Sunday, March 9, 2008

ESPNEWS Suddenly A Player In NASCAR On TV

After the Atlanta NASCAR Sprint Cup race was over, TV viewers had a place to go when the live Fox coverage was done.

It was not SPEED Channel. It was not NASCAR Now on ESPN2. It was not the local news. The new player in post-race live NASCAR programming is the ESPNEWS Network.

Since the first race weekend at Daytona it was clear that things had changed with a lot of elements in the ESPN portion of the NASCAR TV package. One change that flew under-the-radar was ESPN's own sports news network returning to an on-air practice they once did regularly several years ago.

After the races, the key players stop by the Infield Media Center and talk with the assembled media. The entire thing is uplinked by the NASCAR Media Group, and is available to stations and networks to record.

This live TV is golden for ESPNEWS, and that was never more apparent than immediately after the Sprint Cup race in Atlanta. From the moment that Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Junior sat down as the second and third place finishing drivers, things got interesting.

Not only were Stewart and Earnhardt's comments live, the best part is the ability of the TV viewers to hear national NASCAR reporters and writers in the Media Center ask the questions. This give-and-take with a group of people who see each other for forty weeks a year is fascinating.

The ESPNEWS anchors were amazed by the frank comments and the anger toward Goodyear exhibited by Stewart and Earnhardt. Each in their own way put Goodyear through the ringer because of the hard tires and bad racing.

ESPNEWS stayed with these comments until the end, and then added additional recorded footage of race winner Kyle Busch moments after it happened. Even Joe Gibbs and his son JD were on-the-air, talking candidly about their racing business.

This was a side of NASCAR that fans wanted to see, and was missed when ESPNEWS stopped this practice last season. To have the network make a new commitment to this coverage, and then come through with flying colors so far this season is wonderful.

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In-Progress From Atlanta: Sprint Cup Race On Fox

After some bad weather on Saturday, the NASCAR on Fox gang is enjoying cool temperatures and sunny skies from the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The Fox coverage begins at 1:30PM, with the green flag scheduled to fall slightly before 2:15PM. Coverage of the race is scheduled to run until 6PM Eastern Time.

Chris Myers hosts the pre-race coverage from the Hollywood Hotel, with Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond alongside. Look for continued coverage of the Team 99 penalties and a preview of the close finishes that this track seems to provide.

Mike Joy hosts the race coverage, with Waltrip and Larry McReynolds alongside in the broadcast booth. Down on pit road are Dick Berggren, Matt Yocum, Steve Byrnes and Krista Voda.

Despite the tire issues, this race has the potential to be one of the best broadcasts of the season in any series. Fox continues to tinker with some TV elements and viewers should watch for the "quad split" effect on pit stops that shows four different pictures. Fox uses a good ticker for information, and continues to offer outstanding integration between all the announcers on the broadcast team.

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"RaceDay" Continues To Offer Something For Everyone

The two hour length of the live RaceDay program allows it to cover a lot of territory. The topics swing wildly from hard news to friendly conversations to editorial comments from questionable sources. What a simple key to success.

This week in Atlanta, it was clear that host John Roberts was a bit under the weather, and he deserves a nod for hanging-in for the entire show. Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace continue to provide both comic entertainment and the occasional thought-provoking comment.

The fact that Spencer and Wallace continue to have good relationships with the active drivers and NASCAR personalities in the garage area is important. The technique that provides direct live interviews with drivers by simply giving them headsets and a microphone would not work without this relationship.

Case in point was both Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. These diverse personalities were both interviewed directly by Spencer, Wallace and Roberts. The interviews were outstanding. Stewart offered good perspective on the race, the track and his new Home Depot commercials. Biffle talked car, performance and his on-going charitable activities. This is why fans watch.

Wendy Venturini keeps her distance from the chaos, and once again provided some hard news and a good Jack Roush interview. Being from a racing family, Venturini has seen this type of "lid-gate" controversy come and go for years. Her factual and calm approach to this topic helped to put the interesting comments of both Wallace and Spencer in perspective. She offers facts, they offer emotion.

It is hard to top the visuals of this program, with the active crowd participation and the beautiful view of the outside of the track. If only SPEED allowed some fans the opportunity to be seen, their signs to be read, and their stories to be told in small in-bumps coming back from commercial. Who came the furthest? Who has been at ever race for 25 years? Who has the best story? The fans are a dynamic part of the sport, and swooping past them now for another year leaves something on the table.

Hermie Sadler has been working hard to increase his visibility on SPEED, and recently transitioned up to the broadcast booth. He had an opportunity to work with Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds on Saturday, and did a good job. Once again, he worked with the RaceDay team to provide the points about the track and the race in this new season of the COT. His role has been pivotal to understanding what has changed at these tracks since last season.

Once and a while, both Wallace and Spencer have a good conversation that raises important points. Their follow-up conversation about the bump-stops and the issues associated with the variety of choices for springs and shocks was outstanding. Both Spencer and Wallace feel free to disagree, as they did with Bootie Barker and his opinions. In their own way, these two expose topics that fans need to know, and that always keeps things interesting.

SPEED has tried to provide comic relief with Rutledge Wood, and the results have been mixed. This week his feature with Reed Sorenson was unfocused. There was no map shown of where Wood and Sorenson were located, or why both of them seemed to be simply driving around a gated community. If it had a point, I did not get it.

The integration between Fox and SPEED continues to be seamless, as the NASCAR on Fox pit announcers Steve Byrnes and Dick Berggren appeared to promote the live race. It was a nice touch to hear what will be offered in the Fox portion of the coverage first-hand.

RaceDay continues to use pre-produced features about past races to provide a break from the conversations. The NASCAR Media Group provides the production for RaceDay, and continues to work to dial-in the role of that company. Fans loved the glossy full-length programs that NMG used to produce, and the short features remind us of what NASCAR TV could truly be in the future.

Over the past several years, it has become popular to demand that announcers pick a winner. RaceDay has been working to dial-in this concept, and has limited the participants in this pool to the full-time announcers. This results in some fun, but more often than not racing luck has a big say in who winds-up right and who winds-up wrong. I guess fantasy racing is here to stay on SPEED.

The RaceDay gang likes it when we call their show "SPEED-a-palooza" or refer to them as the Super Wal-Mart of NASCAR TV with something for everyone. This episode once again offered fun information in a casual environment with some solid news reporting thrown-in along the way.

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"NASCAR Now" Makes Amends

It seems that ESPN got the message. It seems they got it loud and clear. The Friday version of NASCAR Now and the Sunday morning version of the same show had absolutely nothing in common. Thank goodness.

ESPN flexed the network's journalistic muscle on Saturday morning and decided to present both sides of the 99 Team penalties story. This finally included the comments from other key drivers in the garage that poked holes in the "intent" excuse offered by the Roush organization.

Reporter Angelique Chengelis returned to right a wrong, and did a good job of doing it in a balanced manner. Although choosing not to mention the Friday issues, Chengelis touched all the bases in her report on the on-going issues where Roush Fenway was concerned. Basically, penalty and intent are two separate issues.

Taking a break from controversy, the NASCAR on ESPN team provided an energetic and fast-paced wrap-up of the Saturday Nationwide race. Simply put, it was fantastic. This is exactly what this Sunday morning program needs to keep the Nationwide Series on the map, and promote the fact that all the races are on the ESPN networks.

To top it off, the program provided an interview with the winner. In 2007, The Daly Planet spent the entire year begging this Sunday show to even include the Busch Series results. As we have said so often this season about NASCAR Now, my how things have changed.

As a great "tag" on this report, Rusty Wallace joined host Nicole Manske from the track to update a lot of stories with his unique style of commentary. Rusty was also pumped-up, and offered a lot of good information and personal observations. This is a great role for Wallace, who likes the spotlight alone.

Kyle Petty was up next, and Manske did her best to use Petty to address a wide variety of topics. Fresh off his Tradin' Paint program, Petty was outspoken in his views on the 99 Team and the issues involved in this mess. Manske moved Petty onto his views about making the top 35 list for the rest of the season. Petty continued his views that the top 35 program is still a good idea.

Capping the interview, Manske pressed Petty for his future plans and got a very surprising and honest answer. Petty said if his son Adam was still alive, he would have already retired. What a statement. He continued on about the Petty Racing move to the Mooresville, NC area and framed what his company can do for the future. Another solid and interesting interview from Manske as she continues to surprise.

Wallace returned to address issues from Hendrick Motorsports to Kyle Busch. Rusty was on his game, and finally presented himself as a total TV professional in a live interview. Whoever has helped get Wallace polished in his new role deserves a lot of credit. Love him or hate him, Wallace is finally speaking his mind without reservation.

Non-fantasy racing TV viewers have to tolerate Christopher Harris and his biting comments that treat drivers as numbers and "horses" in some kind of bizarre race. If that information helps fantasy "players" to some kind of advantage, what can you say? ESPN makes a lot of money off fantasy play, so Harris will be seen all season long.

In closing the show, Angelique Chengelis returned with Jim Aust from Toyota to put their political spin on the Lee White vs. Jack Roush words in the media. Aust's point was that boys will be boys and the media basically does not get it sometimes. Aust put things in perspective, and actually did a good job of calming down the media frenzy that Nate Ryan and USA Today did a superb job of starting.

Finally, Roush himself appeared to put things in his own words. His comments made sense, but rang hollow in the perspective provided by other drivers and TV analysts. Manske did a great job of pressing Roush, and finally stepped-up to the plate and did a solid interview with tough questions. This might have been a nicely defining moment for this show and this host.

As the NASCAR learning curve continues, it is nice to see ESPN decide to go after the full story and use of all the available resources to give fans a full and diverse hour on Sunday morning. This one program has changed completely from its 2007 version, and now packs all the punch needed to claim a place among the "must see" TV list for NASCAR fans before the race.

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