Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jarrett Sizzles As Punch Struggles On ABC

There is finally a star on the horizon for ESPN and NASCAR. There is finally a reason to be optimistic about watching "The Chase" on TV this season. His name is Dale Jarrett.

After a tough first season that featured Brent Musburger, Suzy Kolber and some of the worst motorsports television production in years, ESPN has righted the ship and named a captain. The Nationwide Series race from New Hampshire was a great example of what NASCAR fans can expect down the stretch from Jarrett.

After a planned vacation, Jarrett returned to the ESPN/ABC team that will produce the remaining Nationwide Series races and the final seventeen Cup events. His return was accompanied by the appearance of Ray Evernham in the announce booth replacing the vacationing Andy Petree.

In TV terms, Jarrett has "all the tools" needed to be an outstanding analyst. His background is well-known to even the casual fan who may only remember his Daytona 500 victories. His appearance is professional and his vocabulary is a dream in a sport where this is often an issue for TV personalities.

What makes Jarrett top-of-the-line for the ESPN Producer and Director is his ability to understand the inner-workings of the sports TV business. In the Nationwide Series race on Saturday afternoon, Jarrett performed flawlessly when his TV skills were put to the test.

In the analyst role, Jarrett handles the replays of the incidents on the track as well as providing the commentary about the on-going action. His Dale Carnegie training allows him to speak in measured terms while also expressing his thoughts clearly and without bias. It has been very effective.

Something else is fun to watch with Jarrett. During the race he "throws" down to the pit reporters for interviews, talks live with Allen Bestwick and Brad Daugherty in the Infield Pit Center and often asks questions of his fellow analyst in the booth. Jarrett makes every on-air personality involved in the ESPN/ABC NASCAR coverage an active part of the on-going TV conversation.

This ability to "include" rather than "exclude" all of the other announcers is a tremendous key to being a good TV analyst in this sport. In just the short time that he has been actively involved with ESPN, Jarrett has proven his ability to deal with a wide variety of topics and personalities on-the-air.

Fans may remember that this was the downfall of Rusty Wallace last season. Often, after Rusty spoke on a certain topic there was nothing more to say. Either you agreed with him or if you did not agree Rusty was there to belabor the point and continue the conversation. Rusty "excluded" the other members of the TV team without even meaning to do it.

Several times during the Nationwide Series race from NHMS, Jarrett was forced to step-in and talk about the action on-the-track. Covering for his friend Jerry Punch has become almost second nature to Jarrett as it has for Andy Petree. Punch is having a problem in his play-by-play role and everyone knows it.

Almost all of us remember the fine work of Punch as a reporter on the earlier ESPN racing package and also his follow-up career in college sports for the network. What many people do not remember is his attempt to handle the NASCAR play-by-play role when ESPN had the Craftsman Truck Series. It was not memorable.

Punch has outstanding racing knowledge and a thorough understanding of NASCAR from a tremendously unique perspective. What he does not have is the play-by-play experience to handle a four hour live race. That is an entirely different TV skill set.

Those types of skills are on display with Mike Joy, Rick Allen and Marty Reid. Even former ESPN NASCAR announcer Bob Jenkins keeps his voice on-the-air by calling the action in the IRL support series. Racing fans see and hear others like Bob Varsha, Rick Benjamin and Greg Creamer on other motorsports series. They are all "play-by-play guys."

Punch is often more excited talking about an ESPN promo or introducing a pre-recorded feature than he is calling the side-by-side action on the track. At NHMS, with less than 10 laps left in the Nationwide Series race, he began a discussion with Jarrett and Evernham about Patrick Carpentier getting the Sprint Cup pole for Sunday's race.

This is often the quandary that Punch finds himself in after a multi-hour event. His focus and energy are often gone and he struggles to even describe the action on the track. This is a TDP column from last season about just such a moment.

ESPN did a good job of correcting the problems and moving the personnel around this season to solve the first year issues. From hiring Jarrett to promoting Bestwick to creating the newly-improved Rusty Wallace, the results have been nothing short of fantastic.

Now, as the ESPN/ABC Sprint Cup Series coverage approaches, it is our old trusted friend Jerry Punch that is having a tough time. It was suggested a while back that perhaps Bestwick and Punch would trade positions for one race just to see if that helped, but the network has not seen fit to try that experiment.

Later this summer ESPN begins the big grind of handling both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. It will be Punch alone handling the practice, qualifying and then the races for both. There is no Steve Byrnes to step-in for relief and no break in the schedule.

This is a TDP column from last August describing the ordeal for the single ESPN announce team at Watkins Glen. NASCAR fans are used to seeing changing TV faces with every practice and qualifying session, but ESPN has only one team. That philosophy is going to once again be put to the test long before Homestead rolls around in November.

So, the good news for ESPN is that they finally have experienced a solid beginning of the season while tuning-up with the Nationwide Series. The bad news is that in just a couple of weeks, there will no longer be an opportunity for change and ESPN will have to "run what ya brung" for the four months of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series coverage.

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In-Progress At New Hampshire: Nationwide Series on ABC

The Nationwide Series race at the newly-named New Hampshire Motor Speedway will signal the return of Dale Jarrett to the ABC broadcast booth and finally give Rusty Wallace a weekend off.

While Jarrett was off on his planned vacation, Wallace has done double-duty for ESPN. He has appeared on the NASCAR Countdown program and then gone upstairs to call the races. Give credit to Wallace, he has improved dramatically this season and fans have noticed his ability to present himself on TV in a very professional manner.

It will be Allen Bestwick starting the coverage with NASCAR Countdown at 2:30PM Eastern Time. For this edition, Bestwick will be joined by Jarrett and Brad Daugherty. There are plenty of topics to discuss this week, and it should be noticed by fans just how many relate directly to the Nationwide Series and how much attention during this thirty minute show is given to the Sprint Cup gang.

Jarrett moves up to the broadcast booth where he will be working alongside of Dr. Jerry Punch. This track is not the type that Punch enjoys and the lack of passing combined with the flat and slippery track should be a challenge for this former pit reporter. Look for Jarrett to give Punch a lot of help during the later stages of the event.

ESPN has begun to heighten the profile of Ray Evernham. Still undecided as to his plans for 2009, Evernham will step-in for the vacationing Andy Petree and handle the analysis with Jarrett. Still well-spoken, Evernham is trying to decide his future on-and-off the track.

For the next three weeks, Evernham will appear on the one hour Monday NASCAR Now program that Allen Bestwick has made so successful this season. In addition, Evernham will be the studio analyst for the NASCAR Now show before the big Daytona Sprint Cup race next weekend. ESPN is giving Evernham a variety of assignments, and it should be interesting to see what direction the network and Evernham choose to go for next season.

Dave Burns, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake will report from pit road but there will also be another change on the ESPN TV team. Tim Brewer has the weekend off, and it will be the #24 crew chief Steve Letarte stepping-in to handle the TV duties from the Tech Center. Letarte is a Maine native, and a well-spoken NASCAR personality with good knowledge of the ins-and-out of the sport.

One final note. With the NCTS racing later Saturday night in Memphis, TN perhaps Bestwick will ask Daugherty about his plans to operate a NCTS team for 2009. Since NASCAR Now dramatically hosted NFL veteran Randy Moss and NBA veteran Daugherty to announce that both were going to start their own NCTS teams, fans have not heard a peep out of either man about those plans. Emails to Daugherty about this topic were not returned.

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In-Progress At Memphis: Craftsman Trucks On SPEED

The one-day action will be fast and furious as the Craftsman Truck Series takes to the track in Memphis, TN on SPEED.

Action begins with coverage of qualifying at 6PM Eastern Time. At 8:30PM the network returns with the pre-race show and then coverage of the race at 9PM.

Rick Allen and Phil Parsons will be calling the NCTS action all day long with Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander patrolling pit road and the garage area. Krista Voda will host The Set-Up pre-race show before turning things over to Allen. Update: Doug Richert will be joining SPEED for the NCTS qualifying and the race.

SPEED has consistently delivered a quality product for fans with few gimmicks and lots of good solid racing. The focus of the broadcast follows the real story of the race, and that is not always who is leading. The coverage of pit road and the critical final lap of the races has been outstanding.

There is no doubt that not only is the NCTS the best racing of NASCAR's three national touring series, but the coverage on SPEED is also consistently solid. This series benefits from having a full-time TV production crew who only steps-aside early in the season when the Trucks race at the same track as the Cup Series during the Fox coverage.

Now, with TNT and then ESPN in the mix for the Cup races, the SPEED gang will be handling the remainder of the series. Look for the trademark qualities of Phil Parsons that include a smooth and personal style that compliments the play-by-play abilities of Allen. Dunlap is having a good season, and Adam Alexander is about to break-out for SPEED and tackle bigger TV assignments.

The square peg in this round TV hole is Krista Voda. Her recent appearances as a co-anchor of The SPEED Report have reminded viewers of her ability in the studio. Somehow, having Voda appear for thirty minutes before a Truck race and then disappear for the remainder of the telecast just does not make sense. Along with Alexander, look for Voda to be offered additional opportunities for 2009 with both the Fox and SPEED families.

Memphis should provide a good contrast in style and substance to the flat and slippery track in New Hampshire. Look for the SPEED gang to have a good show.

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