Tuesday, September 30, 2008

TV Crews Driving Right Into Gas Shortage

The combination of back-to-back storms and the resulting panic of people buying gasoline more often than normal has resulted in a mess in the Southeast.

Click here for a story on the situation in Alabama and click here for a summary of the situation in the Charlotte area. Now, sports fans find themselves headed into what may be a very unique situation. A multi-state gas shortage.

This weekend in Alabama, NASCAR fans will be heading to Talladega by the tens of thousands. Another group, just as loyal and just as large, will be heading to Tuscaloosa where the Crimson Tide will host Kentucky in college football on Saturday.

Add into that mix the ARCA, Craftsman Truck and Sprint Cup Series teams also headed for Talladega. Finally, the NASCAR haulers and the TV Production trucks round-out the fleet. That puts the tractor-trailer count at well over 150 for the weekend.

That is a picture above of the NASCAR Media Group TV compound at a NASCAR race where ESPN is present. Click on the picture to see it full-size. That is Tim Brewer's Tech Center in the front being unloaded. You can also see the ESPN production support tent, three satellite uplink trucks toward the back and of course, the big white catering tent.

Put all these ingredients together and what you have at Talladega beginning on Friday is a not-so-little city. The grandstands hold over 140 thousand and the 212-acre infield is a party town loaded with RV's. That puts the total head count at over 200 thousand for the weekend.

Normally, we would say that is a lot of fun. On this approaching weekend we are simply going to say, that is a lot of gas. There is no magic pill that lets teams, TV crews or NASCAR officials go to the front of the gas lines. Everybody suffers.

Click here for the update put out by NASCAR.com about the situation. On the media side, many crew members and reporters are traveling from the Charlotte area by car to Talladega. This starts them in one of the hardest hit areas and then has them fueling-up near Atlanta, which is perhaps the city most affected by the fuel crisis.

Those media types arriving in Birmingham or Atlanta by air and traveling to Talladega in a rental car are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. Several news organizations are reporting that the fuel shortage will last well beyond the weekend.

There may be a good three-way fight for The Chase in-progress this week, but the challenge for many may simply be be finding the fuel to get to the race track. There might be some good stories to tell by the time next Monday rolls-around.

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"NASCAR Now" Shines On A Busy Tuesday

"Wow, what a way to start the show," said NASCAR Now host Ryan Burr. He had just opened the Tuesday edition with the news that Joey Logano was out of the #96 Hall of Fame car for the rest of the season.

It was NASCAR Now Lead Reporter Marty Smith who reported live by telephone with the update. "It just wasn't working," said Smith of the Logano rent-a-ride. He filled-in the details and said it would be fan favorite Ken Schrader in the #96 car for the rest of the season.

NASCAR on ESPN analyst Andy Petree was next to apear on-camera. He commented on the Logano situation and addressed the positive and negative things that were happening to the young man in the Sprint Cup Series.

Introducing a topic with the host, filling-in the details with the reporter and then letting the analyst talk about the issues has always worked best on NASCAR Now and it did once again on Tuesday.

Next-up was the Paul Menard news. Once Burr explained the Menard move to Yates Racing for 2009, he welcomed Yates GM Max Jones to the program by phone. Jones was very up-front in explaining the details and why he felt Menard would benefit from the Yates and Roush-Fenway partnership next season.

Covering both sides of the story, Burr brought-in ESPN.com reporter David Newton on-camera who explained that DEI knew Menard was going to leave. The follow-up question from Burr addressed how DEI would do for 2009. Newton said DEI might have only two Sprint Cup cars next season.

Not missing a beat, Burr continued with the Scott Speed story and brought-in Speed by phone to talk about his Red Bull connections. Burr tried his best to pin Speed down about his plans for 2009, but Speed would not take the bait. This is one situation where the veteran news anchor Burr works very well.

Up next on-camera popped Mike Skinner, who would pilot the Red Bull car at Talladega replacing AJ Allmendinger. Skinner is a great interview and Burr let him talk about the dynamics of the Red Bull team and Allmendinger's future. Positive words from a veteran like Skinner on national TV go a long way where getting a new ride is concerned.

David Newton returned to say Speed was "dancing around" the fact that he was going to be the full-time Cup Series driver for Red Bull next season. Newton also said positive things about Allmendinger and mentioned the Kyle Petty ride. Burr immediately followed-up to ask about Petty. Newton was not optomistic and basically said "this may be it for him" when talking about Petty having possibly ended his career last week in Kansas.

Tim Brewer was next and recapped the restrictor plate situation for Talladega. His hands-on demonstration served to clearly illustrate the mechanics behind the device. Petree followed Brewer and was all smiles about Talladega because of his personal success at the track. He reminded Burr that the entire Chase could be turned upside-down with one big wreck in this event.

On the way out the door, Burr told viewers that both Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus would be guests on the Wednesday show. That makes sense, because there certainly was not one free moment of time in this one.

This may have been the best weekday NASCAR Now program in the 18 months that this TV series has been on-the-air. It was concise, informative and loaded with all kinds of guests, reporters and ESPN analysts. The hard work of the production staff was clear to see and the results were outstanding.

The show returns on Wednesday at 5PM ET and re-airs at Midnight/9PM Pacific.

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Owner's Roundtable Proves To Be Interesting

Say what you will, ESPN has stuck by the declaration that being an active NASCAR owner is OK for the network's on-air personalities. Sometimes, this can be tough to take when news issues and team politics are being discussed. In other situations, hearing the views of those dealing with the real issues of the sport can be interesting.

Monday, a live Major League Baseball game cancelled the original 5PM airing of the NASCAR Now "roundtable" show. All that remained was a one-time showing at Midnight Eastern Time. That was a shame for the fans, because this was a fascinating show.

Allen Bestwick hosted an "all owners all the time" version of NASCAR Now that featured Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. This was another new mix of personalities on the show that features a constantly changing panel.

Bestwick has been the salvation of this program and on this Monday he had his work cut-out for him. From the start of the show, he kept all three owners away from the team issues and steered clear of the NASCAR news. This was clearly a program that was simply going to review Kansas, preview Talladega and talk about The Chase.

The results of Bestwick's efforts were outstanding. All three panelists were talking in conversational tones from the start of the show. Finally, viewers got to see four guys just sitting around and talking NASCAR. The best part was they were all having fun.

The review of the Cup race from Kansas drew lots of great comments and analysis from all three panelists. Running through the Tony Stewart pit problems, the great save by Matt Kenseth and the banzai move by Carl Edwards, Bestwick drew-out the best from his participants and kept the energy level high.

A key guest on the program was Jimmy Makar from JGR. Monday was no doubt a hectic day at Gibbs Racing, yet Makar found time to appear on the program. Bestwick and Makar have known each other for a long time and this relationship resulted in a telling and very intriguing interview.

Starting of with the problems of the #18 car, Makar related that the engine was on the dyno and the issues appeared to be related to fuel pick-up. On the JGR struggles in The Chase, Makar said "it feels like we got hit with a left hook." He went on to expand on the human and mechanical issues that had plagued the last three races.

Bestwick prodded Makar about potential changes in staff, which was a fair question. In response, Makar said the issues were spread over all the teams and it was a matter of getting the momentum back. Where Logano racing in the #96 car was concerned, Makar said Logano was just getting seat time and learning a lot. Makar has a good sense of humor and included that one skill Logano was perfecting was "getting out of the way."

Back in the studio, it seemed ironic that Bestwick's owner's show fell on this Monday. He followed-up on the JGR struggles with three owners who have been seeing their own teams struggle this season. The Wallace solution was to just keep going and remember racing is a tough sport. Evernham's answer was to find the real problems on each team and solve them. He pointed to communication as the Stewart issue.

Daugherty is the rookie owner and he added that "finding the leaks" and then fixing them was key. He stressed fundamentals and trying to remember what got these teams into The Chase in the first place. Sounding very much like the basketball player, Daugherty said it was time to "get back to the basics."

Unfortunately, someone in power at ESPN has become fascinated with team radio conversations. Bestwick was forced to lead a discussion about a frustrated crew chief telling a frustrated driver to "shut-up and drive" while the team worked on a solution to the problems with the car. It was juvenile at best. The panel took it all in stride, made some jokes about their radio comments in the past and pushed-on.

The Nationwide highlights again did not include an interview with the winner, but the panel followed-up with a good discussion. It gave Daugherty and Wallace an opportunity to expand on topics inside the Nationwide Series. Both of them have been working on that series for ESPN2 all season long.

A Talledaga preview was next and it included the "drop to the back of the pack" strategy. Wallace pointed-out that the sponsors might not exactly be happy with key drivers falling to the rear. Bestwick was interesting in his comments that the team cars were going to line-up and wait until the end to race. This was unusual coming from Bestwick, who usually stays away from adding his own opinions.

Here at TDP, we pointed out last week the economic issues that were impacting our society and the world. On this program, Bestwick chose to raise that topic. Wallace called Monday a "horrible day for NASCAR." Evernham called for action from the politicians and Daugherty pointed-out that owners were going to have to look at new ways of doing things in a more cost-efficient manner.

This program made the grade because of Bestwick's ability to control the conversation and set a comfortable tone for all concerned. Maybe Tuesday's NASCAR Now will think about re-airing some of these comments when they take to ESPN2 at 5PM Eastern Time. Luckily, the Tuesday afternoon baseball game is on TBS Sports.

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Biffle And Knaus Handle Monday TV Duties

Michael Waltrip has been a fixture on the Monday night shows on SPEED for over a decade. This season, the Monday series is called This Week In NASCAR and hosted by Steve Byrnes.

On this Monday, Byrnes welcomed Chad Knaus and Greg Biffle as panelists. These two combined to try and fill a void on the program. Michael Waltrip had taken a day off.

TWIN has a very different vibe than the other Monday show called NASCAR Now over on ESPN2. Although they are both one hour review and preview shows, over on ESPN2 host Allen Bestwick has a panel of three that constantly rotates. Each week, Bestwick has to take a different crew and mix these fresh ingredients to make a new show.

Byrnes has only three personalities to handle. Waltrip is a regular, while Knaus and Biffle rotate on the panel. The results have been a slow progression from disjointed to enjoyable where this new series is concerned.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be have decided to insert a "Chaser profile" into the final twelve shows and the results have been less than stellar. Byrnes led Biffle and Knaus through a brief review of the Kansas Sprint Cup race, but then were forced to step aside for this edited feature that took up two complete segments of the program.

Ironically, the profile was on Biffle. There he was, right there on the studio set, talking about a profile of himself. These profiles have made absolutely no sense in this TV series and take a lot of time out of each show.

Eventually, the gang got to the highlights and the fun began. Knaus and Biffle together don't have the same spark without Waltrip, but the conversation was informative and entertaining. Byrnes has proven to be an effective TV leader since this series began.

Hearing and seeing Knaus as he reacted to the Carl Edwards move on the last lap was fun. Biffle said he admired Edwards, but rarely has seen a car hit the wall and win the race in the NASCAR ranks. Both guys had a good time with that moment.

In previewing Talladega, Knaus offered his normal analytical approach. Biffle said that the race was either exciting or completely boring. That is why having drivers and crew chiefs on a show works so well. Two very different perspectives on the same situation.

The only thing better for this program as the season winds-down would be SPEED taking a cue from the past. Keeping Biffle and Knaus as panelists and adding Waltrip as the "wild card" into the mix each week would result in exactly what viewers would like to see. Over the years, three voices on this panel have always resulted in more fun and more information.

Good old Humpy Wheeler showed-up to update viewers on the Talladega curse. It was a bit morbid to hear Wheeler talk about the deaths at Talladega over the years. The famous story of driver Bobby Isaac hearing a voice from God and quitting mid-race was an interesting way to end the segment. If TWIN could get Wheeler a bit more focused, he could really lend a nice hand to this program with his veteran perspective.

Waltrip will return next week, and it was clear from the low-key nature of this program that his presence adds a spark that this series needs. Love him or hate him, Waltrip knows how to work the TV cameras and his return on the Monday after the Talladega race should be memorable.

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Expect Menard's Move To Dominate Tuesday's "NASCAR Now"

As the dominoes continue to fall, ESPN gets an unexpected hot news story dumped in its lap as Paul Menard is leaving DEI at the end of the season.

As many know, Paul's father is his long-time sponsor and the Menard's sponsorship will be transferring to the new team. That team is Yates Racing.

Once a proud stand-alone company, the new Yates Racing is simply an extension of Roush Fenway in almost every way. Roush provides the engines, the tech support and with Yates now looking to field three cars for 2009, Roush will actually have eight team cars on the track.

Hopefully, NASCAR Now will line-up a good cross-section of on-air personalities to address all the areas of this complex issue. One big question will be the continuation of DEI with only Martin Truex Jr. and one primary sponsor. Long gone are the glory days for that company

Here are some other media links on that story and on some ESPN personalities:
Menard To Leave DEI, Join Yates from NASCAR.com
Click here for a story on Tim Brewer and the Tech Center from the Kansas City Star
Click here for a story on Dale Jarrett from the Topeka Capital-Journal
Click here for a story on the female ESPN pit reporters from the Lawrence Journal

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday's "NASCAR Now" Cancelled By Baseball

Update: The rain-delayed baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox will start on ESPN2 at 5PM and that will cancel the afternoon airing of the Monday NASCAR Now roundtable show. Originally scheduled for 5PM, NASCAR Now was moved back to 6PM and has now been cancelled.

The only airing of the Monday show will be at Midnight Eastern Time, 9PM Pacific. At 5PM Around The Horn and then PTI airs on ESPN. A college football game repeat started at 5PM on ESPN Classic for three hours.

Monday's program features Allen Bestwick hosting Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham talking about the Kansas weekend and previewing Talladega.

There will be a column up about this program on Tuesday. To add your comments about the schedule change, just click the COMMENTS button below. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lots Of Stories To Follow For The ESPN on ABC Crew

The biggest challenge of The Chase format has continued to be tough for the ESPN on ABC gang to handle. Suddenly, the TV crew has two storylines to deal with for the entire event. Sunday at Kansas, this issue was certainly front-and-center.

Trying to serve two masters is tough. From the drop of the green flag the network skipped back-and-forth between the Chase and the race. The results were not very pretty.

Allen Bestwick led a strong pre-race show that ran the gamut of topics and used Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace in a very effective manner. It included an interview from the Infield Pit Studio with Jack Roush. Bestwick also brought-in Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree for commentary.

Dr. Jerry Punch took the ball and ran with it once the race began, but it was the direction of the telecast that made it tough to watch early-on. Skipping the rest of the field and concentrating on The Chasers was tough for fans of the other 30 cars.

The first field recap was done with only The Chasers. Those cars were already highlighted on the scoring crawl and many were simply mired in the back of the pack. Fans really needed to get a full field summary, which has been the weakness of this TV crew in The Chase.

Bestwick presented video highlights at times during the race, but that is not the same. Once again, NASCAR fans who wanted to follow a team not in The Chase were motivated to move to the Internet, radio or DirecTV for more information. Perhaps, that was not the original aim of The Chase format.

Pit road proved to be a crucial location for action and ESPN struggled with the correct camera shots. The triple split was often not used and many incidents on pit road that should have been followed-up live were done through replays. Breaking the pre-arranged format and covering the action as it happens continues to be tough to do.

The pit reporters were aggressive and informative once the race began. There was a renewed emphasis on allowing them to talk during green flag racing and not just during pit stops or after incidents. The result was good information, but unfortunately it was tough to put in context.

It was clear once again that the emphasis was going to be on presenting The Chasers and tolerating the racers. Stories that included Chase cars were told in detail and followed-up. Stories from the rest of the field, including those of Casey Mears, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs were not.

Just like the reality that trying to serve the "casual fans" last season did not work, this approach of featuring The Chase cars is also not working. Fans do not change their loyalties just because a driver did not make The Chase. Deciding to update and focus on only twelve drivers when 42 were running is not making the grade.

Bestwick again appeared during breaks in the action to lead discussions with all of the analysts, but then the telecast was once again turned-over to Punch for the play-by-play. This transition often resulted in a change from excited and animated conversation to the now familiar low-key approach of Punch.

Over-and-over again, Punch asked questions and made comments rather than call the action on the track and leave the analysis to Petree and Jarrett. The result was another race with no memorable moments of commentary or excitement.

ESPN once again made good pictures and delivered good sound. The network played seemingly random "bumper" music going into the commercials, even as the natural sound of 43 Sprint Cup Series cars boomed in the background. There was no theme to these selections, and this element really cheapened the program.

While viewers may see Draft Track next week in Talladega, the ESPN gang left it on the shelf for Kansas. This was one of a series of good decisions on this Sunday. Tim Brewer and the Tech Center did not interfere with this program and the Infield Pit Center gang was limited to being on-camera only under caution.

The commercial breaks did not cause any problems and viewers were well-served with the limited promos inside of the live race. ESPN also used some additional live radio traffic between crew chiefs and drivers. This is what fans want to hear, not the recorded and edited playbacks the network is now famous for doing.

At the end, the final few laps could have added a memorable moment to the ESPN NASCAR resume. Instead, TV viewers will probably be hearing the MRN radio call when the highlights are shown. Punch let Petree and Jarrett call the last two laps and never inserted himself to cap the race with an exciting call.

An extended post-race worked well to let the drivers talk about the afternoon in a casual manner. The pit reporters again did a good job of chasing down the stories and interviews to fill this thirty minute timeslot. Shannon Spake faced-off with a non-cooperative Kyle Busch and stood her ground. Next time, she may have some slightly better questions ready for the moody driver.

Closing out the program with Bestwick and the Infield Pit Studio crew allowed viewers to get at least a fundamental understanding of what happened to several teams in the race. Next week at Talladega should be another challenge to mix the race with The Chase for this TV crew.

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Sprint Cup Series From Kansas On ABC Sports

All the ingredients are in place for NASCAR this Sunday. Nice weather, good storylines and many Chasers starting from the back of the pack. The challenge for the ESPN on ABC crew is to translate that into a dynamic TV presentation.

Setting the table at 1PM Eastern Time will be Allen Bestwick and the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show. Joined by Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty, Bestwick will have plenty of good content for this hour.

Bestwick has made this pre-race show a solid program through the use of all four ESPN pit reporters and Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree upstairs in the booth. Last week, Bestwick welcomed drivers into the Infield Pit Studio and let Wallace and Daugherty interview them directly.

Wallace continues to voice his opinions on a regular basis. Love him or hate him, Wallace has added a spice to the program that it needed. Daugherty has been trying to escape his catch phrases and cheerleading, but it is a struggle. His opinions are solid when he allows himself to step outside the cheerleader role and offer his personal perspective as a fan.

During this pre-race show, watch for which pit reporters are paired with which drivers. As you may know from previous columns, pit reporters are assigned drivers in advance and stay with them all the way through the post-race show. Who has who should be interesting.

Bestwick will transition to Dr. Jerry Punch for the call of the race at 2PM. This is a great track for TV coverage with outstanding sound and pictures. Punch has the task of trying to keep viewers informed on two very distinct topics. The actual flow of the race vs. the location of The Chasers during the event.

Jarrett and Petree have not been shy about stepping-in and adding to the content of what is traditionally the play-by-play role. Both have contributed from their own driver and crew chief/owner perspectives to all of the Sprint Cup races since coverage shifted to the ESPN/ABC TV package.

Tim Brewer will be in the Tech Center with his own challenge. NASCAR fans have been watching the sport since February and do not need another introduction to terms like loose and tight and lug nuts. Since ESPN put Draft Track on the shelf, Brewer is going to be on-the-spot for adding information that TV viewers can use.

Between engine woes and on-track incidents, drivers who fall out of the race will not be in the best of moods where TV interviews are concerned. The challenge for the ESPN on ABC crew is to get these interviews and when a driver turns-down an opportunity, make sure to tell the TV viewers that fact.

When the race is in-progress, look for the triple splits on the pit stops, the double video boxes during Tech Center segments and how ESPN uses the team radio chatter. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. were outspoken on NASCAR Now earlier in the week about ESPN's use of team radios in a sensationalized manner.

This might be exactly the race that ESPN and NASCAR ordered. Good pictures, solid racing and lots of stories to finally get the fans involved in The Chase this season.

This post will serve to host your comments about the Sprint Cup Series race and pre-race show on ABC from Kansas Speedway. To add your TV-related comments, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday's Morning Shows: "NASCAR Now" and "RaceDay"

Ryan Burr kicks the day off for ESPN with the Sunday morning preview edition of NASCAR Now on ESPN2. This hour will feature Nicole Manske reporting from Kansas and also the NASCAR on ESPN team previewing the race.

RaceDay is up next on SPEED. Host John Roberts is joined by Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace for what should be a very big show. The crowd is expected to be huge, but the same old RaceDay problems exist. The "swooping camera" thing is beyond old and the show has still not figured out how to deal effectively with the fans.

Wendy Venturini sits down with Jack Roush this week for her Real Deal segment. Roush has suddenly become a key player in The Chase and with Greg Biffle leading the way it should be interesting to see what Roush has to say on a variety of topics. Hermie Sadler will join Venturini during the program as reporters from the garage area.

Live guests on RaceDay will include Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Perhaps, the program will also take a moment to honor the memory of Paul Newman who enjoyed stock car racing very much and owners like Richard Childress should have good memories of the man who said acting paid the bills but racing was his passion.

Also in the AM will be a re-air of NASCAR Performance on SPEED at 10AM and NASCAR in a Hurry comes along at 10:30AM. Larry McReynolds, Chad Knaus and Bootie Barker discuss the Kansas race from a crew chief's perspective while Randy Pemberton previews Kansas using the footage and highlights from the weekend on the second show.

This post will serve to host your comments about all of the morning shows on ESPN2 and SPEED. To add your TV-related comment, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kansas: The TV Calm Before The Talladega Storm

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The big crowds and wonderful scenery of the Kansas Speedway are going to set the NASCAR on ESPN TV crew up for a "can't miss" afternoon of racing. Sunday afternoon should see a mix that includes a great track, strong racing and pit strategy serve-up what may be the best race of The Chase.

This is great for all concerned for one little reason. Next week, it all ends. Talladega brings the teamwork dynamic back into play with groups of team cars pushing each other like freight trains. It is also a track where one false move could easily lead to disaster for ten or more cars at one time.

Kansas has shown itself to be a track that allows for exactly the type of racing that the TV cameras enjoy. Big sweeping turns lead to three and even four-wide racing that can push the excitement level high at any time. The pictures from this facility are fantastic down the backstretch and even the in-car cameras shine because of the smooth surface.

The ESPN on ABC production gang will offer a one hour version of NASCAR Countdown to begin the day at 1PM Eastern Time. Allen Bestwick will host the program with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty alongside. The Infield Pit Studio has been a very good investment for ESPN this season in more ways than one.

This innovative unit has seen Bestwick and his crew serve-up some solid programming in both good weather and bad. They have filled hours in rain delays, hosted countless drivers and erased the memory of Suzy Kolber and the network's first season. Regardless of the weather outside, this facility has been on-the-air and working. That is a true testament to the design and the tech crew.

The pictures above are the Infield Pit Studio exterior and interior. Click on the pics to see them full-size. Thanks to ESPN for the images.

Bestwick has a lot of stories to review this week from Montoya's penalty to driver changes and The Chase. As usual, two storylines will be running side-by-side with the race and The Chase both looking for attention and TV time.

The Saturday Nationwide Series race proved to be tough for Jerry Punch who had a hard time with both driver names and following the on-track action. His partners Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree called a large amount of the play-by-play and both have become pretty solid where that TV skill is concerned.

Punch will have his work cut-out for him at 2PM on Sunday, as Kansas has a lot of action and many of the Chasers will be starting far back in the field. This might be the biggest play-by-play challenge for him in quite some time. ESPN has always been mesmerized by the leaders of the race and on Sunday there may be only one or two Chasers among the top five cars. That should be interesting to sort-out.

Tim Brewer seems to have found his stride of late and did quite a good job on-the-fly describing the Montoya penalty and showing viewers exactly what happened. Kansas has been shown to be a track that can stress everything from shocks to batteries, so fans should be seeing Brewer on a regular basis in the telecast.

It's tough times for Shannon Spake on pit road this year. As the full-time rookie of the ESPN group she has found herself on the receiving end of criticism for her lack of racing knowledge and her sometimes off-balance comments. Just like Joey Logano, Spake is basically trying to get some "TV seat time" this season and learn for the future.

As the races wind-down and the tempers crank-up, both Spake and Jamie Little may find themselves confronting more angry drivers and crew chiefs face-to-face. Learning to deal with NASCAR's intensity is something that both of these two reporters are still in the process of understanding. Kansas may be a good warm-up for Talladega where tempers are concerned.

Mike Massaro and Dave Burns continue to fly under-the-radar this season. Both have been given the opportunity to expand their pit reporter roles and made the most of these chances. Massaro is now a regular on the Monday NASCAR Now roundtable and Burns hosted NASCAR Countdown pre-race shows in his firesuit before Nationwide races. They may both wind-up with bigger roles on ESPN's NASCAR coverage next season.

Perhaps the key person on Sunday for ESPN will be the Producer. As the one who decides what direction the overall coverage should take, the "racer vs. Chaser" problem will fall squarely in his lap. What portion of the coverage should focus on the race and what portion should follow the progress of The Chasers? This was ESPN's toughest challenge last season and has proven to be an issue again this year.

Since so many of the Chase contenders are starting in the back of the pack, ESPN will probably choose to watch them come up through the field as the early portions of the race progress. If Sunday is anything like Saturday, there will be packs of cars running in three lanes and lots of passing.

Last week in Dover, full field recaps were a struggle because of the fast laps and the frequent interruptions in the action. ESPN did two full field rundowns on Saturday in the Nationwide race, so perhaps the network will aggressively keep viewers up-to-date on Sunday as well.

One outstanding Saturday element from ESPN was interviewing drivers who were out of the race. From a discouraged Mark Martin outside the Infield Medical Center to a tired Bobby Hillin who was back racing after a long break, the network followed-up. This element has long been missing on the Cup side and perhaps it will return on Sunday.

The chaos of Talladega surely has begun to trickle into the minds of the TV crew as they look out at the serene Kansas landscape. Sunday afternoon will be a great opportunity to put a solid race telecast in the books and head into Talladega with the ESPN momentum high.

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Paul Newman: Jan. 26, 1925 - Sept. 26, 2008

There are a lot of actors and celebrities that come around when the races are in town. Most are there to promote a project, get their picture taken and party.

Paul Newman was well-known to most veteran sports TV professionals who covered racing. He was never at the races to promote a project, did not like to have his picture taken and rarely partied. Newman was a racer. Friday, he passed away at home after a long battle with cancer.

ESPN fans may remember Newman in his red, white and blue sports car racing at historic Lime Rock which was right in his Connecticut backyard. Newman also drove in both the 24 Hours of LeMans and Daytona. Open-wheel fans knew Newman as a long-time owner in the Indy Car world.

Update: Mario Andretti will be on Wind Tunnel at 9PM Sunday with Dave Despain to talk about Newman's racing legacy.

Here are some great story links talking about Newman's legacy:
Paul Newman's Racing Endeavors by Shawn Courchesne of the Hartford Courant.
Actor Ushered Auto Racing Into American Mainstream by Matt Humphrey of the Orlando Sentinel
Racer, Actor Newman dies at 83 from AutoWeek

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Nationwide Series on ESPN2 From Kansas

Allen Bestwick will kick-off the Saturday afternoon coverage of the Nationwide Series with NASCAR Countdown at 3PM Eastern Time. As with most weeks during the college football season, there is a live game that began at Noon preceding this program. Football usually runs longer than three hours, so viewers should be prepared for this program to be on-the-air later than scheduled.

Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty will join Bestwick in the Infield Pit Studio for a preview of the Nationwide event. There are several good stories to follow, including Rusty's son Steven putting teammate David Stremme in his car to help with set-up problems that were still not sorted out as of late Friday night.

When Countdown is over, it will be Dr. Jerry Punch taking to the air at 3:30PM for coverage of the live race. He will be joined by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. Tim Brewer will be in the Tech Center. Down on pit road will be Jamie Little, Shannon Spake, Mike Massaro and Dave Burns.

This track should feature some of the best racing of the season for this series with a lot of different storylines that should play-out. A very diverse group of drivers is entered in the field, so once again the potential exists for the Nationwide "regulars" to do battle with the Sprint Cup "cross-overs."

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SPEED Handles Early Saturday Action

SPEED steps-in on Saturday morning to handle the Nationwide Series qualifying from Kansas. The TV gang hangs around to continue with Sprint Cup practice.

Steve Byrnes will be hosting the telecasts, with Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond alongside. Wendy Venturini and Bob Dillner will handle the driver interviews.

SPEED has a very laid-back style that borders on "old school" for this type of telecast. Byrnes is a host that continually puts the focus on the cars, drivers and teams throughout the programs.

There is a very interesting mix of drivers in the Nationwide group in Kansas. Dillner and Venturini have the ability to move easily between the NASCAR series and look for the stories that are breaking in the garage.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Infield Pit Studio Worked For Punch On Friday

It was a long day for the ESPN on-air crew Friday from the Kansas Speedway. As it turns out, the on-track activity ended with an interesting twist.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree used the Infield Pit Studio as a base of operations while Punch hosted a variety of shows. While it was still the same task of analysis for Petree and Jarrett, it was a completely different environment for Punch. He has been used in a variety of roles for ESPN, as readers can see from a picture of his days as a top pit reporter years ago.

On this day, gone were his metaphors and catch phrases. Gone were the awkward silences and the TV moments where things were clearly off-balance. To even the most casual viewer, Punch was energized and in control. In other words, he was home.

Despite Punch's new comfort level, the ESPN coverage of Sprint Cup practice at 12:30PM was absolutely horrible. There must be some serious pressure on the ESPN Producer to "glamorize" practice or to try to make it "more interesting." The results have been a disaster and this one hour program was another example.

Almost instantly, the cars on the track became nothing more than background noise. Where SPEED focuses solely on the on-track action, ESPN offered a mind-altering amount of recorded video featuring last week's Dover highlights in painful detail, previous finishes of multiple Cup races at Kansas and even edited features from way back including one from 2007. All of this while Cup cars whiz by in the background. What is ESPN thinking in the heart of The Chase?

Punch led the live coverage of Cup qualifying next and this formula has been more successful for the network. The cars on the track are inserted into a video box surrounded by lots of graphics while another video box is used for everything from live interviews to pictures of crew chiefs and owners looking at the stop watch.

A lot of information comes at viewers during this program and Jarrett and Petree are very good at keeping the conversation flowing with Punch "directing TV traffic" from his host position. The pit reporters kept their interviews brief and showed a lot of hustle during this session. The casual attire instead of the ESPN firesuits works very well to set the only relaxed tone ESPN will allow during the weekend.

Punch saved the best for last and that was Nationwide Series practice. ESPN shelved all the bells and whistles and just showed the cars on the track. It was a lot of fun and really helped viewers to understand just how comfortable Punch can be in this infield role. Nothing brought this out more than the breaking news that happened during this live session.

Punch smoothly introduced Jamie Little with the bulletin that Juan Montoya's time had been disallowed and he was going to be moved to the back of the pack for problems with the shock absorbers.

Without missing a beat, Punch let Petree speak to this briefly and led right over to Tim Brewer in the Tech Center. Brewer had the part in question and explained the issue in easy to understand terms.

Once Brewer was done, Punch got a strong reaction from Dale Jarrett who backed NASCAR by saying a performance advantage should result in this penalty. Even as this program was slipping off-the-air, Punch was advising viewers to stay-tuned and that NASCAR Now was going to follow-up immediately with a full report. This is the NASCAR on ESPN crew in action that viewers enjoy.

Sure enough, NASCAR Now host Ryan Burr went on-the-air and sent it right back to Punch in Kansas. For viewers just tuning-in, Punch recapped the situation, let Petree and Jarrett comment and then led to a Jamie Little interview. Short and to the point, Little talked directly with Series Director John Darby who explained the situation and the penalty.

Once again, Brewer did a full explanation of the situation compete with the part in question and exactly what Montoya's team had done. Punch then wrapped the entire situation up very neatly before sending it back to Burr in the ESPN studios.

Viewers had seen very clearly what TDP has been talking about for months. ESPN has one of the top reporters in NASCAR on staff and on this day he was leading the broadcast from the infield studio and doing an exceptional job.

Regardless of what each show Producer had asked, Punch had responded. From the disjointed coverage of Cup practice through the heavy graphics of qualifying and into the relaxed telecast of the Nationwide Series, Punch had been able to adjust and deal with each individual set of circumstances.

He topped the day off with a breaking news story, transitioned smoothly between live programs and then presented an entire segment on-the-fly that featured two studios, five announcers and a live interview with a NASCAR executive.

In some ways, it will be a shame to see Punch again take the elevator to the broadcast booth to call the Nationwide Series race. His hard work and strong performance on Friday from the infield combined years of TV reporting experience with a perspective and knowledge of NASCAR that few possess.

On Saturday afternoon for Punch, it's back to calling the action in turn 2 with 100 laps to go.

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Note: You can click on the picture to see it full size or to save it to your computer. Thanks to ESPN for the photo.

Kansas TV Coverage Suddenly A Second Priority

The hard-working NASCAR press corps has been trying to focus on building the excitement of The Chase this season. Topics from Greg Biffle's resurgence to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles have been all over the radio, TV and Internet. Now, the media's hard work may simply not matter.

The crisis on Wall Street may be hard to understand for those without portfolios or a stockbroker. It gets a little easier to grasp when your local bank goes under, local restaurants close and another friend loses his house to foreclosure.

Suddenly, priorities change. NASCAR and sports in general begin to fade into the background. Many families have simply switched to "survival" mode.

ESPN, SPEED and NASCAR go into the Kansas weekend on the heels of President Bush's televised news conference about the economy. Bush did not mince words on the impact of this crisis when it comes to regular working Americans. What Bush did not mention was that lots of those Americans are NASCAR fans.

There have been times during a crisis when NASCAR has served as a rallying point to restore confidence and faith in the country and the American way of life. Somehow, the current situation does not have the feel of something that can be fixed in this manner.

Across the country on this weekend there is the very real possibility that people are going to be concentrating on putting the financial pieces of their life back together. Many folks simply seem to be shell-shocked over just how fast this financial crisis has taken the country to its knees.

Both ESPN and SPEED are going to have to be very mindful of the new financial reality of many NASCAR fans as both networks roll-out the usual schedule of practice, qualifying and racing.

This weekend, perhaps more than ever before in NASCAR history, there are a lot of fans looking at deep changes in their lives that they cannot control and unfortunately cannot escape. None of those changes are pleasant.

ESPN2 is first-up at 12:30PM ET with Sprint Cup practice. Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree will call the action. This trio hands-off to SPEED at 2PM when John Roberts will host NASCAR Live. Hermie Sadler and Randy Pemberton will be the reporters handling the interviews for this thirty minute show.

The TV coverage goes back on the track at 2:30PM with SPEED covering the Nationwide Series practice session. Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds will have the call with Wendy Venturini and Bob Dillner reporting from the garage area.

The "big show" is next at 4PM when ESPN2 rolls-out Sprint Cup qualifying. Punch, Jarrett and Petree will again call the action. ESPN has struggled with this coverage and will try to put the emphasis back on the cars on the track as opposed to interviews and features while cars continue to qualify in the background.

ESPN2 winds-up its Friday Kansas coverage with the Nationwide Series final practice at 6PM. The day ends with a 7PM edition of NASCAR Now from the ESPN studios.

SPEED also ends the day at 7PM with the one-hour Trackside show that will feature Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip as guests. Byrnes, Hammond, McReynolds and Elliott Sadler make-up the panel as this show continues to be a fan favorite.

With many Americans glued to the TV and radio for continuing news of the American financial crisis, both SPEED and ESPN certainly have their work cut-out for them. Commentary this weekend is going to have to be put in a much broader perspective in order to keep the TV viewers. Depending on what happens with the economy during the day on Friday, this weekend could be one to remember in more ways than just one.

This post will serve to host your comments about the Friday NASCAR TV coverage.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

NASCAR's DVR Theater In Full Swing

As part of the on-going fan discussion here at TDP, we have been asked to talk about the programs that sometimes slip below the radar where NASCAR TV is concerned. Unfortunately, this season the pickins' are slim.

These non-primetime shows and off-network offerings are often put in timeslots where they need to be recorded to be seen by most folks. Hence the term, DVR theater.

ESPN Classic is re-airing the weekend's Sprint Cup races on Mondays at Noon. Formatted for three hours, this is basically an "classic instant replay" while ESPN still has the rights to show the race. It is a straightforward re-air with no frills that is cut down if needed to fit the time period.

As the Chase races wind-down, look for ESPN to throw some additional NASCAR programming on Classic. This week's historic race is a beauty. On Thursday at 1PM ET the 1976 Daytona 500 lives again complete with the original announcers. This is a good one to record as Richard Petty and David Pearson have a difference of opinion on the final corner of the final turn. The rest is history.

SPEED used to replay the Cup races in primetime during the week, but those days are long gone. Instead, the network offers a replay at Noon on Thursdays. This version has been run through the NASCAR Media Group folks who get it all cleaned-up and pretty, but it is essentially the same as the ESPN Classic Monday offering.

Unfortunately, even after cancelling The Chase Is On this year, SPEED has not added any additional NASCAR programming during the week. That leaves This Week In NASCAR on Monday and the Thursday Cup replay as the program offerings until the live shows from the racetracks begin on Friday.

The gaping hole in the SPEED schedule is the lack of a weekly TV program in support of the Craftsman Truck Series. This is the only major NASCAR series that SPEED carries. It tries to survive outside of the racing with only a thirty minute pre-race show and some weekend highlights.

With no sponsor for next season, Dodge factory support gone and only 31 trucks in the last race, SPEED's reluctance to expose the series beyond the track may have actively helped it come to a grinding end.

It seems that this season NASCAR is destined to run all the way to Homestead with little long-form TV programming exposure during the weekdays. Yet, somehow Sirius manages to keep a full-time NASCAR channel on-the-air twenty-four hours a day and the search activity on YouTube.com for "NASCAR" is one of their busiest categories.

What all of that means is lots of folks are out there looking for more audio and video information about the sport. It seems ironic that normally when audio and video are combined, the result is TV programming. This season, that certainly is not the case for NASCAR.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Did You Cheat On NASCAR Last Sunday?

The results of the Dover weekend are trickling-in and the enthusiasm over the good on-track action is being tempered by lower TV ratings for the Sprint Cup Series race.

Just as NASCAR faced a while back with the Olympics, last Sunday had a bevy of sports that included baseball, football and golf match-ups. The resulting choices have sparked an on-going debate about the TV loyalty of NASCAR fans.

One unique Sunday telecast was the coverage of the final game at Yankee Stadium. The ESPN networks offered seven hours of live TV, all of that coming before the first pitch. With the Sprint Cup race on ABC, it may have been ESPN that provided the single highest-profile competition for sports viewers.

The question is simple. Did you watch the Dover race, ignore it for another TV sports offering or multi-task and wear out the remote?

One key reason NASCAR changed to The Chase format was to combat this attraction to switch channels. They created a playoff atmosphere for a sport that often limped to the finish line of the season.

In this season's Chase, Dale Earnhardt Junior has been in a tough spot and Kyle Busch fell out of the Dover race relatively early. While the racing in the final 35 laps was outstanding, Dover is a grind-it-out track where survival sometimes trumps racing. This is not perhaps the best way to combat the myriad of other sports TV offerings.

One interesting point is the fact that many NASCAR fans are already multi-tasking just to watch a Sprint Cup Series race. The clear focus of the ESPN telecasts is the Chasers and the top five cars. At Dover, the full field rundown was done once in 400 laps. For fans of those teams not in The Chase and not at the head of the pack, the only way to get information about their race is to use the Internet, DirectTV's Hot Pass or to listen to the radio call of the race.

As you take the time to comment on this topic, please make sure to tell us if you were already multi-tasking the NASCAR race before you made the decision to cheat on your old dependable TV partner.

During the Sprint Cup Series races, the ESPN on ABC gang takes the time to put the scores of other sporting events on the bottom line to keep viewers informed. It is not the constant crawl of ESPN2, but does this information help to keep you informed or just serve to tell you when an NFL game is good and it is time to change the channel?

This post is not about the ESPN/ABC announcers. If you felt they played a role in your TV selection on Sunday, then tell us. But, please abstain from getting the topic off-track with debates about personalities and performance. As veteran readers of TDP already know, that issue will certainly be with us again soon.

Thanks again for responding to this topic. It should be interesting to hear from NASCAR fans who had to deal with their hometown NFL team's game, closing day at Yankee stadium and the high-profile Ryder Cup golf tourney. Did that trigger finger on the remote get itchy after lap 100 at Dover? We look forward to your comments.

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We just want your opinion on the topic of NASCAR vs. other sports at this time of the year. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

"SportsCenter" Drops The NASCAR Ball

It was perhaps the best 30 laps that NASCAR had seen in a long time. Adding to the thrill of the Sprint Cup Series race from Dover was the fact that all three top cars racing hard at the end were from the same team.

TV viewers also saw a revitalized Mark Martin and a focused Jimmie Johnson lurking just behind the leading trio waiting to see if Jack Roush's "hairball" scenario would play-out. It did not.

After the race, three hours of programming on SPEED and one hour of NASCAR Now on ESPN2 paid tribute to the Dover race and how it had impacted those 12 drivers involved in The Chase for the Championship.

The SPEED Report featured Jeff Hammond reporting from the track and Doug Richert in the studio breaking-down the race. Victory Lane caught the excitement of Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace as they talked to a breathless winner Greg Biffle and a pumped-up Roush.

Topping the night on SPEED was Dave Despain tipping his cap to some good racing and talking about the dynamics of the remain Chase events on Wind Tunnel.

Over on ESPN2, a full hour of gushing was in-progress on NASCAR Now and lots of talking heads were making sure to tell fans exactly how great this event had been from start-to-finish.

Monday morning, however, brought a completely different vibe to ESPN. In the strange world of SportsCenter, NASCAR simply did not exist. The Yankees had closed the stadium, the Dolphins had upset the Patriots and some kids had done a Happy Gilmore smack-down of those nasty Euro golfers. A stick-and-ball frenzy was in full swing.

NASCAR fans may have spent Monday morning spinning the dial between ESPN, ESPNEWS and ESPN2 for a mere mention of the Dover race.

SportsCenter's fancy new line-up card on the screen made no mention of the event. Mike and Mike had a lot to talk about, but it did not involve NASCAR. Even the dependable ESPNEWS had made a switch and only paid lip service to NASCAR after a season of strong follow-up on every race.

Ray Evernham appeared briefly with Dana Jacobson on First Take for a couple of minutes. Jacobson was informed and asked good questions about the race and The Chase. This was the only sign we saw that Evernham was on the ESPN campus in the morning.

ESPN is NASCAR's largest media partner. The company handles the Nationwide Series, the final seventeen Sprint Cup events and has an exclusive daily show serving the sport. ESPN.com's NASCAR webpages are among its most popular and ESPN also owns the Jayski.com site which continues to attract an incredible fan base.

How is it possible that the newly revamped SportsCenter fell out of this loop? It is early in the NFL season, baseball has not yet started the playoffs and the Ryder Cup is a one time event. The ESPN TV networks provided over seven hours of live coverage on Sunday of closing day at Yankee Stadium. That was before the final game actually began.

NASCAR fans were just looking for some highlights, a couple of interviews and maybe some Ray Evernham day-after comments. SportsCenter seems to have a side desk for the analysts in every single other sport, can't NASCAR at least get a folding chair?

After seven months of hard racing and a lot of national media attention, NASCAR is two races deep into a playoff format that will crown a national champion. Millions of Americans follow the sport with the same fervor of baseball or football.

This struggle for acceptance at ESPN in these busy sports months is what NASCAR went through in 2007 until something happened. Click here for the TDP column about the Code Red that went through ESPN last year on the eve of the final racing weekend. NASCAR was suddenly inserted into every show from PTI to Mike and Mike in the Morning. The results were embarrassing.

This season, ESPN had been doing an outstanding job of keeping NASCAR fans informed on ESPNEWS and SportsCenter. ESPN's own NASCAR announcers have been frequent guests and the fans have been drawn back to ESPN's mainstream shows because of that effort.

Now, the commitment of the network to NASCAR is going to be put to the test once again as the multi-year TV contract between ESPN and NASCAR continues. As the guys in the ESPN screening room would say about this Monday's SportsCenter, it was "a swing and a whiff" where Dover and NASCAR were concerned.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Waltrip Repels The Bowyer Curse

Nothing solves a problem like success. It has been a while since Michael Waltrip could say that about his NASCAR career. Monday on This Week In NASCAR, he made the most of it.

Series host Steve Byrnes knows how to handle the panelists regardless of their good or bad days at the track. This week, Byrnes had Chad Knaus coming-off a fifth place finish and Michael Waltrip still over-the-moon about a top ten at Dover.

One of Waltrip's top TV assets is the ability to poke fun at himself. Several weeks ago when ESPN made extensive use of Clint Bowyer's derogatory comments about Waltrip's driving ability, Byrnes let Waltrip talk about it on the show. The results were hilarious.

This week, Waltrip closed that circle by relating the fact that Bowyer had approached him after Dover and said "maybe you can still drive." That really put the ESPN hype in the correct perspective. What a smart way to put that to bed.

One key issue in this TV series continues to be too much pre-recorded content. This week, it was a feature on Jeff Burton's career comeback and then his weekend in Dover. Ironically, last week this "Chase" feature was on Bowyer.

While this may fit a broader agenda of exposing The Chase drivers to casual fans, viewers watching this program know all of them and would have been better-served with other content.

When the SPEED executives grudgingly allowed TWIN to flip the program format, they could not have imagined the impact it would have. This episode was a good example. After letting Waltrip and Knaus get warmed-up with a discussion of Dover, the transition to a preview of Kansas resulted in some great conversation. Both panelists contributed observations from their own unique perspectives without missing a beat.

Humpy Wheeler continued with his stream-of-consciousness feature that is often strangely fascinating. Recently added to TWIN, Wheeler just shows-up in a pre-recorded feature and talks about something. This week he talked about The Chase in a monologue that ran the gamut from barometric pressure to world peace and somehow...it all made sense.

The only national NASCAR series carried on SPEED is the Craftsman Trucks. It is no secret that this series is in deep trouble. There has been no sponsor announced for next season, Dodge has withdrawn factory support and on Saturday night in Las Vegas there was a field of only 31 starters.

Sooner or later, it is going to occur to someone at either SPEED or The NASCAR Media Group that devoting more time on TWIN to the Truck Series is perhaps a good idea. This week the trucks once again had a side-by-side duel to the finish line that resulted in veteran Mike Skinner getting his first win of the season.

TWIN did not have one moment of a winner's interview with Skinner. The video highlights consisted of Johnny Benson hitting the wall and then the final two turns of the race. Coupled with ESPN's horrible treatment of the trucks on NASCAR Now, what chance does this series have without the exposure of two of NASCAR's "official" TV series?

This is the first stretch run for This Week In NASCAR and with some small changes it certainly can continue to keep the momentum high through November. While fans might have been disappointed that Greg Biffle was not added on this episode as a third panelist, perhaps SPEED might consider heading in that direction for 2009.

Biffle will return next week with Waltrip and Byrnes as another episode of TWIN hits the air Monday at 8PM Eastern Time.

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"NASCAR Now' Rearranges The Furniture

When the NASCAR Now program first began in 2007, the on-air personalities sat behind a huge desk that dwarfed the announcers on the set. As the first season progressed, it was clear that the huge desk approach was not working.

This season, the Monday roundtable panelists perch on high stools in the studio. During the week, the on-air talent stands in front of a brand new set. The Tuesday through Sunday shows were going just fine, but the Monday show still needed some changes.

When the program featured female panelists, the "bar stools" were perhaps not the most graceful on-air approach for the hour. Also, on-air personalities with different body types from Brad Daugherty to David Poole were not well-served by trying to remain stylishly perched on their own little on-air "island."

This week ESPN2 unveiled the solution. Enter the huge desk once again. Host Allen Bestwick tried to smile, but the dynamic of the panel had changed a bit. Media guest Mike Massaro was now to Bestwick's left, while Boris Said and Ray Evernham were sitting at opposite ends of the huge desk. It will be interesting to see if this new interior design yields positive benefits for the panel.

At this time of the season, everyone is tired from the NASCAR teams to the TV crews. If there is one person who has a good excuse where being tired is concerned, it is Bestwick. He has been everywhere for ESPN and turned in a yeoman's performance for the company this year. Each week for Bestwick is capped-off by his appearance on NASCAR Now.

Massaro was once again informative and opinionated. If there is a change for next season, it may well be Massaro that steps into the host role on this program. After all the years of working diligently for ESPN, Massaro this season has been extending his credibility well beyond pit road with good results.

Boris Said has been focusing on keeping his on-air comments brief and it has paid-off with a much better presence on this program series. Said has a diverse motorsports background and works best when he has someone like Evernham to converse with on racing topics.

On this Monday, Evernham was subdued but worked hard to answer Bestwick's questions fully. There is no doubt that Evernham is almost always the most informed NASCAR personality on the panel and his comments showed the depth of his knowledge of the sport. If he makes a change in the off-season, Evernham may have a permanent place on the ESPN team.

Bestwick led the panel through the format of Chase talk, race reviews and a follow-up on topics in the news. After more than seven months on-the-air, the Monday show has a familiar feel and a good flow. Although this one episode did not feature a live guest, the panel did offer comments and highlights of the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races. A Mike Skinner winning interview would have been a nice touch.

Unfortunately, ESPN continues to shun other NASCAR racing series. Aric Almirola won an exciting Camping World East Series race at Dover and Matt Kobyluck took the season championship. While shows like The SPEED Report showed highlights and interviews, NASCAR's only daily TV show did not.

After a computer glitch gave the panel some additional time to talk, Evernham was once again front-and-center for his opinions about the remainder of the season. This gave him an opportunity to show just how easy it is for him to converse on various NASCAR topics. At this point in the season, there is no doubt that Evernham's TV stock is rising.

Next week's show should be very interesting. Evernham will be thrown-in with the Infield Studio duo of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. This is a good mix for ESPN and Bestwick seems to bring-out the best in all of these three on-air personalities. Monday's NASCAR Now airs at 5PM Eastern Time.

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Big Monday For NASCAR's TV Partners

The celebration by all concerned over an exciting Sprint Cup Series race from Dover is not going to end when the track is empty. Both ESPN2 and SPEED are giddy with the anticipation of putting together a Monday review show with this outstanding COT event as the centerpiece.

Although they use exactly the same content and race footage, NASCAR Now and This Week in NASCAR could not be more different. It is this difference that sets them apart and lets all kinds of NASCAR fans enjoy the Monday TV highlights.

Allen Bestwick and his three NASCAR Now panelists sit in suits-and-ties on a custom-designed High Definition set in the ESPN Studios. Perched on high stools like little islands, the only interaction between the four announcers is conversation.

Steve Byrnes and his two TWIN panelists sit in easy chairs on a Low Definition set in a studio where the dumpster guy and the UPS man can be heard through the rear door. This season the panelists have spiffy matching shirts, but where weekly panelist Michael Waltrip is concerned, socks are still optional.

The diversity between these two shows is a mirror of the diversity of the sport. At many tracks white wine mixes with cold beer and hamburgers sizzle side-by-side with Wolfgang Puck pizzas. When it comes to NASCAR fans, sometimes the action on the track is not the only show in town.

Bestwick resurrected a franchise that was in deep trouble and the results have been nothing short of fantastic. Erik Kuselias single-handedly made Monday evenings on ESPN2 a wasteland for NASCAR fans and the network let him finish out the entire 2007 season.

Now, Monday at 5PM and again at Midnight for West Coast viewers has become ESPN's NASCAR version of "must see TV." If there was a TV rating for a program being recorded for later viewing, this would be a good one to sample.

ESPN hits Bestwick with one of the most unique challenges in sports broadcasting every single week. Take a constantly changing panel and present a consistently interesting show. If the same combination of faces appear twice, it is never in a row and is usually for a logistical reason like travel schedules.

This Monday, Bestwick has Boris Said, Ray Evernham and Mike Massaro on-hand to discuss Dover. This fundamental combination of a driver, a crew chief and a journalist has worked best for this program all season long. Monday should be no exception.

While Bestwick enjoys the tight control and squeaky-clean atmosphere of NASCAR Now, Steve Byrnes loves the casual and chaotic atmosphere of TWIN. Originating from the NASCAR Media Group studios beside the highway in South Charlotte, Byrnes is effectively sitting in the exact same position Bestwick occupied for so many years while hosting Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup Racing.

This week Byrnes will have Chad Knaus teamed-up with Waltrip on a show that many folks believe needs one more panelist to be as good as possible. Three voices make for a conversation while two make for a difference of opinion.

Knaus has been the surprise of the season for TWIN. A regular on the NASCAR Performance show with Larry McReynolds, Knaus has come into his own this season on TV. Having a veteran host like Steve Byrnes on-hand has helped Knaus to establish his own identity alongside that of Waltrip. Over the years, Waltrip has frustrated many panelists and several hosts with his style. This trio seems to fit together quite nicely.

Both TV programs look back, look ahead and offer opinions on the various topics of the week. NASCAR is better off for having this kind of choice for TV viewers and race fans. After the fun at Dover and the good feelings about Greg Biffle, both Monday shows should be primed to hit the air.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

ESPN Adds Some New TV Wrinkles For Dover

ESPN's NASCAR team continues to mix things up down the stretch as the network goes head-to-head with the afternoon NFL Football games. TV viewers noticed several changes in the ABC telecast designed to help some struggling areas of the coverage get better.

Allen Bestwick welcomed drivers in their firesuits and ready to race into the Infield Pit Studio during the pre-race show. This was quite a switch from having the frantic ESPN pit reporters tracking down the drivers for interviews. The quality of the questions from Bestwick and Rusty Wallace were far superior to the one or two question interviews with the pit reporters. Nice move by ESPN to fix a problem.

What ESPN could not fix was Brad Daugherty. In some situations, his constant cheerleading and discussions of the obvious waste time that could be used for much better purposes. By now, viewers understand that Brad likes NASCAR and all the good drivers are "wheel men."

Another switch was getting the pit reporters to climb the ladder and go get the interviews with the crew chiefs. This was a glaring hole in the Sprint Cup coverage and the network made a first attempt to fix it. Ultimately, it paid big dividends after key pit stops to hear first-hand why decisions were made that were about to change the complexion of the race.

A nice day in Dover made for great pictures and sound throughout the race. The Directing was solid and made the two bridges across the track invisible for the entire event. Adding in the speed shots and the aerial angles really helped to make a long and sometimes boring race fun to watch.

The ESPN team worked hard to catch-up with drivers in The Chase when they ran into trouble, but non-Chase drivers still get the second-class treatment where interviews are concerned. The same can be said for pit road penalties, lucky dog awards and cars spending excessive time in the garage.

Luckily, the drivers put on a very good show with a lot of changes for the lead and some good stories happening throughout the event. The problems with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were well-documented. The Denny Hamlin situation was not. This has been a tough two weeks for Tim Brewer and his Tech Center.

As viewers have seen over the past three races, it is often Dale Jarrett who steps-in and takes-over the play-by-play role when the situation is crucial and the excitement level needs to be high. Sunday afternoon in Dover was no different.

Andy Petree and Jarrett have proven to be a combination that clicks where frank and honest commentary is concerned. They can disagree, discuss topics on-the-fly and interact with anyone on the ESPN production team. In this event, they sometimes talked overtop of Jerry Punch when a point had to be made and Punch was trapped in his rambling metaphors and catch phrases.

While pit reporter Jamie Little can sometimes be too harsh, she worked well in the new environment of aggressive reporting and on-camera interviews. Her post-race face-to-face questioning of Carl Edwards was still off-base. She needs to learn to ask the same questions without the urgency or volume that she used with Edwards. That simply does not play well with the NASCAR audience.

The Chase has sparked a good variety of stories that will serve ESPN well for the week. Hopefully, the team radio hype and the singling-out of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will cease. Fans deserve the focus of ESPN and the daily NASCAR Now show to be on the racing and the teams down the stretch.

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Sprint Cup Series on ABC Sports From Dover

The chaos of Dover is about to unleash itself on the 43 teams in the Sprint Cup Series. That is the known. The unknown is how that chaos will be handled by the ESPN on ABC production team.

Just as Dover calls for the drivers to be "up on the wheel" all the time, the track also calls for the TV announcers and crew to be "alert and focused" for the entire event. Which will be the bigger challenge is yet to be seen.

It will be Allen Bestwick anchoring the pre-race coverage from the Infield Pit Studio. If there was ever a track that sends Brad Daugherty completely over the edge, Dover is it. Look for the cheerleading volume to be set on high. Rusty Wallace rounds-out the infield panel and he has a great perspective on this track. Look for the Producer to try and use Wallace during the race for observations and questions to Andy Petree and Tim Brewer.

Petree will be with his broadcast partner Dale Jarrett and the face of ESPN's NASCAR coverage, Jerry Punch. This trio hosted the Nationwide Series race on Saturday and Punch struggled to even remember the names of the drivers in the cars. Often, it was Jarrett or Petree who called the action on the track or alerted Punch to a caution flag. This on-air dynamic will be key to watch as the 400 laps slowly tick away.

The pit road at Dover is completely inadequate. The four ESPN pit reporters are going to have to put in a little extra effort all day long where pit stops are concerned. Things happen quickly and there were both pit crew injuries and a pit road accident during the Nationwide race.

Unfortunately, all 200 laps of the Saturday race clicked away without ESPN being able to offer even one full-field rundown. While the ticker on the screen may carry the position of the cars and even some minimal data, only the pit reporters can fill-in the fans on the stories behind the positions on the track of the teams. Keep an eye on how often a rundown is offered, and what positions the network chooses to update.

There are two bridges over the Dover track and it is important to note how hard the Director has to work to eliminate them from the TV coverage. While they will be seen on replays and aerial shots, the ability of the cameraman to frame the shot just under the bridge on each and every lap makes for smooth coverage for the viewers at home.

Dover also lends itself to "speed shots" on the front stretch and from track level. Mixing these into the coverage helps the Director to convey to the fans the real feeling of speed as the hundreds of laps wind-down. The "speed shot" is where a small lipstick size camera is mounted in a fixed position and the cars speed by close to the lens.

Replays under green have been an issue at Dover for years. Choosing to replay a pit road incident or even a pass on the track while the race is green means flirting with disaster. Showing the replay full-screen is the big risk, but by using two video boxes on the screen and keeping the "line cut" of the race visible the Director can always switch quickly to the live box in the event of an accident.

On Saturday, pit reporter Shannon Spake moved to the Infield Medical Center and attempted to interview the drivers involved in incidents on the track. This is a crucial issue for the fans. In last week's race, ESPN was only interested in interviewing drivers if they were involved in The Chase. Anyone outside of the top 12 was suddenly not important.

What the network forgot was that NASCAR fans keep their drivers all season, and in many cases for a lifetime. Simply because that driver did not make The Chase does not change the loyalty of the fans. With all the incidents at Dover, watching to see who ESPN chooses to interview could be a big tip about the network's coverage philosophy over the final Sprint Cup events.

In the old days, the TV crew used to call this race "The 24 Hours of Dover" because of the multiple caution flags and the grinding 400 laps. Perhaps, the dynamic of The Chase will lead to more conservative racing and long green flag runs.

NASCAR Countdown hits the air at 1PM and race coverage begins at 2PM. You should be able to find both programs on your local ABC television station.

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Morning NASCAR TV: RaceDay and NASCAR Now

Boris Said joined Ryan Burr for the one hour morning edition of NASCAR Now on ESPN2. This team has an interesting chemistry and Said has been working hard to keep his answers concise and his opinions unbiased.

Burr is locked into the ESPN Chase script, but did a good job of covering the news issues of the day with Angelique Chengelis and others on the program from Dover.

Burr will return Sunday night at 11:30PM ET for the wrap-up edition. Fans recording this show should add at least an hour to this time, as live events may back ESPN up during the evening.

RaceDay from Dover is always a happening. There is a big crowd and no doubt Kenny Wallace will keep the volume level high. Host John Roberts is on a roll after his long-time pick Greg Biffle finally won a race. Jimmy Spencer will be alongside of those two for the full two hours.

Wendy Venturini's Real Deal is an interview with Greg Biffle. Rutledge Wood plays billiards with some drivers for charity. Roberts reviews the problems Chase contenders have experienced at Dover and looks at the win streaks that are in trouble for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon if they don't win over the next couple of races.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dover Biggest TV Challenge Of 2008 Chase

The unique layout of Dover where visibility and TV coverage is concerned should make Sunday's race the most challenging of the ten Chase races for the ESPN on ABC gang.

Veteran NASCAR fans know all too well the struggles of the TV networks to keep viewers informed during this fast-paced event. Simply remembering the single big accident of the last Sprint Cup Series race at Dover will serve to tell the tale. Cars continued to pile-into an accident seemingly forever and the resulting mess challenged the network to keep-up with the action.

ESPN is a TV crew that works to manage an almost scripted performance. The focus and emphasis of the NASCAR telecasts have been long since decided before the pre-race show hits the air. The on-going struggle for ESPN is to manage the clash between what the network wants to cover and what is actually happening in the race.

Even the dependable Allen Bestwick must follow the scripted performance where the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show is concerned. Although still light years ahead of the Hollywood Hotel, Bestwick has dutifully been spouting "The Chase" in every sentence and leaving the actual stories of the racing behind.

On this weekend, NASCAR has already run both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races. There is a big change in the controlled substance policy for the sport. Another discrimination lawsuit has been filed and one of the top team engineers in Formula-1 racing has left the sport to join Michael Waltrip Racing. All of those stories should have a place in Bestwick's pre-race show. It should be interesting to see how many of them make the script.

Dr. Jerry Punch had a tough time in Saturday's Nationwide Series race trying to pay attention to both the TV monitor in the announce booth and also look out at the track. It was often Dale Jarrett or Andy Petree who first saw trouble and reported where it was to both the audience at home and the TV crew in the truck.

That was during a race that had 200 laps. Sunday, Punch faces 400 laps with both the story of the race and the story of The Chase running side-by-side all afternoon. The grind of The Monster Mile calls for a level of determination and intensity that Punch has not yet displayed this season. Jarrett and Petree have become critical partners in keeping the ESPN viewers informed of even the most basic information.

Saturday's race also saw a new commitment by ESPN to interviewing the drivers involved in accidents as they exited the Infield Medical Center. Pit reporter Shannon Spake did a solid job of simply being on-scene and letting the drivers talk. Hopefully, this continues on Sunday with the Cup Series drivers. ESPN has been recently eliminating this practice unless a Chase driver was involved.

Spake, Jamie Little, Dave Burns and Mike Massaro face the challenge of calling the action from one of the worst pit roads in NASCAR. A simple mistake by a team or a driver on pit road in Dover can be catastrophic where a chance to win is concerned. That was never more evident than in Saturday's Nationwide race where two of the top contenders collided exiting the pits.

ESPN had a fantastic telecast earlier this season from Bristol, TN. The production team recognized that the action was so frantic on the track that changes needed to be made to what the viewers saw. Tim Brewer and the Tech Center was essentially out unless he could appear during a caution or quickly coming back from break. Bestwick and his infield team could be heard, but did not need to be seen once the green flag waved.

These changes resulted in the emphasis being put back where it belonged, on the racing. This week, 43 teams are going to enter an endurance contest where pit strategy and sheer luck may have a strong role in determining the winner. The same approach is needed.

The TV crew will be ducking a bridge over the track on every lap. Cars will constantly be racing on the front and back stretches simultaneously. Accidents happen so quickly that the car is often already at the bottom of the big Dover banking before the Director can call for the right camera.

Upcoming tracks like Kansas and Talladega are going to seem like heaven to this TV crew after a Dover weekend. With all the wrecks and laps under caution, this race has been referred to as "the 24 hours of Dover." Everyone on the ESPN crew is going to know they have put in a full day's work when this one is over.

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