Monday, July 28, 2008

"This Week In NASCAR" Turns The Corner

NASCAR fans have had a unique opportunity this season to watch a TV show start from scratch and begin to grow. This Week in NASCAR on SPEED took the place of the Inside Sprint Cup program franchise in February.

Steve Byrnes was named as host and the "expert panel" shrunk from three to just two. Michael Waltrip was a staple on this new show, with Greg Biffle and Chad Knaus rotating through the other chair as their schedules allowed. While Kenny Schrader left the program, he did return for one episode this season.

The challenge for the NASCAR Media Group producers was to keep the franchise alive but make some positive changes for the new program. One big change was the format. The new TWIN had a short chat with the panelists about their racing weekend and then moved-on quickly to the next production element.

The SPEED executives had decided to preview the upcoming race before Byrnes and company got the opportunity to review the action that was still fresh in the minds of the fans. It was an understandable idea, but one that did not really fly with the TV viewers.

Once Waltrip got comfortable with Byrnes, he cranked his excitement level back-up to the Mikey of old and things became fun again. Waltrip crafted a hilarious relationship with Knaus that we have been referring to as "the odd couple." The analytical Knaus is often confronted with the unorthodox Waltrip discussing things like his socks and favorite TV commercials.

Biffle has brought a driver credibility to the program of someone who still has the race-to-race intensity of a contender. His TV skills are getting better and he now finally feels free to offer his own opinions. He has mastered the art of completely avoiding Waltrip in a "Schrader like" way that also makes things fun.

Over the last six months, Daly Planet readers have added their comments in support of changing the program format. Once Byrnes got things organized and the show developed a personality, it was clear that the on-air announcers needed one little bit of help from the network. This week, they got it.

Monday night was the first show where the fresh memories and stories from the Sunday race were allowed to continue for the first half of the show. SPEED had allowed the review to pass the preview and the results were more than worthwhile. Now, Byrnes can concentrate on building-up the personalities and the features contained in the newly-formatted show.

Waltrip and Biffle ran through the Brickyard 400 issues and highlights with enthusiasm and candor. Waltrip echoed the comments of the other drivers that NASCAR managed the unfortunate situation the best way possible. As usual, Waltrip quickly went just a bit overboard in his enthusiasm.

The new format continued as Byrnes fired-off a group of email questions from viewers about the Indy race to the panelists in the middle of the show. This was a great addition, as it caught both Waltrip and Biffle off-guard and asked them to deal with the real feelings of the fans. This element will have real potential when viewers are allowed to upload a video question on the website for the show.

One strong element continues to be the pre-produced features from The NASCAR Media Group. Elements like Scanner Chatter, highlight reviews and upcoming race previews are always outstanding. It is a shame that these features cannot appear on the same website so viewers can replay them. Perhaps, that will happen in the future.

As expected, the Pocono preview was much more effective since the panelists were now relaxed and in a very good mood. After thirty minutes of talking about the last race, the transition to the upcoming event seemed to be very natural.

This week, the format changes continued as TWIN showed the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series highlights. This was a feature that never should have been eliminated and was welcomed back with enthusiasm by the panelists.

TWIN is going to benefit from increasing the viewer interactivity with the panelists. ESPN2's NASCAR Now has cemented the format of three panelists who simply take questions from the host and perhaps talk to a guest.

It will be up to SPEED and the NMG producers to take advantage of this personality-driven show and increase the ability of NASCAR fans to participate with the panelists on TWIN. There is a whole lot of potential in this program series.

In the end, we applaud SPEED for allowing the producers to change the format and open-the-gate to more fun and flowing conversation. As usual with the NASCAR TV partners, they have proven to be ultimately responsive to the views of the fans.

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Bestwick Hosts Owner's Roundtable

This year has seen some interesting shows on the one hour Monday edition of NASCAR Now.

Themes have included all three Wallace brothers, three NASCAR reporters and next week will feature all four of ESPN's NASCAR pit reporters. On this Monday, ESPN2 came by a show theme accidentally. Mike Massaro missed his plane.

Instead of Allen Bestwick hosting Massaro, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham, it was suddenly an "all Sprint Cup Series owners" edition of the program. Massaro's presence was sorely missed as he is a valuable piece of this Monday show and was right in the middle of the pit road action at The Brickyard.

Bestwick opened with a muted tone considering the circumstances of the race and ran through the mandatory highlights and soundbites from the winner and his owner. The fun really began when Bestwick was talking about the tire situation and the resulting mess on the racetrack. "Why did this happen?" he asked both panelists.

The strength of Evernham where television is concerned is that he comes across as easy to understand and likable. His explanation of the weight issues with the COT and the problems in the corners made sense. Suddenly, things did not seem to be as complicated as other TV shows made them out to be.

It was Daugherty who was surprisingly outspoken about this issue on Sunday from the track for ESPN. As Bestwick turned to him for an explanation about why NASCAR did not have an open test session at The Brickyard, it was clear Daugherty was still upset. "I think it was a critical mistake," said Daugherty.

His point was that by not allowing the teams to test and solve the resulting problems, it put NASCAR and Goodyear in the very position they both experienced on Sunday. Evernham backed-up Daugherty and pointed to this issue as the key to the situation.

It was smart of Bestwick to push both men about the "why." Evernham and Daugherty were upfront in admitting they knew "what" happened but they had no clue about "why." Evernham called for new tire dimensions for next season or the same problem was going to re-surface. A "bigger box to work in" was the request.

Bestwick put both panelists on the spot by asking them about NASCAR's performance. Daugherty called Indy a "crown jewel" and said the race was "falling apart. His point was that NASCAR made the only choices possible.

Evernham has always had a dry sense of humor and his quote was that "there are some things NASCAR does well and some things NASCAR does...not so well." Suggesting that NASCAR kept things safe and did the best they could, but perhaps needs to take their lumps over the situation in general.

The race highlights were simply horrible and Bestwick quickly shifted the focus back to making The Chase. It was this topic that made Evernham put on his owner's hat and he responded well. He spoke about his teams and the many things that being in The Chase can bring. Most of those things were financial.

It was clear that having Massaro's pit road perspective and veteran opinions would have helped this program. Evernham can provide the owner's perspective and Daugherty can talk like a fan, but the show missed a reporter's first-hand experiences during the race itself. Now that Bestwick has been promoted to being the infield host for the Cup races, he cannot provide that kind of information.

We had hoped that NASCAR Now would have a Monday guest that could contribute to the tire issues in a meaningful way, but that was not to be. It was driver AJ Allmendinger who stopped by via satellite and did his best to address the Indy troubles. Bestwick also rather pointedly asked Allmendinger about the time this year when he was "benched." Viewers could see Allmendinger wince at the question on-camera.

The politically correct answers came out, so Bestwick moved-on to ask about Team Red Bull's improved performance. Allmendinger confirmed that Red Bull is now building their own cars and is trying to take control of the overall COT package. Still outside the Top 35, Allmendinger seems realistic about grinding it out for the remainder of 2008.

All three of the panelists looked rather "toasty" on-the-air and Bestwick even related that the airlines had lost his luggage on the way to Bristol. This endless trek of personnel back to Connecticut each and every Monday is still strange to many. ESPN is neck-deep in NASCAR and will be for many more years.

With almost all of the NASCAR personalities based in the Greater Charlotte area, it may be time for ESPN to look at all the content it generates about the sport during the week and consider putting a facility together in the Concord or Mooresville area.

Bestwick delivered an optimistic preview of Pocono and then showed brief Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series highlights to close the program. Kudos to all three panelists for dealing with a long race and a late night flight to simply make this show appearance. Evernham is making his way onto the ESPN team and Daugherty is finally speaking his mind and taking control of his TV image.

Next Monday the panel will consist of Massaro, Shannon Spake, Jamie Little and Dave Burns. NASCAR Now will move from owners to reporters as the amazing popularity of this Monday program continues to grow.

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