Monday, April 14, 2008

Schrader Anchors "Lights Out" Edition Of TWIN

SPEED finally had the opportunity to welcome Ken Schrader back to Monday night. Unfortunately, the program was so poorly lit that viewers could not help but be distracted by the terrible lighting.

Host Steve Byrnes had shadows all over him, Schrader was washed out and Michael Waltrip was totally in the dark. The lighting on this program should have been corrected prior to taping this show.

What Schrader found was a much more structured environment than the old Inside NEXEL Cup program. The panelists now respond to video features and often are allowed to talk in only short responses before the program moves on to a commercial break.

As usual, the program format of TWIN included providing an extensive preview of the upcoming Talladega race. Normally, the next race is only five or six days away, but this week the Sprint Cup Series is off. This means that TWIN provided a preview of a race some thirteen days away instead of talking about a race run two days prior.

Waltrip and Schrader tried to rekindle the banter that made them cult heroes on Monday nights. Schrader began by calling the new official shirts "PJ's" just like Waltrip did previously. He and Waltrip tried to slip-in some below-the-radar comments, but Byrnes was having none of it.

There were once again two conversations in-progress. Byrnes was working hard to move the show through all the production elements. This time, there was simply no room for the kind of off-the-cuff and extended hilarity of the past.

Everytime that Schrader turned around there was a video highlight, a graphic or a feature. There was no time for fun, because there were things to do. This is the new dynamic of TWIN.

Several times there began to be glimpses of the brilliance of the old days. Schrader and Waltrip talking about Phoenix and the COT, giving Mark Martin his due on fuel mileage and asking what happened to Dave Blaney's spotter were "moments" that veteran fans can point to as why this duo built a following.

Just as Waltrip, Greg Biffle and Chad Knaus have worked-out an on-air relationship with Byrnes, Monday night was Schrader's turn. His dry sense of humor was on display, but Byrnes once again had no time to follow-up because of the pace of the program format. In the new show, there is no segment labelled "goofing around."

The NASCAR Media Group that produces this show has consistently provided top-flight video, audio and edited features. The struggle for the new TWIN is to find the balance between highly glossy TV and the absolutely spontaneous fun of the past.

This contrast in styles is made all the more apparent by the NASCAR Now program produced by ESPN2. In that Monday one hour program, four men in sharp business suits sit and talk about racing with Allen Bestwick leading the discussion.

The irony that it was the hard work of Waltrip, Schrader and Bestwick that originally grew SPEED's Monday night franchise show is not lost on viewers. Bringing Schrader back was a good first step, but this show misses a third voice on the panel and someone like Chad Knaus would have been perfect on this Monday.

It was unfortunate that Waltrip was allowed to talk about NASCAR's current drug policy in a confusing manner. Waltrip was absolutely off-base in his facts and his emotional outburst did not serve any purpose. Give Byrnes credit for trying to at least point-out the contradictions in Waltrip's own words.

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Labonte Slows The Pace On "NASCAR Now"

This season, ESPN has been "stirring the drink" with a wide variety of NASCAR personalities appearing on the one hour Monday version of NASCAR Now.

This week, host Allen Bestwick had Terry Labonte, Mike Massaro and Brad Daugherty to work with. While Massaro and Daugherty have been on the program before, it was the first time for Labonte.

The low-key Labonte is well-spoken, but lacks the on-air energy of a Rusty Wallace or Dale Jarrett. The responsibility of providing the excitement fell to Daugherty and Massaro. While these two did their best, it was clear that if Labonte returns there needs to be either another driver or a crew chief on the panel.

The group reviewed the Phoenix Cup race for thirty minutes, and it was clear after about fifteen minutes things were being drawn-out far too long. Labonte was not going to step-up and take control like a Wallace or Jarrett, but he did respond quite well to Bestwick's questions and held his own in conversation.

Bestwick has assumed the leadership role not only for NASCAR Now, but for ESPN's NASCAR on-air team. His presence and knowledge has finally been allowed to flourish, and he is making the best of the situation. One interesting switch for ESPN this season is the ability of the announcers to talk about controversial issues.

Drug testing was brought-up by Bestwick, and he led an interesting discussion that neither SPEED or Fox has been able to handle. This has become a TV-driven story, and ESPN has taken the lead in keeping this topic very public. All the panelists contributed their views, but Labonte took the high road and did not criticize NASCAR for their current naive policy.

Jimmie Johnson was on the program by satellite, and this was a nice touch. Bestwick and Johnson have fun, and this was another good interview. Unfortunately, NASCAR Now continues the policy of only having Bestwick ask questions during satellite interviews. Things would be much better served with all of the group involved.

The panel briefly reviewed the Nationwide Series race, and spoke about the upcoming race in Mexico with some mixed emotion. To say the least, this event is something that teams are once again not too thrilled about. It should be interesting to see how ESPN approaches this weekend's race on-the-air.

Bestwick told viewers that ESPN will be using the off-week for the Cup Series to host a Monday version of NASCAR Now that will feature the reporters for the series. The show will explore various topics that have arisen this season and allow the reporters to take center stage on the program. It certainly sounds like a good idea.

This program lags a bit when one of ESPN's "big guns" like Wallace, Jarrett or Andy Petree is not on the show. Petree might have drawn a lot more out of Labonte with his crew chief perspective. Instead, the program had to rely once again on the general statements and casual knowledge of Daugherty. It was not the same.

When the reporters are named for the show next Monday, we will provide an update. Hopefully, both Massaro and Marty Smith will be included because of their hard work and dedication so far this season. As The Daly Planet suggested a while back, both Terry Blount and David Newton need to make an appearance on this series to help fans further understand their levels of NASCAR knowledge and journalism backgrounds.

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