably be the stories of qualifying and possibly of the race. This little "bull ring" also has a reputation for incidents in practice that will make both these full speed sessions a bit more dangerous than normal.

The Nationwide Series has a fascinating mix of Cup drivers, Nationwide regulars, and new names like Ryan Hackett, Chad Beahr and Andy Ponstein. The practice session with all of these cars on the track should be fun to watch.

Unfortunately, that is going to be a problem. There is no live TV for the only Nationwide Series practice on either ESPN2 or SPEED.

On Friday at 8:45AM, ESPN is showing SportsCenter, ESPN2 has Mike and Mike in the Morning, and ESPN Classic has a vintage NBA film. SPEED has Monster Jam and then PINKS All Out.

While you enjoy one of these fine TV programs the Nationwide Series, featuring a dozen Cup drivers, will be trying to come up-to-speed in Richmond in a non-stop single practice session.

At 11AM, the Cup field will take to the track to try and get dialed-in for one of the toughest races on the schedule. SPEED is the network that televises practice and qualifying for the Cup Series during the NASCAR on Fox portion of the schedule. While the cars are on the track at 11AM, SPEED will be showing...infomercials.

What SPEED has decided to do is tape delay the practice and put a ninety minute version of it on-the-air at 1:30PM. This will follow a thirty minute NASCAR Live and after the practice is replayed there will be the weekly Go or Go Home show.

All of that will then lead into SPEED hosting the back-to-back qualifying sessions for the Nationwide and Cup Series. So, not carrying the live practice sessions lets SPEED make one big NASCAR block, despite the fact that Cup practice actually took place two and a half hours earlier than it is being presented.

Again this season we are seeing the interesting choices and some very public "posturing" as the NASCAR TV partners focus on their own agendas and schedules. Regardless of who offered the TV rights to whom, or what other programming issues are on the table, the only loser in this mix is the NASCAR fans.

Since SPEED does not have any of the actual Nationwide or Sprint Cup points races, why won't the network show the Friday practice sessions live? Monster Jam and PINKS have aired before, and missing an infomercial or two will not affect the network's TV ratings.

As the off-track shows like NASCAR Now, RaceDay and Victory Lane have continued to mature and develop, it is the on-track action that has suffered.

Fans are now used to "dark" practices with no TV. When the ESPN/ABC portion of the Sprint Cup schedule begins, TV viewers will once again not be seeing practice for the final "Chase for the Cup" races. That is simply amazing.

This is not batting practice. It is not football players tossing pre-game passes. No one is running lay-up drills on the court or stretching. This is NASCAR, and the moment that the cars hit the track every single practice lap has meaning in terms of both qualifying and the race. It is especially true in Richmond.

The stories about the sport each week begin when the engines fire for practice and continue through the checkered flag. It is a shame that the NASCAR TV partners and NASCAR itself cannot coordinate the availability of a cable TV network so fans can watch the stories unfold rather than just read about them.

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Daugherty And Moss Tell ESPN It's NASCAR in 2009

The fascinating on-air dynamic of NASCAR Now continued on Wednesday with big news from two very unexpected sources. One of them happens to work for ESPN.

It was host Ryan Burr who started the show by chasing down Randy Moss on the phone and getting an interesting but disjointed explanation that the football player was forming Moss Motorsports and joining NASCAR.

Moss told Burr that he "had seen some" races and heard Joe Gibbs speak about NASCAR. That was apparently enough for Moss to commit his name and his dollars to the Truck Series for the second half of 2008 and fulltime for 2009. Moss was unsure of his driver, his crew chief or the details of the operation, but the announcement was certainly interesting.

It was ESPN commentator Brad Daugherty who followed the story to comment on Moss. After addressing the issues that Moss might be confronting, Daugherty dropped a bombshell of his own. Perhaps, some viewers might have seen this coming.

Daugherty is going racing in 2009 with his own Craftsman Truck Series team and made the official announcement on NASCAR Now. It should be interesting to see how this commitment affects Daugherty's ESPN career.

ESPN's Rusty Wallace already owns a Nationwide Team and Ray Evernham is a long-time Cup owner. Boris Said owns a Roush "satellite" team and is a regular analyst on NASCAR Now. Daugherty would make another ESPN on-air announcer that owned an active team, and it is going to be interesting to see "how much is too much" for the network.

Surprisingly, one of NASCAR Now's favorite interviews is Kyle Busch. He seems to really like being on the show, and Wednesday talked with Burr in his normally enthusiastic and entertaining style. Having him on this show is always a good idea but after his Talladega performance, it was outstanding.

Burr quizzed Busch on the topics that fans wanted to know about, and Busch was a great interview once again. It certainly has been interesting to see Busch learn how to be comfortable on-camera and relate to a host hundreds of miles away.

It was a nice touch to have Rusty Wallace "tag" the piece and add his perspective that Busch was the driver on-a-roll right now and was the man to beat. Wallace tempered his comments by saying Busch was not the best driver on the planet, but the best one on the planet "right now."

Shannon Spake has not been seen on NASCAR Now very much this season, and she came along to update the Kevin Harvick commitment to random drug testing at his company. This issue has really struck a nerve with Harvick, and he continues to put out the message that things need to change.

Spake also addressed the Lepage incident at Talladega with the information that NASCAR had changed the blend line location on Sunday at the track after the big accident on Saturday. Spake also indicated that Lepage was not going to be penalized, but did not point out why. If he did blend at the right point, she did not take the time to make that clear.

Tim Brewer has been trying to lay a weekly foundation for "The Brewer Tour." This pre-produced feature has been a bit disjointed as it stops-by a NASCAR shop and addresses one small issue. The feature is too short, and Brewer is not experienced enough to choose his words efficiently. The idea is good, and it will hopefully get a bit more organized with time.

For those of you who missed the original airing of this program because of the time change from 6 to 6:30PM, the program will re-air at Midnight Wednesday.

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Horse Racing Instead of "NASCAR Now"

This will be a post to discuss the live draw for post positions in the Kentucky Derby that was supposed to end at 6PM.

NASCAR Now was scheduled in that timeslot and the live Derby draw is still on the air at 6:20PM.

Your comments are welcome below as we all watch this on-air issue continue. I have not seen an explanation on the lower third information panel. ESPN is in SportsCenter, and ESPN Classic is in soccer.

Update #1: ESPN2 just ran a promo for SportsCenter at 6:20PM that talked about the show that began at 6PM, so it looks like the Derby show is being "time-shifted." They also used a lower third graphic to say NASCAR Now was coming up next.

Update #2: For those of you just coming home to review the VCR or the DVR for NASCAR Now, you actually have the draw for the Kentucky Derby. NASCAR Now was pushed back to 6:30PM, which loses a lot of viewers who normally record the show.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ESPN's New Defining NASCAR Moment

Big things in TV sports are supposed to take place on the weekend. They are supposed to happen in playoffs and championships. They are certainly not supposed to happen in North Carolina on a Tuesday afternoon.

ESPN has learned a lot from the tough times the network had in 2007 when they waded back into the NASCAR scene. The wholesale changes in both the on and off-track personalities and the increase in the level of commitment to the sport has been nothing short of remarkable.

Dale Jarrett and Allen Bestwick have been leading the new ESPN team trackside. Rusty Wallace has embraced his new role as a commentator and Andy Petree is simply having a spectacular season as an analyst.

Away from the track, the struggles of ESPN's daily show called NASCAR Now last season were well-documented. The result has been an overhaul of the program format and the on-air announcers. Since the series came on-the-air in February, the momentum of this show has been slowly building.

It has been interesting to watch the Connecticut-based ESPN production staff begin to embrace NASCAR as something more than a "southern curiosity." At the forefront of this change has been the addition of Allen Bestwick and Nicole Manske to this series.

While last season's substitute host and ESPNEWS anchor Ryan Burr continues on the show, Bestwick and Manske have brought an entirely new level of professionalism to both the TV series and the network.

NASCAR fans know the recent professional struggles of Bestwick, and have watched him labor to once again become a key element of ESPN's network coverage. His effort has been rewarded this season, as Bestwick has emerged as the leader of ESPN's NASCAR team.

Manske came to ESPN from SPEED with one big question mark on her resume. Could she handle the national spotlight alone as a host and reporter? From her first time on-the-air at Daytona in February, the answer has been yes. Now, three months into her first NASCAR Now season she blends seamlessly into the program.

After a stellar "roundtable" show on Monday, NASCAR Now presented a one hour live special from DEI in Mooresville, NC on Tuesday. It was Dale Earnhardt Day and fans, drivers and family members were on-hand at the shop. For this version of NASCAR Now there were no scripts, no distractions and no hype.

Burr anchored in the studio and Manske handled things at DEI. These two have proven to be effective on-air partners this season. Manske knows how to listen, and she did just that with a wide variety of guests from Kerry Earnhardt to Mark Martin. Listening was something in short supply on this series in 2007.

In this show, ESPN finally also discovered the NASCAR fans. Hearing from Americans who had their own unique and individual stories about Earnhardt Sr. was a very nice touch throughout this show. More fan input will only help to make this series even more "human."

Despite the issues some fans have with Teresa Earnhardt, the commitment of ESPN to originate this program should not be overlooked. Dale Earnhardt Day could simply have been a two minute taped report on the normal thirty minute Tuesday episode of NASCAR Now.

Instead, other ESPN2 programs were moved aside and one hour of NASCAR took center stage as close to primetime as was possible. The show interviewed almost everyone available, and put a very human face on DEI at a time when the company needed a little boost.

Fans may have been most emotional when Burr introduced a tremendous Earnhardt feature that put together a ton of footage from the ESPN vault. Transcending the decades, it put a unique face on a man who meant so much to so many.

Following-up on this feature and finally in his correct on-air role was Dr. Jerry Punch. Given the opportunity to talk about Earnhardt, Punch let the words and the emotions flow. Viewers got the opportunity to see Punch in the environment in which he is most effective. His experience in this sport is second to none, and hopefully he will begin to contribute to NASCAR Now more frequently as a commentator and reporter.

There was no better way to finish-off this program than to bring in Earnhardt's longtime friend and employer Richard Childress. Burr let Childress talk about the off-track personality of "Senior." Childress made it clear that Earnhardt single-handedly had made his RCR company successful. "RC' is a plain-spoken man, and he put the tidal swell of popularity for NASCAR during the final Earnhardt years in good perspective.

Every TV series needs a good defining moment. Fourteen months after it first came on-the-air, NASCAR Now has finally experienced just that. It was not at a racetrack, it was not on a weekend and it was not all from the ESPN studios.

NASCAR and ESPN finally came together in the green grass of the big front lawn at DEI. Amid fans, drivers and family members the TV network discovered it is not High Definition, loud rock music or brightly colored graphics that define NASCAR on TV.

It is simply the ability to understand that at its core, NASCAR is just ordinary people getting together to do what they like to do. On this day, ESPN let the fans and the sport do the talking with memorable results.

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NASCAR TV Partners Snag Sports Emmy Awards

Monday night in New York City the 29th Annual Sports Emmy Awards were given out and NASCAR was well represented. Two of NASCAR's TV partners and its own in-house production group were among the winners.

The NASCAR on Fox gang claimed the Emmy for "Outstanding Live Sports Series."

This is a big category, and included Sunday Night Football, the NBA and the PGA Tour. As we said last season, the Fox crew made great pictures and sound on the Cup races. Add-in a veteran on-air team and the combination speaks for itself.

Many NASCAR fans might cringe when reminded that what may have been their favorite show from NASCAR Images is still on-the-air. NASCAR Images has now become the larger NASCAR Media Group and Beyond the Wheel is now called Quest for the Cup.

That's right, the award winning show that lived for a short while on SPEED is now being produced for VOOM. Once again, the 2007 edition has grabbed the Sports Emmy for "Outstanding Live Event Turnaround."

It was ESPN and Fox that shared honors for the technical work on the NASCAR trail. Both networks received Sports Emmys for "Outstanding Technical Team - Remote." The term remote designates an event that is produced in the field.

As most fans know, NASCAR technical operations for one race have often been compared to the Super Bowl or an Olympic venue. Many companies from in-car camera providers to the folks who build and maintain the production trucks share in this honor.

On the down side, the 2007 Daytona 500 was bested by college football as The Fiesta Bowl took home the prize for "Outstanding Live Sports Special."

Also, the wonderful movie Dale from NMG came up short in the "Outstanding Sports Documentary" and "Outstanding Music Composition" categories. This effort was certainly an award-winner in the minds of many fans.

For some reason, NASCAR Now with Erik Kuselias from last season was not chosen as the "Outstanding Studio Show - Daily." While Inside The NBA on TNT won this round, it might be a very different result next year if ESPN2 can keep the "new" NASCAR Now on its current roll.

There is also a category for "Outstanding Sports Personality." It is divided into play-by-play, studio analyst and event analyst. From 2007, no NASCAR personality appeared in any of these three categories. Perhaps, next year may see Mike Joy, Dale Jarrett and Larry McReynolds names appear on the list.

Finally, ESPN's Draft Track was bested by the new Aim Point technology that The Golf Channel used for PGA and LPGA coverage. TGC won the "George Wensel Technical Achievement Award."

Draft Track has quietly faded from the ESPN coverage, and it will be interesting to see if makes a comeback on the Sprint Cup portion of the ESPN/ABC coverage later this season.

That is basically a wrap-up of most of the Sports Emmy action, with NASCAR coming away with three big category wins. Nominations for the 2008 NASCAR season should be announced in March of next year.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

DEI Plays Host To Manske And Punch

ESPN continues to demonstrate its commitment to NASCAR this season by dedicating a special one hour Tuesday edition of NASCAR Now to Dale Earnhardt Sr. at 6PM Eastern Time.

Down at DEI in Mooresville, NC there will be a day-long celebration of the life of Dale Sr. that will include the fans. This is the seventh such tribute that the company has hosted.

Jerry Punch will be the emcee for the event, and then will join Nicole Manske on-site at DEI for the show. On the guest list will be the current DEI drivers, including Mark Martin. Also on hand will be ESPN analyst Andy Petree. Martin and Petree should be able to continue to tell Earnhardt stories from their many adventures over the years of racing with Senior.

Max Siegel, the top executive at DEI will also be along. He should be able to give fans a great perspective of what is currently going on at DEI in terms of both the racing and the many other outside ventures. It is well-known that one of Siegel's agendas is to "expand the brand" and grow the company in non-racing activities.

Following the expansion of the Monday NASCAR Now to one hour, this special is a nice touch as ESPN begins to stretch the full power of its NASCAR "legs." There are many on-going NASCAR stories relating to hard news and many personality-driven stories that are currently not being covered by any of the NASCAR TV partners.

While SPEED has chosen to focus on the weekend racing activity at the tracks almost exclusively, ESPN is on the air daily. Unfortunately, the network continues to avoid establishing a NASCAR studio facility "down south." Special programs like this one might wake the network up to the fact that there is an entire industry working everyday within a fifty mile radius of shops like DEI.

An ESPN studio in the Mooresville area would create more quality NASCAR content that the network can imagine. It would serve multiple ESPN networks, and be a big hit with the fans.

One can only hope that more on-site programs like this Tuesday special will begin to originate from the area that almost all NASCAR teams call home.

Update: For those of you asking if Ms. Earnhardt will be appearing on NASCAR Now, that will be up to her on Tuesday. Currently, she is not on the guest list for the program. Thanks.

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Talladega Takes A Backseat On TWIN

The debate rages every time that This Week In NASCAR throws the switch from review to preview. Once again on Monday, the SPEED program continued to pull the ultimate bait-and-switch on NASCAR fans.

Two of the key stories from the Sprint Cup race at Talladega involved Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip. Their run at the end of the race and the colossal failure of either to complete that effort were certainly on the minds of the fans.

TWIN had Waltrip and Chad Knaus as panelists on the show and both were ready to talk for the full hour. Unfortunately, after a brief "teaser" about Talladega, the program once again followed the normal format and switched totally to a preview of the upcoming race from Richmond, VA.

Despite the outstanding video previews and footage of the Richmond action, fans still have to adjust to the panel talking about "the future" before the discussion of the past race has even started. Changing gears is tough to do when the other NASCAR TV shows do not follow this type of format. Perhaps, moving things around for one episode might be a good experiment.

Knaus and Waltrip have begun to have fun with each other on this show, and Waltrip has finally found his on-air groove with host Steve Byrnes. The fun is creeping back into this program in the same type of manner that it developed on the original Inside NEXTEL Cup series.

The NASCAR Media Group is also feeling out this show as they produce the series, and things have begun to take shape. The background now contains moving video, the lighting has improved, and the pace has been slowed down slightly. The program needs more camera shots of all three panelists, and the decision to have the two guests either talk to the host or the camera needs to be sorted-out.

Knaus is beginning to be a good match for Waltrip. While Waltrip brings his unique sense of humor and style to the program, Knaus is always trying to be the serious-minded crew chief. This contrast makes for some fun moments, and usually results in Knaus shaking his head in disbelief.

Once the show switched topics to Talladega, fans could see what should have been discussed right up-front. Waltrip, Knaus and Byrnes had a lot of fun with the highlights and the good vibe of this show was back. This included Waltrip "discovering" the truth about several issues he had during the race.

Knaus has proven to be a great student of the sport, and his analytical perspective is a welcome addition. His veteran comments about the racing action proved to be memorable when he discussed Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson coming together late in the event. He and Waltrip also addressed bump-drafting in a very frank manner.

Each week there is a review of some SPEED moments from the weekend and also an edited feature that contains "scanner chatter." This week that was lots of fun, and Knaus and Waltrip "tagged" the feature by saying some of the Cup drivers were "whiners."

The scanner feature transitioned directly into Dave Despain's weekly editorial. Perhaps, Despain could be best-served by emerging directly from a commercial and then letting the show proceed with business as usual.

A feature on Jeff Burton was informative, but interrupted the focus on last weekend's racing. There was a lot of conversation left on the table about Talladega and this is another big issue for this TV series. How many features are too many?

Surprisingly, both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series got very poor treatment. Despite the issues in both events, the highlights were minimal and the time allotted was brief. Certainly, the Nationwide discussion should have been much more substantial and wide-ranging.

As This Week In NASCAR continues to mature, the struggle to prioritize content will no doubt be the primary issue. Had this show featured the three weekend races and then transitioned into a Richmond preview, the results for the viewer may have been very different.

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Champion Roundtable On "NASCAR Now" Delivers

As the new success of NASCAR Now's one hour Monday "roundtable" builds, ESPN2 continues to shuffle the panelists each week.

The original format included one former NASCAR driver, one former NASCAR crew chief and one NASCAR journalist. This line-up gave three good perspectives from which host Allen Bestwick could draw.

On this Monday after Talladega, the journalist slot was empty as the network went with an "all NASCAR champion" panel. Joining Bestwick was former driver Dale Jarrett who is now ESPN's lead NASCAR analyst. Jarrett makes any program on which he appears much better, and this edition of NASCAR Now was no exception.

The interesting part of the program was the decision to invite two men who were both former champion crew chiefs and NASCAR team owners. It was ESPN race analyst Andy Petree and brand new ESPN contributor Ray Evernham who made-up the rest of the panel.

This dynamic was interesting to see on-the-air. Bestwick was clearly a little more intense than usual, and the laughter was kept to a minimum because of the subject matter. Talladega had been a dangerous and controversial race weekend in many ways, and it was up to Bestwick to draw honest opinions from the panelists.

One key reason for Jarrett's success on television is his ability to listen. He reinforced that his future in TV will be a long one when he took the role of "senior member" on the panel and usually waited to be the last to comment on the subject at hand.

Bestwick's nervous laughter could not hide the fact that he was dealing with a loaded deck. Any panelist had the ability to answer any question and do it with authority. It was Bestwick's new challenge to divide the time available on each topic equally among the all-star panel.

Discussions about the Roush Fenway tire problems and the emergence of two-car drafting were excellent. Evernham tended to be the technical crew chief in these conversations, and represented himself as much more of a crew chief than an owner.

His owner views came out quickly, however, when the topic of the impound procedures at Talladega was put on the table. Jarrett and Evernham wanted the Talladega process changed, while Petree thought the impound rules were the way to go. One positive element to the entire show was the ability of any panel member to step aside when they were not the best choice to answer a question. It was clear this group had spent some time together earlier in the day and were up-to-speed on the agenda.

There was lots of political correctness in the air when the subject of Kevin Lepage's actions at Talladega was raised. Jarrett took the approach that all drivers make errors sooner or later. Evernham and Petree were polite but firm in their opinions that this entire incident could have been easily avoided. Topics like this really show the need for a journalist who can stir-the-pot a bit and present an "outsider" perspective.

On the Tony Stewart contract situation, Evernham was the authority. He reminded Bestwick that unlike the NFL or the NBA, there are no rules for contact with athletes on other teams. Petree and Jarrett backed-up the point that casual contact with an NASCAR athlete was still easy to get, and most athletes still do not have agents. Even after all these years, things still happen in the motorhome lot.

The look and feel of this show was classy. The production did not get in the way of the content, and the features used were outstanding. ESPN has assembled a Monday powerhouse and is continuing to pour resources and manpower into this direction.

It was nice of Bestwick to salute Ashley Force on her first NHRA Funny Car win, and close the program with a tease of the special one hour Tuesday show that will originate from DEI in Mooresville, NC. Having the three panelists add their personal memories of Dale Sr. was a fitting way to end a very enjoyable NASCAR TV program.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Monday TV Showdown Features The Heavyweights

Following a big racing weekend, both ESPN and SPEED will pull-out the stops to offer their best Monday NASCAR programs. Fewer dates are bigger than this Talladega and Kansas triple-header, so both networks are breaking out the heavyweights.

First up will be ESPN. It will be the trio of Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree and Ray Evernham who will invade the Bristol, CT studios on Monday. Jarrett will appear on First Take in the morning and then join Evernham on ESPNEWS. Petree will be chatting on with the online set.

The day will conclude for these three when they join Allen Bestwick for the "roundtable" version of NASCAR Now at 5:30PM Eastern Time. This one hour show is a thinly disguised version of the old Inside Winston Cup Racing that was a staple on SPEED for over ten years.

Bestwick was the cornerstone of that show, and has brought his influence to bear on ESPN in a big way. He now has three panelists sitting on studio chairs engaging in casual conversation while reviewing video highlights of the weekend. Sound familiar?

This format has been a big hit since it was first unveiled, and continues to grow in status with the wide variety of NASCAR personalities that ESPN welcomes to the show. The combination on Monday is perhaps the most veteran panel ever assembled.

Over on SPEED, the network continues to work very hard on building the new This Week In NASCAR franchise. Monday at 8PM show host Steve Byrnes will welcome Michael Waltrip and Chad Knaus to the program as panelists. Waltrip and Knaus were together on this series earlier, and actually had a good chemistry as things progressed.

This one hour show incorporates lots more video elements than the old Inside NEXTEL Cup, and is much faster-paced. The two elements that continue to trip-up the flow are now well known. There is no third panelist, and the program begins with a preview of the upcoming race rather than a review of the recent event.

The edited video elements from the NASCAR Media Group in this program are sometimes spectacular. Gathered together, they would be great in a stand-alone program or as an online offering. Inserted into the show, they sometimes steal the thunder of the casual conversation of the guests.

Byrnes has been working on his tone in this program, which has to be different from the raucous nature of Trackside. He had a good last show with Knaus and Waltrip, which included the fun and wacky humor of Waltrip once again coming to the surface. The future for this program will be what SPEED and NMG make it.

So, NASCAR fans get the A-team from both SPEED and ESPN on Monday. It should be interesting to see how both these programs pan out, and how the high-profile personalities mesh on-the-air. There will be reviews of both shows on The Daly Planet shortly after they end. Your comments will be welcome.

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In-Car Cameras Rule The Day In Talladega

Watching the Sprint Cup race at Talladega from the grandstands is a great experience for fans. Watching the race on TV is quite another.

Earlier this season, the NASCAR On Fox production group seemed to be focused on their new track-level camera. They created a personality called "Digger" and then "extended that brand" into a marketing and sales program. They sell "Digger" t-shirts and merchandise on both and Darrell Waltrip's personal website.

With the big wide track at Talladega, it looked like "Digger" would be featured extensively on Fox's Sprint Cup coverage. As it turned out, the NASCAR on Fox Director had already determined that it would be another group of "TV toys" that would be featured during the race. That one decision affected the viewing experience for everyone at home in a big way.

In-car TV cameras have been around for a very long time. At NASCAR races, the cameras are provided and serviced by an outside company. All the different networks that televise races from the NASCAR TV compound can use them. This season, those cameras are even in HD.

The dynamics of racing at Talladega in the Sprint Cup Series make for some good pictures from the bumper cams. It never fails to generate excitement when one car pulls up and puts a big bump on the other. The topper is that these cameras also have audio, and the hum of a Cup car at speed is something to hear.

The downside of the new COT cars is that the bodies do not allow for a very good bumper cam view. Nothing else can be seen but a big nose piece and hood from the car behind when they are drafting.

Inserting the in-car shots into the race is simple, the Director just calls for the camera. Knowing when to use this angle and how it should be integrated into the race is something all together different.

Once underway, the new and extended pre-race show from Fox was a mix of the semi-informative and the utterly ridiculous. While Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond answered some good questions from host Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel, there were several items that left NASCAR fans steaming.

For some strange reason, the Fox Producer decided to place a staff member in the grandstand and have him eat junk food. Located in a section that offers fans an "all you can eat" option with the ticket, this staffer was supposedly eating an obscene amount of "track snacks." If this was some sort of inside joke, it failed miserably.

The bigger issue is the struggle for fans to be represented as what they really are, a good cross-section of this country. What Fox chose to do, intentionally or not, was to present NASCAR fans as gross over-eating slobs. None of this made sense, especially when mixed-in with the upcoming challenge and very real danger of racing at Talladega.

The hot dogs and hamburgers were quickly forgotten when the race got underway for one simple reason. Lead change after lead change was missed on-the-air because viewers were watching the in-car cameras. It was being made clear that this race would be very different, and fans would simply have to accept this new approach.

While "Digger" made an appearance or two, there was no problem with this track-level camera and it wound-up providing a some memorable replays. The issue on the table was whether or not the Fox Director would continue his new fascination with the in-car cameras. Fans had little idea of just how big a role this issue would play in the critical parts of the race.

The Fox announce team had a great event. Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip were simply outstanding in pointing out the strategies and the scenarios that teams may be considering as the race progressed. Talladega is always strange, and regardless of who was lingering at the back of the pack and who was trying to take the lead, Mike Joy and company kept things in perspective.

The production team used the double video box effect throughout the race in a wide variety of ways and it worked quite well. Other than actually trying to show two in-car cameras at once, this tool was the most effective in the network's coverage. With a limited amount of pit stops under caution, the quad-split was no problem and the few races off pit road were captured complete with live graphics.

Often, Joy and company would be calling the action on the track while the folks at home were once again seeing an in-car camera shot of some kind. As the race wore on, the racing took a backseat to the fundamental problem of the TV viewers. They were simply not seeing what Joy was talking about. What they were seeing was a lot of big COT hoods.

Accidents or incidents were often seen on replay, while passes for the lead were sometimes not seen at all. This was a shame, but the in-car camera emphasis continued unabated. Even in the closing portions of the event, there was no change in the approach.

With 29 laps to go, Fox was in-car during the Paul Menard spin. Viewers saw it on the replay, even though Menard was in the lead group. With 9 laps to go, all viewers saw of Jimmy Johnson pushing Michael Waltrip into the lead was the big Lowe's logo on Johnson's hood.

Ultimately, it was a crash at the back of the pack that ended the race. Fox handled the Victory Lane and post-race interviews in veteran fashion. They had time to fill while the scoring was being sorted out, and left the air giving as much information as they could. It was a bittersweet ending to an exciting event.

Next week, the short track in Richmond should pose a challenge of a very different kind as there is usually action throughout the pack all race long. This true bull-ring will demand intensity from start to finish and feature lots of caution periods.

Talladega is a memory, but for many TV viewers that memory may be tinged with the the frustration of missing some key moments while the big hood of a COT car filled the TV screen.

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Four Hours Of Pre-Race On Three Networks For Talladega

The age old question in TV is very simple. How much is too much? We see the clones of entertainment shows about every topic from cooking to dancing. One successful talk show seems to spring another and sitcoms swing wildly in bunches from legal dramas to moody teenage angst.

This Sunday, the issue of how much is too much came to NASCAR. The Sprint Cup race from Talladega, AL was going to start at 2:20PM Eastern Time. One thing was clear, the actual racing would be on the Fox Television Network. What had the heads of NASCAR fans spinning was the amount of TV programming before the race.

ESPN2 began the parade with one hour of NASCAR Now. SPEED followed with the two hour RaceDay that originated from the track. Finally, Fox unveiled a newly extended pre-race show from the Hollywood Hotel that ran for one hour and twenty minutes.

Just in terms of long-form programming, the NASCAR TV partners produced four hours and twenty minutes of pre-race content on Sunday. The vast majority of this programming was focused specifically on the Sprint Cup race. Ironically, this makes the length of the combined pre-race programming longer than the actual event itself.

Looking at the offerings from these three TV networks, one thing stands-out. Not one was offering anything that was truly exclusive or new. What they were all doing was covering the exact same content with different announcers involved in the presentation.

Terry Blount, Wendy Venturini and Steve Byrnes discussed the same topics as reporters on ESPN2, SPEED and Fox respectively. On those same networks Nicole Manske, John Roberts and Chris Myers hosted programs that covered the news, reviewed the past races and talked to Dale Earnhardt Junior. Ultimately, it all became a blur.

One reason that Sunday was so memorable is because both Fox-owned SPEED and the Fox Broadcast Network were on-the-air simultaneously for thirty minutes. For NASCAR fans, Fox and SPEED are interchangeable and seemingly feature one big collection of announcers who work on both networks.

The topper on this issue is that Fox was broadcasting from the Hollywood Hotel. It was located behind pit road at the start-finish line. SPEED had moved their on-air talent from outside the track during a commercial break. Roberts, Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace were now located just before Turn 1 at the end of pit road.

Quite literally, the two Fox networks were both on-the-air live from the same track talking about the same things only feet away from each other. In terms of NASCAR TV, this might have been the moment when the question of "how much is too much" was finally answered.

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In-Progress At Talladega: Sprint Cup Race On Fox

The anticipation is high as many feel this may be the day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to break through and capture his first high-profile victory driving for Rick Hendrick.

The NASCAR on Fox crew will be judged on how they strike the balance between Junior and "the rest of the field." Chris Myers will lead Fox on-the-air at 1PM for an extended pre-race show of one hour and twenty minutes from the Hollywood Hotel.

Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond will be on-hand to anchor the show with Myers. There is a lot of information to cover, and plenty of stories to follow. Joe Nemechek is on the pole, Kyle Petty made the race, and Tony Stewart continues to make news about his future.

On pit road will be the veteran team of Krista Voda, Matt Yocum, Steve Byrnes and Dick Berggren. This is a long pit road, and with the frequent pit stops it should be a hard day for all four of these TV professionals.

Mike Joy loves the superspeedways, and does a great job with his race calls on big tracks like Daytona and Talladega. This Sunday should be an opportunity to add yet another classic race to his TV resume. Having Larry McReynolds alongside is never a bad thing, as McReynolds has updated his COT knowledge and is on-top of the new technology as if he was an active crew chief.

Fox will bring "Digger" along and with plenty of slow caution laps it should be interesting to see how many times fans see the gopher animation. This track lends itself to the type of "speed shot" where the camera remains fixed and the cars fly-by at high speed. One thing to make note of is whether or not the audio "tracks" along with the video. When "Digger" appears, he should be seen and heard.

Last season, it was tough to tell the TV story of the event because of the strange racing that happened. There was lots of action early, and then basically a single-file test drive for several hours. The challenge for the TV crew will be to adapt to whatever the drivers throw at them in terms of wanting to race or simply following in line.

Finally, the Talladega finish is awesome in person. Unfortunately, most TV viewers have never seen it because of the NASCAR on Fox finish line "formula." The winner alone crosses the finish line, then the camera zooms in on the NASCAR flagman. After that, various shots of the pit crew and wife/girlfriend fill the screen. Meanwhile, the rest of the field screams across the finish line at full-speed off-camera. The actual finish of the race is only seen by those fans in the stands.

This season, the last lap of the Fox races has been a disaster. The "winner only" issue has been discussed, diagnosed and examined in detail. Fans on the Internet have begged, pleaded and screamed to no avail. What Fox wants to show is the winner, and any story or action behind that car is simply eliminated.

The Fox philosophy is that anything other than "the win" can simply be replayed later because it does not matter. Veteran fans know that nothing could be further from the truth. The big story of the race might be the car that came from the back of the pack to finish third, or the three-wide battle for positions in the top ten.

As the Fox portion of the Sprint Cup schedule heads into the final stretch, it should be interesting to see if the network sticks with this finish line format for a big race like Talladega.

The pre-race is on the air at 1PM Eastern Time, the green flag is at 2:20PM and the race is scheduled until 6PM. Please read the comments for the weather updates from the Daly Planet amateur meteorologists.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Punch In Need Of A Good TV Doctor

Few current NASCAR personalities have as much admiration from the fans as ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch. Throughout the early years of ESPN's coverage, Punch was a crusading pit reporter. His professionalism and good humor lent itself to the type of coverage the sport needed in the 1980's and 90's.

This is Punch's second season as the play-by-play voice of the largest NASCAR TV package. He leads the charge across ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. The ESPN TV package delivers all of the Nationwide Series races, seventeen Sprint Cup races and lots of qualifying and practice. Unlike some other NASCAR TV partners who come and go, the ESPN bunch is on-the-air from February through November.

Before this season's Daytona 500, ESPN held a press conference to announce a host of changes in their NASCAR television commitment. The network would change the studio show hosts for NASCAR Now. They would incorporate ESPNEWS and SportsCenter into the NASCAR coverage. They introduced Ray Evernham as a new member of the ESPN announcing team.

Finally, they got ready to talk about who would handle the race telecasts for 2008. Dale Jarrett was going the be the new lead analyst, and Rusty Wallace was moving to the Infield Studio. Suzy Kolber was also out, and the network then had to decide who would be the new infield host for all the races. They chose Allen Bestwick.

This put Jerry Punch, the veteran reporter, back in the broadcast booth as the play-by-play announcer for the entire year. When Punch needed a break, it was going to be Marty Reid who stepped-in as a substitute.

Returning Punch to the broadcast booth may have been well intended, but it has not yielded the desired results so far this season. Saturday at Talladega, it was painfully obvious that Punch is still struggling in this role.

Last year, this column spoke about the tough times in the broadcast booth for Punch. There was lots of opinion that laid the blame squarely at the feet of Rusty Wallace for ESPN's problems. Now, with Rusty "downstairs" and Dale Jarrett in the booth, it is quite clear that perhaps something else is off-kilter.

This season, ESPN has not been involved in many of the Nationwide Series practice or qualifying sessions. At Talladega, it was SPEED that carried qualifying on Friday, while the Thursday practices went without TV. Essentially, the NASCAR on ESPN gang showed-up for the race and then went home. That did not help gain experience for the new on-air team.

The good news is that Dale Jarrett has given Andy Petree the kind of freedom and respect that has taken Petree to the top of his game. Whether on NASCAR Now, ESPNEWS or a race telecast, Petree has become one of the top analysts on TV. This partnership has yielded outstanding results in only a short time.

Now, as ESPN takes to the air they have an outstanding team in place. Bestwick, Wallace and Brad Daugherty have fun in the Infield Pit Center. Tim Brewer has finally gotten comfortable in the Tech Center. Jamie Little has toned-down her act, and the pit reporters now present substance and not hype.

The only member of the on-air crew still looking for an identity is Punch. At Talladega, Dario Franchitti getting hit in the driver's door at full speed elicited no emotion from Punch. It was only the replay that told the story to viewers and Punch never stepped-in and took control. It is almost like he is stuck in low gear.

That was never more obvious than when Kevin Lepage chose to drive his Nationwide car directly in front of the Talladega field moving at full speed. The resulting violent accident involving many cars was met with nothing more than confusing phrases and awkward silence from Punch. Jarrett and Petree stepped-in and took control once again, as they often do when Punch is out-of-sync.

Even during the replays, Punch never raised his voice, changed his inflection, or exhibited the least bit of emotion. As Jarrett, Petree and the pit reporters followed-up on the incident during the resulting red flag, Punch's monotone continued. His total lack of energy was more than curious, it was downright strange.

Several times, Allen Bestwick appeared during the race to provide a break for the announcers during the red flag and offer race recaps. It was during this time that viewers were reminded once again of the excitement and energy that Bestwick seems to bring to each telecast. Since Bestwick has prior play-by-play experience, the thought has to cross the minds of the ESPN executives that maybe viewers would be better served with the roles reversed.

Punch has great credibility, a super personality and handles interviews with anyone and everyone with no problem. His days on pit road and then as an ESPN college football sideline reporter will never be forgotten. Perhaps, giving Punch an Infield Studio weekend and moving Bestwick to the booth for one race would give ESPN a baseline on which to fairly evaluate the network's late summer Sprint Cup on-air line-ups.

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Fox And SPEED Force Viewers To Choose

Last season, it was interesting when SPEED changed the schedule of RaceDay so that it aired during the TNT pre-race shows. This practice continued during the ESPN/ABC portion of the Sprint Cup schedule, putting RaceDay head-to-head against NASCAR Countdown.

This Sunday, NASCAR fans will have another interesting TV experience when the final thirty minutes of the two hour RaceDay show overlaps with the first thirty minutes of the NASCAR on Fox pre-race show from the Hollywood Hotel. Fox is on-the-air at 1PM, and RaceDay runs until 1:30PM Eastern Time.

As most TV veterans know, the SPEED network is actually owned by the Fox Cable Networks group. On many weekends, including this one from Talladega, the NASCAR on Fox announcers appear on SPEED to host the Sprint Cup practice and qualifying sessions.

Now, for whatever reason, the broadcast side of the Fox TV Programming Department has extended the Hollywood Hotel pre-race show to almost ninety minutes. Even though Fox is on at 1PM, the race does not start until 2:20PM. One hour and twenty mintes of pre-race programming on Fox and two hours of exactly the same thing on SPEED.

This forces NASCAR fans to either continue to watch Fox's own cable TV motorsports network, or change channels to the Fox broadcast network and the Hollywood Hotel. It also puts RaceDay's news reporter Wendy Venturini and the NASCAR on Fox pit reporters on-the-air at the same time from the same location.

The Raceday line-up includes guests Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle. Venturini's popular Real Deal feature is an interview with Ken Schrader. That should be interesting. Of course, there is the one-and-only Rutledge Wood who this week goes fishing with the guys from Hendrick Motorsports.

John Roberts, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer will also be doing something very interesting in the final hour of the show. They will be leaving the SPEED Stage and heading trackside to "soak up" the festive atmosphere of Talladega.

This means that almost the entire RaceDay cast will be on-the-air live only feet from the Hollywood Hotel while the Fox Network broadcast is also live. I am not quite so sure what this situation accomplishes for either NASCAR or the two Fox TV networks involved.

Viewers will have to make the choice at 1PM, and it should be interesting to see how this affects the total program rating for the NASCAR on Fox telecast. From time to time, things do get interesting in "TV land."

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In-Progress At Kansas: Craftsman Trucks On SPEED

The big NASCAR triple-header continues on Saturday as the Craftsman Trucks run at the Kansas Speedway. SPEED comes on-the-air at 5:30PM with live coverage.

This weekend Krista Voda is in Talladega, so veteran announcer Rick Allen will step-in and pull double-duty. He will host the pre-race show, called The Set-Up, that has been a cornerstone of this solid coverage.

Down on pit road will be the very effective team of Adam Alexander and Ray Dunlap. These two have combined with outstanding focus and energy to bring viewers a solid overview of this series all season long.

Allen will be joined by Phil Parsons to call the race. Parsons has become the "face" of the Truck Series and is perhaps the most under-rated NASCAR TV analyst ever. His low-key approach and endless knowledge about the series works well with the excitement of Allen.

SPEED's Truck Series coverage has been noted for good overall production, including good decision-making on the final lap. This is the SPEED production crew, and perhaps the NASCAR on Fox folks may want to take note of this telecast.

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In-Progress At Talladega: Nationwide Series On ABC Sports

The Nationwide Series makes the move over to ABC for the Saturday race from Talladega. Network coverage starts at 2:30PM Eastern Time.

Allen Bestwick will host the NASCAR Countdown show from the Infield Pit Center. He will have Dale Jarrett and Brad Daugherty alongside. This program will run for thirty minutes and then hand-off to the race team.

Dr. Jerry Punch will call the action with Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. Down on pit road will be Dave Burns, Shannon Spake, Jamie Little and Mike Massaro. Tim Brewer will be at the track in the Tech Center.

It should be interesting to see how this race plays-out in terms of several stories. First, the Nationwide regulars vs. the Sprint Cup drivers participating in the event. Second, the tactics of the drivers as they decide whether to race for position or save their equipment for the end of the event.

Talladega has been repaved, and the resulting smooth surface of the track makes it easy to run almost anywhere. This track makes good pictures and great sound. The HD should really come into play on the big screens if the weather cooperates.

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In-Progress At Talladega: Sprint Cup Qualifying On SPEED

Mike Joy will host one of the most unique qualifying sessions that NASCAR fans will see this season.

Talladega is an impound race for the Cup Series, so the teams that are locked into the Top 35 will be qualifying in race trim.

This leaves those outside of the Top 35 to put all their effort into getting in complete qualifying trim. The results are two very different groups of cars on the racetrack. Viewers may well see many of the top speeds set by the "go-or-go home" bunch. One of them may well be on the pole.

Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip will be joining Joy in the booth. Jeff Hammond should also be along, perhaps in the area of the Hollywood Hotel. On pit road will be Hermie Sadler. The other NASCAR on Fox pit reporters are Krista Voda, Steve Byrnes, Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum.

This program will begin at 11AM and is scheduled to continue until 2PM Eastern Time.

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No Love For NASCAR In Seattle

Saturday is one of the rare appearances of the Nationwide Series on the ABC Television Network.

It is a great opportunity to use the bigger broadcast network to expose more viewers to the sport. The race from Talladega is a perfect choice to do just that. The telecast begins at 2:30PM Eastern Time and 11:30AM Pacific.

Last season, it was the ABC local stations that caused a mess when ESPN tried to use them to broadcast the final seventeen Sprint Cup races of the season. Each station is a little kingdom, run by a General Manager. While it truly is a small business in many ways, these "affiliates" carry sports provided by the ABC Network on a regular basis.

KOMO-tv is the Seattle-based local ABC affiliate. On this Saturday, they have chosen to present the final thirty minutes of their children's programming instead of the network's NASCAR telecast. The issue for them is that the live broadcast begins at 11:30AM Pacific. In their mind this thirty minutes "belongs" to them.

Ironically, it is the Disney show Suite Life with Zack and Cody that will be covering the pre-race program from the track. KOMO-tv will then just join the in-progress NASCAR telecast at the top of the hour. Area NASCAR fans may have vivid memories of Suite Life for one very good reason.

Last season, KOMO-tv did the exact same thing to the Watkins Glen race. Rather than simply alter the children's block to begin the network sports program on time, KOMO is holding fast to the "little kingdom" philosophy that disrupted the NASCAR programming so often last season.

While to some casual fans this might not seem like a big deal, nothing could be further from the truth. This is Talladega, and telling the story and setting the field for this event is going to be a key part of the overall telecast. In addition, there are some stories remaining from the Nationwide race in Mexico City that have to be addressed. Tops on that list is the Marcos Ambrose vs. Boris Said situation.

One interesting fact is that KOMO-tv has no problem changing the children's programming for other sporting events that they determine to be "worthy." This decision is apparently directly related to the fact that this is a Nationwide Series event.

The bottom line is that the entire NASCAR telecast is an ABC Network "must carry." How a local station in a major market like this can once again just arbitrarily join the telecast thirty minutes late is puzzling. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for the ESPN NASCAR package that will begin on the ABC stations in July.

Thank you to the Seattle area readers of The Daly Planet for pointing out this information. If any other West Coast ABC stations decide to join this telecast in-progress, insert local news, or leave before the post-race interviews, please take a moment to tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

"NASCAR On Fox" Buys A New Wagon

The theory was a good one. NASCAR on Fox's Mike Joy and veteran analyst Larry McReynolds would remain "upstairs" in the announce booth to call the on-track action of the Friday Sprint Cup practices from Talladega.

Meanwhile, down in the empty pit road area, Steve Byrnes would act as the host to Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip. The two analysts would respond to questions and issues about the practice sessions using the resources available to Fox.

These would include the cut-a-way car, the various COT body parts and the assortment of shocks and tires. But, on this day there was something new. The network bought a pit wagon.

In what can only be described as interesting, a massive pit road wagon complete with TV monitors and elevated seating was set-up to anchor this new practice compound. While the wagon and surrounding hardware were impressive, the same could not be said for the decision to put both Waltrip and Hammond in white NASCAR on Fox driver suits.

While the duo pictured above may have cut a smooth profile on pit road back in the day, the choice of attire for this Friday TV program was not flattering for either man. Since they were both on-the-air for many hours live, matching the attire of Byrnes for these segments should have been the thing to do.

During practice, Waltrip and Hammond used the tools at their disposal to follow-up on the on-going issues being raised by McReynolds and the reporters in the garage. The innovation turned-out to be quite effective, in much the same style of ESPN's Tim Brewer who attempts to address equipment and car issues in that network's Tech Center. Of course, Waltrip and Hammond were outside.

The entire SPEED and NASCAR on Fox group had an outstanding Friday at Talladega. Sprint Cup practice, Nationwide Series qualifying and Trackside went off without a hitch. Even the NASCAR Live programs designed to bridge the gaps when the action was stopped on the track were effective. These types of programs are called "interstitial," which means they provide a bridge between two other programs or events.

Both Steve Byrnes and John Roberts hosted the Friday versions and while Bob Dillner appeared with good interviews on both, it was again Rutledge Wood who had a tough time deciding if he was a comedian or a reporter. His disjointed interview with Kasey Kahne proved the point. Talking to professionals in the middle of their workday requires preparation and planning. Perhaps, keeping the playtime for the two hour RaceDay would be the thing to do.

As the NASCAR on Fox crew began to experiment with the "Fox pit wagon," Hammond and Waltrip began to offer good explanations for a variety of current issues. The only problem was, behind them were Sprint Cup cars at full speed on the track at Talladega. The key words there are "behind them."

Fans tuning-in to see the on-track action were instead confronted by two men in drivers suits pointing at the cut-a-way car. In the same way that ESPN had to figure out the Tech Center, Fox discovered that putting Waltrip and Hammond on-the-air like this requires just one little thing. That is a second video box on the screen.

Simply by putting the full-speed Cup action on the screen along with the two analysts, viewers would have gotten the best of both worlds. Fox is very good at using this effect during the race, so perhaps it will become standard for the "pit box" segments when they appear during practice and possibly qualifying.

With good weather and great pictures, fans got a solid warm-up for the action to come. SPEED returns Saturday with Sprint Cup Series qualifying at 11AM Eastern Time. The Nationwide Series appears on ABC Sports at 2:30PM and the Craftsman Truck Series takes to the air from Kansas at 5:30PM. There will be a full rundown of shows, announcers and other TV notes posted on Saturday morning.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

SPEED Answers ESPN With "Big Friday"

After all the buzz going-on this week surrounding NASCAR Now on ESPN2, SPEED returns to the TV spotlight with a full day of Talladega action.

Friday kicks-off with Steve Byrnes hosting a thirty minute edition of NASCAR Live at 2PM Eastern Time. Bob Dillner and John Roberts will be reporting from the garage area for this show. This program will set-up the day on SPEED, and catch viewers up-to-date on the latest NASCAR news.

The "big boys" then take center stage as Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip host live Sprint Cup practice at 2:30PM. This trio will be joined by Dick Berggren, Matt Yocum and Krista Voda on the infield beat. For those fans asking, Voda will not be hosting The Set-Up show at the Truck race on Saturday. Rick Allen will be filling-in.

There will be another edition of NASCAR Live at 3:30PM between Cup practice sessions. This time, it will be John Roberts hosting and assisting him from the garage area will be Bob Dillner and Rutledge Wood. This should be another interesting experience for Wood, who has very different roles on various SPEED programs.

Sprint Cup practice coverage resumes at 4PM with the same NASCAR on Fox crew. This is the final practice, and it should be very interesting to see where the focus of the TV broadcast goes. It may well be the on-track activity with the COT, or it may continue to be the on-going Tony Stewart media frenzy.

Next up is Nationwide Series qualifying at 5PM, which allows the TV gang to mix things up a bit in terms of broadcast teams. This time it will be Mike Joy hosting, but he will be joined by Jeff Hammond and Hermie Sadler. Down on pit road will be Krista Voda and Dick Berggren.

During this time, ESPN2 will be offering a thirty minute version of NASCAR Now at 6PM. It seems somewhat ironic that this show will be airing during SPEED's live qualifying coverage that will be setting the field for ESPN's own Nationwide Series race.

SPEED wraps-up the day with Trackside at 7:30PM. Steve Byrnes is the host and Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds make up the panel. On this one hour show, they will welcome Ryan Newman and Brian Vickers as guests.

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ESPN Chases Tony Stewart Across TV Networks

The day after the Marty Smith's NASCAR Now story about Tony Stewart and his possible changes for next season, things continued to develop at a rapid pace. These days, ESPN's new commitment to NASCAR is paying-off like never before.

As many posters to The Daly Planet pointed out, the Wednesday story that Tony Stewart was considering a departure from Joe Gibbs Racing after this season was not exactly breaking news. Print and Internet reporters had offered speculation earlier about Stewart's possible scenarios. It was going to be up to Smith to follow-up his own story and clear the air on this issue.

Thursday's NASCAR Now host Nicole Manske wasted no time in getting quickly to Smith at Talladega. As the show hit the air, Stewart was on the track in his Nationwide Series car for practice. Smith quickly explained that Stewart was going to speak to the media when his practice session ended.

Manske reviewed the elements of Smith's Wednesday story and pushed Smith to speculate on Stewart's status for next season and why this change suddenly seemed so important. In the background, Stewart continued to practice.

Boris Said returned to the program as a commentator after his memorable Tuesday appearance as a disgruntled driver. Said is not a superspeedway veteran, and his limited experience racing in the COT made his Talladega comments a bit tough to take. With the available NASCAR personalities on the ESPN team, perhaps someone else could have addressed these topics with a better perspective.

It was Kyle Busch himself that was up next for an interview with Manske. She continues to handle herself quite well in the demanding role of studio host. She explored the season-to-date with Busch, and then pushed him on the two key topics of Stewart's possible departure and Busch himself possibly deciding to run the full Nationwide Series. She did not cross the line, and allowed Busch to give his answers in full and offer his reasoning on both subjects.

Meanwhile, back in the garage Marty Smith and the assembled NASCAR Media were still waiting for Stewart. Smith has the ability on-the-air not to take himself too seriously, and the media horde waiting for Stewart was fun to see. As the program closed, it was clear that Stewart was not going to be seen in the allotted thirty minutes. Then, something very interesting happened.

Manske told viewers that ESPN would chase Stewart across the ESPN networks. As NASCAR Now on ESPN2 went off the air, ESPNEWS and SportsCenter on ESPN would both continue to offer airtime to Smith if he got the Stewart interview. This is exactly the type of cooperation between ESPN networks that the sport needs for the rest of the season.

A short time later, ESPNEWS anchor Michael Kim introduced Smith from Talladega and began an entire segment on NASCAR featuring Tony Stewart. Smith offered his "intro," the Stewart press conference happened, and then Smith came back on-camera to interact with the ESPNEWS anchor in the studio.

Michael Kim did an outstanding job on-the-fly to deal with this in-progress story, and his NASCAR knowledge appeared to be solid. Smith and Kim had an informative conversation that allowed Smith to review the details of the Stewart news for viewers who has not seen the earlier NASCAR Now program.

The end result was that ESPN chased the Stewart story across their networks until they got it, and then it was presented in a professional manner immediately. ESPNEWS has continued to grow as an outlet for NASCAR news, and the fans have taken notice.

This Sunday, immediately after the Talladega Sprint Cup race, it will be either Dale Jarrett or Andy Petree in the ESPNEWS studio to offer commentary. Once again, the network will be live when the race is over for coverage of the post-race press conferences from the Infield Media Center.

It is a very positive step for fans that this key NASCAR TV partner has decided to utilize all of its network resources to follow-up on breaking news. Today's effort was an excellent example of exactly that.

If ESPN wanted a positive way to build-up momentum with the fans as the ESPN portion of the Sprint Cup Series approached, all they have to do is continue to offer this flexibility and commitment to the sport.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Marty Smith Returns To ESPN In Style

Wednesdays on NASCAR Now have sometimes been a little slow. The weekend highlights are now old, the next race is days away, and there is usually not a lot of news.

NASCAR Now's Lead Reporter Marty Smith returned from a recent vacation with some information that served to spice-up this Wednesday in a very big way. The Tony Stewart empire was beginning to shake, and Smith knew the reason why.

Since the Joe Gibbs move to Toyota, racing veterans have been wondering how Stewart was going to balance his long affiliation with GM and his new high-profile role with Toyota. Smith's news was that Stewart was trying to explore his options to get out of the Gibbs stable at the end of this season.

In the past, this type of story on NASCAR Now would have ended right there. This season, however, ESPN has committed to using all their NASCAR veterans to support this TV series and that is exactly what happened. It was Dale Jarrett who appeared next to speak directly to Smith's report and the Tony Stewart situation.

Jarrett's opinion carries a lot of weight, and he spoke about the fact that Stewart may have been approached by a Chevy team that perhaps put an ownership stake on the table. Jarrett's perspective was that Stewart was now in a different time in his racing career, and his priorities may have changed.

Without missing a beat, host Ryan Burr brought-in Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman with the Talladega Superspeedway looming. Newman continues to be a great interview for this program, and once again spoke about a wide variety of topics with candor and honesty.

The previews of Talladega began with Jarrett talking about the upcoming COT race. He mentioned the new surface and the drafting while calling the racing "intense." He pointed to a key to success being patience, something he mastered in his career. Having Jarrett preview this event was exactly the type of high-profile personality that is going to make viewers tune-in on what is normally a slow Wednesday.

Reporter Jamie Little stopped-by to review her win in the Toyota Celebrity Race in Long Beach, CA. After a brief recap, she moved on to handle the story of Kevin Harvick not racing in the Nationwide Series at Talladega at the request of Cup team owner Richard Childress.

Little also updated the status of Kyle Busch and his possible change in direction to focus on running the entire Nationwide Series. To add commentary to this issue, Burr then turned to Brad Daugherty.

Outside of the Monday one hour version of this show, Daugherty is struggling to find his role on the 2008 ESPN NASCAR team. With the addition of Dale Jarrett in the booth and the move of Rusty Wallace to the Infield Studio, Daugherty is overshadowed by experienced professionals everywhere he turns. Even the best efforts of Allen Bestwick are not enough to help Daugherty with his struggles.

On this show, Daugherty "guessed" that Kyle Busch will run the entire Nationwide Series schedule despite having absolutely no information on that topic. He offered an opinion that Harvick not running the Nationwide race at Talladega was not a problem. Again, no reason why. Finally, he talked in general terms about the Nationwide race and predicted the "big one" would happen and perhaps a young driver would win the race.

Why NASCAR Now continues to put Daugherty in this situation is any one's guess. Rather than let him prepare feature reports and use his owner experience to interact with the top personalities in the sport, he continues to be put on the spot for opinions that almost never turn-out to be accurate. This role damages his credibility when he appears on NASCAR Countdown and on the Monday "roundtable" shows. This season, Daugherty is the new Tim Cowlishaw.

Burr closed out the program by promoting a special one hour NASCAR Now show honoring Dale Earnhardt Sr. scheduled for next Tuesday. It was Dale Jarrett with a final comment who predicted it may well be Senior's son who is celebrating next week, and it may be with a Talladega win.

This program packed a lot of information and even some breaking news into thirty minutes. It was exactly the type of show that will make NASCAR fans think about tuning-in every Wednesday. Maybe Marty Smith should go on vacation more often.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Who Said? Boris Said Just A Little Too Much

When the NASCAR road course races come around, there is pressure on some drivers to get as much exposure as possible. The road course "ringers" sometimes have a tough time in the sport, and over the weekend in Mexico Boris Said had trouble with a Nationwide Series regular.

Marcos Ambrose has been racing hard in the Nationwide Series, and proven himself to be a fan favorite. He came from the back of the pack twice in the Mexico City event and had a car he thought could win. On the way back to the front, he tangled with Said and ended his day.

Host Ryan Burr brought Said and Ambrose together on Tuesday's NASCAR Now for what was billed as a discussion. It turned-out to be a personality profile of two very different drivers at two very different points in their respective careers.

Ambrose was apologetic, and tried to soften the tone by showing-up attired in a "Said Head." Unfortunately, Boris was having none of it. This sports car veteran turned occasional NASCAR racer had only one thing on his mind and that was whining.

A veteran NASCAR PR person might have helped Said to understand that there is a point where you stop talking and let the public be the judge of the situation. Even though Burr and Said are both members of the NASCAR Now team, Burr let Said complain to the point of no return. Said came off in a bad light, and Ambrose emerged as a stand-up guy.

The downside of this interview is that Said will eventually return as a commentator to NASCAR Now. Viewers will now be able to remember this interview as a glimpse of a very different side of Said. He was already on thin ice for speaking to issues connected to Roush Fenway Racing without disclosing his relationship to that company. Only substitute host Marty Reid made this information public before allowing Said to comment. Said's next NASCAR Now appearance may be viewed in a much different light.

Andy Petree was along to speak candidly about the fact that Ambrose had no agenda in wrecking Said. He put Said's antics in perspective, and talked about the fact that Ambrose had a car that could possibly win the race. He never mentioned Said as being in that same situation.

It was Petree that continued on the show to address the recent Nationwide Series race in Mexico City. With lower attendance and high costs for the teams, Petree said very clearly that he thought NASCAR should move this race to a domestic road course venue. This is a strong call for NASCAR to reward a US track with another race in an environment where available NASCAR race dates are a rarity.

Petree continues to have a great year on TV, especially in this new NASCAR Now setting with all three of the show hosts. It seems that the addition of Dale Jarrett to the ESPN team may have jump-started Petree's enthusiasm. Hopefully, ESPN will continue to make good use of his outspoken and experienced viewpoints throughout the season.

NASCAR Now stepped a bit deeper into the reality of the sport with some limited regional racing highlights and results. As the regional tracks begin to understand that this TV series may be interested in highlights, there is no doubt the show will begin to be flooded with footage from the various regional series.

With the Internet a viable way to send video, perhaps NASCAR Now will enlist the NASCAR fans to help spread the national TV coverage of the sport by sending footage. No doubt they will instantly find a lot of volunteers.

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Danica And Diversity Are TV Topics Once Again

This is the link to a Daly Planet column written in December of 2007 addressing the single biggest issue in NASCAR. Before the COT, before drug testing and before bad tires from Goodyear, there was simply "diversity."

Regardless of the circumstances, Danica Patrick has thrown a rock into the pool that will result in a wave of questions surrounding diversity for the drivers at Talladega. Could she win in NASCAR? Would she fit in the new Childress car? Why are there no female drivers in the Cup Series?

How the TV networks will approach this issue as Talladega looms will be interesting. SPEED and ESPN2 have both broached the subject of Danica, including Allen Bestwick raising the issue on Monday's NASCAR Now.

Dave Despain had a nice interview with Danica on Wind Tunnel, who appeared to be as surprised as anyone that she had walked away with the victory. Fuel mileage races are common to both NASCAR and the IRL, but somehow in the IRL the drama is less intense. The extensive electronics, the fuel gauges and the engineers tell a very different story on TV than Chad Knaus simply telling Jimmie Johnson they are going to "go for it."

These days, as NASCAR looks around at the IRL and the NHRA, they find themselves surrounded by a very different breed of star. Ashley Force, Angelle Sampey and Melanie Troxel headline the NHRA series. Troxel has been over 330mph. Minority stars like Antron Brown and JR Todd mix seamlessly into the sport and attract a big fan base.

The IRL now boasts drivers from all over the world, and the Danica Patrick vs. "the boys" rivalry is a dream for newspapers and Internet sites. As David Poole said, this is a time for NASCAR to take a look in the rearview mirror. That "other series" is making some noise and about to head to Indy.

With a full weekend of TV programming being offered by SPEED, ESPN2 and Fox it should be interesting to see what programs bring-up this subject, and how they choose to handle this story and the broader topic. Certainly, RaceDay and Tradin' Paint on SPEED are two programs that come to mind where the issue might be raised. Also, the Hollywood Hotel portion of the Fox telecast during the pre-race. It might be interesting to let DW weigh-in on the subject.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

NASCAR Regional Highlights On Tuesday's "NASCAR Now"

Allen Bestwick signed-off the big one hour NASCAR Now program on Monday by making sure to promote several things that would be coming up on the Tuesday show.

Normally, these would include interviews and updates from the NASCAR Now reporters. This time, Bestwick made a point to say that the Tuesday show would have highlights from the NASCAR Regional Racing Series. If that comes to pass, it will signal a milestone in the growth and understanding of the sport by our friends at ESPN.

"NASCAR Home Tracks" are the three little words on the website that give any indication to casual fans that NASCAR has regional racing series nationwide. One click opens up an entire new world of racing that is affordable and available for fans to attend.

Connecticut-based Whelen Engineering sponsors the NASCAR Modifieds and the All-American Series. Among other things related to lighting, Whelen makes the red, blue and white emergency lights on almost all police, rescue and fire vehicles. This little company has been a godsend for regional racers with their strong support.

Bowling Green, Kentucky is the home of Camping World, the largest supplier of RV parts and supplies. This company is sponsoring the former Grand National East and West Series for 2008, with both series now bearing the Camping World name. The company also created a website for the series, perhaps to bolster the efforts of Turner Interactive, the company that operates the site.

ESPN's former motorsports program was called RPM2Night, and it had a lot of fun with the regional series. The racing is quite different than casual fans have seen before, but some of the events are just as historic and definitely just as exciting as their "big brothers."

NASCAR Now began taking baby steps in the direction of the regional series with sporadic interviews of local racers both in the ESPN studio and by satellite. 2007 regional champ LW Miller's enthusiasm and professionalism on-the-air several weeks ago may have finally led NASCAR Now to step-up and make a commitment to exposing the regional racing from around the country to a brand-new audience.

National TV exposure is something these series have been missing, with only HDNet and SPEED airing a limited number of events. For ESPN and NASCAR Now, this is a big step in the right direction. The Tuesday program airs at 6PM Eastern Time.

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Reporters Take-Over "The Roundtable'

ESPN continues to tinker with NASCAR Now as they work to build a new relationship with the fan base. On Monday night, with the Sprint Cup Series off, host Allen Bestwick gathered a group of reporters to review the season-to-date.

Originally, ESPN's Tim Cowlishaw was going to join Angelique Chengelis and David Poole on the panel. Chengelis is a Detroit News veteran, and has been a regular on NASCAR Now since the show began last season. Poole is one of the most recognized NASCAR journalists and creates original content for radio, the Internet and newspapers.

The choice of Cowlishaw for this show got lots of email and comments on this site. His 2007 NASCAR Now appearances consisted mostly of hype and conjecture that did not play well with the personalities in the sport. This season, he has been seen infrequently on this series and has not worked the NASCAR trail.

As the show began, Bestwick welcomed Poole and Chengelis. He never mentioned a word about Cowlishaw, who was noticeably absent. Unfortunately, Cowlishaw was not replaced on the panel by another ESPN NASCAR personality like Marty Smith or Ryan McGee.

Chengelis and Poole teamed with Bestwick to present exactly the type of program that viewers could enjoy. The topics ranged from grading the Cup teams to the resurgence of the newly-merged IRL. ESPN took what had been a worthless off-week and created value through simple conversation.

Poole was outstanding, and while he is finding his "TV legs" in terms of fundamentals he continues to bring a unique perspective wrapped in an interesting personality. His dry sense of humor and ability to speak candidly about the biggest stars and owners in the sport works best on his Sirius radio show, but translated to the little screen with good results.

Chengelis was appearing for the first time, and proved to be much more than many viewers may have imagined. Normally, she is seen in tightly-scripted weekday appearances on NASCAR Now as a reporter. On weekends at the tracks, she has a little more freedom but once again the questions are all rehearsed.

In this hour, especially without Cowlishaw, Chengelis was front-and-center. Her response was to step-up and participate equally with Poole and Bestwick. This was a big moment for her on ESPN2, with fans now understanding the personality and the depth of NASCAR knowledge that she brings to the table.

Bestwick was solid in hosting, although he had to walk the line between host and participant on several occasions. His extensive NASCAR background, along with his ability to deal with the ups-and-downs of a TV career have made him a fan favorite.

This season he may be at his professional peak as the new leader of the NASCAR on ESPN gang. Last season, this was a title that Jerry Punch did not want and Suzy Kolber could not handle. Bestwick has solved so many problems for ESPN because of his "utility player" status that the network must be smiling.

NASCAR Now continues to be the surprise of the season. This Sports Reporters format worked well, although it could have used a third opinion. Perhaps, ESPN2 will consider adding "specials" in this format to the line-up at specific times of the season. It certainly is a good way to get the journalism side of the business more TV time and expose the personalities of the folks who craft our NASCAR news.

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