Monday, June 30, 2008

Michael Waltrip Gets His TV Groove Back

Kenny Schrader used to put Michael Waltrip in his place on Monday nights by saying to him that Inside NEXTEL Cup was "Mikey's show." This comment used to come right after Schrader had ended another one of Waltrip's often hilarious stream of consciousness rants. Where INC was concerned, Schrader was the enforcer.

Once SPEED reconfigured the program into This Week in NASCAR, one of the biggest changes was that Kenny Schrader had left the building. Now, it was going to be up to Steve Byrnes, Greg Biffle or Chad Knaus to figure out how to handle Waltrip. That is no easy task.

Daly Planet readers skewered the new program when it started and many continue to yearn for the old days. On the other hand, it has been fun to watch Byrnes and company actually develop a new TV show from the ground-up.

This Monday night Byrnes knew that he was holding a winning hand. The format of TWIN calls for a preview of the upcoming race first and this week it was Daytona. Looking across the NASCAR Media Group studio set, Byrnes saw Waltrip and Biffle as his panelists for the program. That would be a jackpot.

Even better than the success that both panelists enjoyed at Daytona would be the fact that Biffle had just signed a contract extension with Roush Fenway and Waltrip has finished second in Loudon. Both drivers were in very good moods.

From the start, Waltrip was excited and animated and had the look of the "Mikey of old" that fans have come to enjoy. He was talking way too long for the Producer as usual and it was fun to watch. Biffle was comfortable with Waltrip and enjoyed his preview information about Daytona, including the very personal stories and memories.

Finally, the NMG production staff is beginning to understand that it is the conversation and not the pre-produced features that the fans are coming to see. This program was clearly the best example of that so far this season. Waltrip was on a roll, Biffle was having fun and Byrnes was directing traffic and getting out of the way.

When Waltrip has his game-face on things like background pictures on the set, hello's to Kenny Wallace and smacking his fellow panelist all come into play. This is the reason people watch the show. Teetering on the edge of control has always been the allure. From the shaking head of Allen Bestwick to the gritted teeth of Dave Despain, veteran fans remember the effects of the "Waltrip tornado" on the show.

Hidden behind the jokes and stories this week was perhaps the best presentation of both a preview and a review that this new show has done. The perspective of these two panelists worked very well in the comfortable and casual setting that SPEED provides. In terms of Daytona, both Waltrip and Biffle combined for a sparkling preview. There is no substitute for first-hand experience.

Where Loudon was concerned, Waltrip hung tough to his theory that rain had nothing to do with his good finish while admitting that race car drivers do think a little bit differently than others. TNT's Bill Weber might refer to that as "strategery."

Watching this show continue to evolve and understanding that it is being "built" will allow for a little better perspective than continuing to be driven nuts by the backwards format or the ridiculous video features inserted in the closing segments.

Even a cameo appearance by T. Taylor Warren from his NASCAR Confidential profile did not have a natural place in this conversation-driven program. Re-purposed video is an issue that has been raised before with this program.

It is hard to believe that This Week In NASCAR did not contain highlights and soundbites from the Nationwide and Truck Series races of the past weekend. Tony Stewart and Johnny Benson were perhaps bigger stories this week than the goofy SPEED videos of drunken monkeys and Kenny Wallace being loud...again.

Balancing the good content against the bad format will keep hardcore fans returning, but there has to be some agreement on including all of the NASCAR action from the previous week. The Whelen Modifieds had a fantastic finish at Loudon that should have made this show.

Now that the on-air talent seem to be comfortable with each other, it is time to hammer-out a new format so fans can understand that this program will keep them updated on everything happening in the sport on a regular basis.

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