Monday, February 18, 2008

Allen Bestwick Emerges From The Shadows

One person was not featured at the ESPN press conference in the Media Center at Daytona last Wednesday.

The network showed-off new stars Dale Jarrett and Ray Evernham. They brought along Jerry Punch, Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace. Once again, Allen Bestwick was the odd man out.

That is a shame, because NASCAR fans who have watched ESPN over the past four days know one thing from the TV coverage. Bestwick is now the man in charge of NASCAR on ESPN.

After a 2007 season that saw him host NASCAR Now, report from the pits, host the Infield Studio activity and call the play-by-play on selected races, Bestwick has finally been rewarded.

This season, he will host the one hour NASCAR Now on Mondays that includes the ESPN roundtable of NASCAR announcers. He will be the permanent host of the Infield Pit Studio for all of the Nationwide and Sprint Cup race weekends. His face will be seen on ESPNEWS, SportsCenter and As viewers found out over the weekend, Allen Bestwick is suddenly everywhere.

Sunday night found Bestwick and company hosting a one hour NASCAR Now special on ESPN. That same cast of characters then flew to Connecticut for the first big NASCAR Now studio show with the season underway. After long year of Monday disasters, ESPN has stepped-up and changed almost everything about this daily TV series.

Bestwick set the new studio tone by introducing Rusty Wallace, Mike Massaro and Brad Daugherty as his roundtable participants. The free-flowing and non-scripted conversation was a total change from the past.

The program featured the Daytona 500 winning crew chief, although the pre-recorded nature of the interview did not allow any of the other studio panelists to ask questions. Bestwick walked through some very personal and difficult issues with dignity, and came away with high marks.

Then, the program took on a very familiar tone for Bestwick. As the man who hosted Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on SPEED for many years, Bestwick now had an "esteemed panel of experts" once again. In a style well-known to NASCAR fans, Bestwick made the most of it.

On the panel were a veteran driver, a former team owner and a veteran reporter. Along with Bestwick, ESPN had put together a very interesting dynamic. The conversation flowed well, everyone had the opportunity to make their point, and Bestwick set the tone with his normal good humor.

Rusty Wallace was fascinating to watch as he came alive. In this format, he could be outspoken and spontaneous without the fear of embarrassment. The spotlight was off, and Rusty could be himself. It should be interesting to watch him embrace his new role.

A nervous ESPN Director called for way too many buttons to be pushed. The only thing interrupting the panel discussions was the frantic cutting of the cameras. The wideshot of all four roundtable members worked just fine, and helped viewers to see the interaction and body language of all four men. As time passes by, and everything settles down, we should see a lower-key approach to this production element.

Lead Reporter Marty Smith filed a wrap-up from Daytona detailing the Monday ceremony at Daytona USA. His interviews included Ryan Newman and Roger Penske. Smith's story was strictly business, and when the details were over he was done.

The show rolled through the Nationwide and Truck series highlights with brief roundtable discussions following both. This commitment to embrace all three of NASCAR's national touring series is wonderful. For a veteran sports TV company like ESPN, it was also about time.

In previewing the California racing weekend, Bestwick set-up the panel with a factual introduction and then opened the floor for discussion. Each of the participants brought their own perspective, and that resulted in a great overview that this program never could have offered last season. Once again, it was like Rusty Wallace had found his TV groove. He was happy, enthusiastic and informative.

Bestwick ended the show with news and notes, including a quick recap of the 500. The final thoughts of the panel included a good perspective of how the Penske camp flew under-the-radar last weekend and what the COT will mean for the rest of the season.

This time, the music roll-out to close the hour was not a screaming rock video. It contained great sound from team radios, the TV and radio announcers and included a hilarious moment from Kyle Busch. It was great to hear ESPN include the NASCAR on Fox announcers as the 500 field crossed the finish line.

If this is the prototype of the new NASCAR Now, my only advice to ESPN is...don't change a thing.

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SPEED Drafts A New Quarterback

We always like to use the high school football picture of Steve Byrnes once a season. This time, it actually makes some sense.

SPEED has rolled-out their new This Week in NASCAR series, which replaces the decade-old Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing. While the network decided to keep regular panelists Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle, they drafted a brand new quarterback.

Steve Byrnes has stepped-in to handle the hosting duties for this season. The network feels comfortable with Byrnes, who is a veteran NASCAR TV host. SPEED viewers see him on Trackside, NASCAR Live and hosting the practice and qualifying sessions.

This new dynamic is going to be interesting, as Byrnes with his outgoing personality is going to have to mix with the always interesting Michael Waltrip. Just as in any new relationship, they will be some time needed to allow things to settle in.

Greg Biffle has enjoyed his time on this series and toward the end of last season was coming on strong and asserting himself among the other dynamic personalities on the series. Monday night, Biffle picked-up right where he left off.

With no Kenny Schrader on the set and TWIN's new Crew Chief Chad Knaus nowhere to be found, Byrnes was working hard with his two panelists to keep the pace strong.

Waltrip without Schrader is like Martin without Lewis. There was a decided lack of irreverence and fun on the set despite the best efforts of Byrnes. This one show really made a statement about how important Schrader is to this TV series, regardless of his Cup status. Something was missing.

Viewers have seen Michael Waltrip give people the cold shoulder on this series. Certainly, some guest drivers and even hosts have gotten the silent treatment. In this show, Waltrip supplied information and good commentary without all of the antics he has become famous for. That was a mixed blessing.

As the show hit the halfway point, Waltrip began to come alive and get his energy going. With Biffle as his new straight man, things worked well and the information was good. But, they really needed a third panelist.

The producer tried to allow both Waltrip and Biffle to directly follow some recorded features on-camera, but they struggled with this new element. Byrnes is a TV pro, and used to the mechanics of television. This same thing was the secret of Allen Bestwick's success. He handled the "TV stuff" and let the boys play.

The interview with 500 winner Ryan Newman was good, and this new element of the show needs to be expanded. The video screen on the TWIN set was poorly lit, but the fact that this show had a guest, a new host and a new dynamic made up for any small issues.

Byrnes did a solid interview with Newman. Letting Newman recap the final two laps was a good idea. His words were an outstanding first-person description of a very historic moment. Newman told everyone that Tony Stewart came by and congratulated him after the event. When the winner says everything is fine, it really is.

Changing INC over to TWIN was a move that SPEED felt it had to make. Shows rarely last ten years in this changing television landscape. While SPEED hosts other than Steve Byrnes had been suggested by readers for some variety, the show is in good hands.

Once the full compliment of on-camera personalities appear, then it will be fun to watch the personal dynamics between this new cast progress. It was a nice touch to have the SPEED Truck Series broadcasters provide a wrap-up of the Daytona race. Part of this new series is to more effectively use all the NASCAR resources of the network.

On that note, Dave Despain appeared to do what he does best, offer opinions and begin conversations. Free of the shackles of hosting, it was nice to get a different opinion from the veteran Despain, and then to hear the reaction of the panelists. Once Schrader returns, this new show element should get very interesting.

The feature of the week was a re-hash of Wendy Venturini's report on Petty Racing that aired on RaceDay. As the season progresses, hopefully this designated feature slot will be used for something no NASCAR fan has seen before on SPEED.

Waltrip was in full excitement mode by the end of the show, and things ended on a good note for all concerned. As this series continues to develop, it should begin to build a momentum of its own. When Schrader and Chad Knaus return, that momentum may begin building very quickly.

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Sunday Night Post-Race TV Coverage

What an exciting night for NASCAR fans this season as several TV networks went all-out to offer post-race programming after the Daytona 500.

This head-to-head competition between the ESPN Networks and SPEED was fascinating and at times difficult to watch. With all of the different programs and coverage, I am going to provide this page for your comments and reactions now that some time has passed. Here are some highlights:

NASCAR Now used ESPN for a one hour post-race special, and pulled-out all the stops. This show has been very effective on-site, and in this special one thing was made very clear. No one was in Connecticut. The ESPN Pit Center was used once again as the main hub of activity, and that is a welcome change.

Allen Bestwick anchored a show that featured Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty used effectively for what may be the first time in a long time. Bestwick keeps both of them on a very short on-air leash, and this works well to keep their answers concise and focused. Rusty, in his new role, was particularly effective.

Nicole Manske and Shannon Spake served as the field reporters, and both introduced recorded "soundbites" as their content. These two were professional, well-spoken and had all their information up-to-date. Manske's transistion from SPEED's glamour girl to ESPN's on-site NASCAR reporter and NASCAR Now co-host has been particulary fascinating.

Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis served-up the news, and Smith's style meshes well with Bestwick. This combination is going to be fun to watch all season long. Unfortunately, Tim Cowlishaw is a fish out-of-water with Wallace and Daugherty already on the set. The commentary Cowlishaw offered had already been covered point-by-point with Wallace and Daugherty earlier in the show.

The ESPN team matched SPEED's Victory Lane by having the winner on the set, and also provided Media Center "soundbites" and additional on-on-one interviews with the key players in the race. This program can be summed-up in one word, impressive.

SPEED's line-up of Victory Lane and then Wind Tunnel lacked the polish of the ESPN show, but as usual was a lot more raw and emotional. Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace worked hard to get the emotion out of the normally low-key Ryan Newman and owner Roger Penske. John Roberts was effective in directing traffic, and continues to raise his professional reputation with his level of on-air performance.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, no one worked harder on this day than Darrell Waltrip. Fans began the day with DW having coffee with Junior Johnson, and ended it some ten hours later with DW on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain and Robin Miller.

Despain led another spirited discussion that featured all kinds of topics and even some viewer calls, but the focus was clear. NASCAR was again going to be the king of racing in North America because of the open-wheel mess. Even after all these hours on-the-air, DW made good points in this discussion with Miller.

SportsCenter and ESPNEWS both "re-purposed" footage and segments from the NASCAR Now Sunday special, but who cares? It was such a solid production that it served both those purposes perfectly. The profile of NASCAR has been greatly enhanced by the new user-friendly approach of these two groups.

As you watched the post-race coverage, what struck you as being an improvement and what did not work for you? These networks committed a lot of time and resources to this night, and it certainly was an incredible change from last season.

Just a reminder, tonight two big shows debut Monday in Studio form. The one hour edition of NASCAR Now on ESPN2 airs at 6PM. This is the Allen Bestwick hosted show that will feature the NASCAR on ESPN announcers having a "roundtable" about the weekend.

Over on SPEED, the first studio edition of This Week In NASCAR with Steve Byrnes will air at 8PM. This hour has Michael Waltrip and Kenny Schrader left over from Inside NEXTEL Cup, and the additional panelists are Chad Knaus and Greg Biffle. SPEED also indicated Ryan Newman would be along, but whether he is on the set or just being interviewed is yet to be seen.

Please feel free to add your comments about any of these shows and the general post-race TV coverage. To post your opinion, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. Thanks again for stopping by The Daly Planet.