Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pocono Lets ESPN Get Back On-Track

The big sigh of relief you heard on the first lap of the Sprint Cup race from Pocono was both NASCAR and ESPN finally exhaling. It had been a very long week.

NASCAR was trying to shake the Indy tire fiasco and ESPN was getting thumped by angry drivers over reporting practices. What both groups needed was a break. The wide track and sunny skies of Pocono let NASCAR fans get their minds back on racing.

Allen Betwick hosted the pre-race show, which swung through a wide variety of topics and included an Indy follow-up and some highlights of the Montreal Nationwide Series race that was run in the rain. Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty joined Bestwick in some high-spirited discussions of these issues. Wallace arrived from the Montreal race with his volume level set on high and never turned it down.

Sunday's Red Cross race sponsorship was part of a program ( that educates fans about the need to donate blood and helps them understand that process. Unfortunately, that did not translate to the ESPN airwaves. Amid the endless promos for the X Games, SportsCenter and future ESPN NASCAR races there was no mention of this worthwhile effort.

On SPEED's RaceDay it was NASCAR President Mike Helton who introduced this charity and promoted the cause. He explained that organizations like the Red Cross were the reason the NASCAR Foundation was created. It was a good choice by SPEED to showcase this effort and a big miss by ESPN to avoid it.

Jerry Punch does not appear during the pre-race show and when he begins his portion of the telecast things change substantially. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree are now well-practiced at jumping-in and helping Punch when the racing on the track does nothing more than elicit a yawn from the good doctor.

Luckily, the drivers were working hard to put on a good show on a nice big track. NASCAR spiced things up with the competition cautions once again, but tire issues never materialized and things began to work out for the teams. Racing had returned to NASCAR and just in the nick of time.

ESPN was trying some new things and expanded the integration of the three announcers located in the infield. Fans heard a lot of Rusty Wallace interacting with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. Wallace was in Jarrett's position last season, so the dynamic between these two was interesting to hear.

Wallace was eager to offer his opinion, only to have former TV partner Andy Petree often completely disagree. Alongside of Wallace in the infield was Brad Daugherty, who also had very different opinions on a variety of subjects than Wallace. Both Allen Bestwick and Jerry Punch sometimes found themselves navigating through a sea of diverse opinions and a whole lot of talking.

It was clear that Jarrett and Bestwick were actively involved in "team building" on the TV crew and were the professional voices of the broadcast. Punch continues to boost his volume for things like going to commercial and reading promos. This only became worse as Wallace cranked his volume up to the highest level in the rain delay.

One shining spot in this telecast was Andy Petree. He felt comfortable from the start of the race and interacted effectively with all of members of the broadcast team. Having Jarrett in the booth instead of Wallace has resulted in Petree having a very good year. His Nationwide Series telecasts have been fun and these longer Sprint Cup races are proving to be right up his alley.

ESPN had great pictures and sound, but several things happened while the network was in commercial and Punch failed to follow-up on race issues. The Michael Waltrip story was never updated, ESPN did not have video access to weather radar and was slow to use the blimp to show viewers what was going on with the rain.

Last season, Pocono was a race that resulted in this column on TDP. This season, ESPN has made substantive changes to a significant amount of the network's production elements and practices. Fans did not see Draft Track, music videos leading to commercial or celebrity interviews under green flag conditions.

Since Indy was not a true test of ESPN's NASCAR efforts, this Pocono race helped to show fans that ESPN is serious about putting the emphasis on race analysis. Jarrett, Petree and Wallace were featured in this telecast while Tim Brewer, Daugherty and the pit reporters played less of a role than normal.

ESPN worked well in the rain delay and picked-up the frenzy of the race in full stride to the finish when it resumed. This stretch was the best TV production of the race and the hard work of the pit reporters to update the final stops worked well. It was a nice way to finish the first "real" full race of the ESPN/ABC Sprint Cup package.

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Reclusive Waltrip On TV Monday Night

It was the question everyone was asking during and after the race. Why had the ESPN crew not talked to Michael Waltrip, the first car out of the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono?

This was a crucial moment in Waltrip's season as he retired from the event with apparent engine failure. Waltrip is the owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, and this finish was going to deeply affect his points situation and qualifying status for the rest of the season.

Since Waltrip had another car in the race, the question of whether or not he departed the racetrack was never made clear by ESPN. Last season, TDP criticized ESPN's pit reporters for not following-up with the drivers that fell out of the race. What happened this time is not clear.

Even if Waltrip refused to speak, ESPN owed it to the viewers to update the status of a Sprint Cup Series driver/owner for the TV viewers. Waltrip is a very high-profile individual with his TV commercials and his various roles on SPEED programs that span more than ten years.

This lack of information had fans wondering what the real issue had become? Waltrip is a veteran driver and has experienced the highs-and-lows of racing over the years. Simply having an engine problem should be nothing more than an opportunity to encourage the team to do better and mention the sponsor.

Monday night at 8PM on SPEED should now be very interesting. Waltrip is scheduled to join Chad Knaus as the panelists on This Week in NASCAR. Steve Byrnes hosts this one-hour show that looks in-depth at both the previous weekend's event and the upcoming Sprint Cup Series race.

This program revolves around Waltrip. As they say in TV land, Waltrip is "the franchise." Characters like Allen Bestwick, Johnny Benson and Kenny Schrader have come and gone, but Waltrip remains as the personality who can draw a wide variety of viewers who either love or hate his very unique perspectives on racing.

This is what makes Waltrip's disappearing act at Pocono even more strange. During the rain delay it would have been responsible for ESPN to update Waltrip's status even if he refused to do a TV interview. If ESPN was dismissing Waltrip as a backmarker who fell out of the race, that certainly is going to be a big shift in status for this owner/driver.

In an interesting twist, it will be all four of the NASCAR on ESPN pit reporters appearing as the panelists on Monday's NASCAR Now on ESPN2. This 5PM ET show should be very different as host Allen Bestwick goes into this episode without a former driver or crew chief to lend expertise to the commentary. One of the pit reporters was however assigned to Waltrip, so viewers may want Bestwick to ask about the reality of what happened.

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Hermie Sadler Featured Sunday On SPEED

The long-time regular commentator Jimmy Spencer was absent from the Pocono weekend due to a death in the family. SPEED turned to Hermie Sadler to fill-in on both RaceDay and Victory Lane.

Sadler has been patiently working his way into the SPEED line-up over the last several years. He has been a breath of fresh air with his descriptions of the tracks and the issues involved in each race on RaceDay. Eventually, he made his way to the SPEED Stage to take his place alongside of Spencer and Kenny Wallace during his reports.

Viewers next noticed that Sadler was appearing in more features on RaceDay and also handling some interviews. He had become the second reporter, replacing Rikki Rachtman and moving Rutledge Wood to a minor role in the show. Sadler has a very deliberate style and a well thought-out manner to his conversations.

As a former competitor, Sadler has the same level of access to drivers and personalities as Venturini and proved to be a good compliment to her interviews. He has also shown to have a good sense of humor and a mature perspective on many of the NASCAR issues being discussed.

This week, RaceDay allowed Sadler to speak to a wide variety of issues while responding to questions from host John Roberts. It allowed TV viewers to see Sadler in a very different role and he was impressive. Wallace and Sadler had a good relationship on the program, with Wallace keeping-up his enthusiasm and volume while Sadler kept things on an even keel.

Two hours of RaceDay is a task for an analyst and Sadler rose to the occasion. Quite obvious was his comfortable relationship with Roberts. Sadler was usually the first person to comment on the NASCAR topics and held his own on the RaceDay panel.

After the race, Sadler took his place alongside of the same duo to handle the Victory Lane assignment. This was the best part of the day for Sadler, as he was the primary interviewer of the winning driver and the crew chief. As opposed to the semi-scripted nature of RaceDay, this Victory Lane appearance allowed Sadler to speak freely and use his veteran perspective to ask solid questions.

Roberts and Wallace kept their roles in this program to a minimum and that was very professional of both men. Sadler was excited and had the informed questions ready for the guests. He also had prepped for the highlight portion and understood what teams had done in terms of strategy on the final pit stops. Wallace and Roberts just let Sadler lead the way and he did just that.

SPEED has experimented with all kinds of TV personalities at the SPEED Stage from ultra-serious to ultra-ridiculous. By making the most of this one opportunity to step-up as an analyst on two key NASCAR TV programs, Sadler sent the message that he may be ready to assume a bigger role for the network in 2009.

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In-Progress At Pocono: "NASCAR Countdown" And Sprint Cup Series Race (ESPN 1PM)

Here we go with the big shot-in-the-arm that NASCAR so badly needs this week. It will be up to Allen Bestwick to set the tone for the day when he hosts NASCAR Countdown at 1PM to begin ESPN's live coverage.

Bestwick will be joined by Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace in the Infield Pit Center. Wallace has just returned from a very wet race in Montreal where NASCAR used rain tires, windshield wipers and brake lights for the first time. The question is, will ESPN show highlights and what will Wallace say about the rain issues?

Bestwick will have Dave Burns, Mike Massaro, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake as pit reporters for the pre-race show. This hour should be a very diverse mix of the fall-out from both Indy and Montreal mixed with the hype of both Pocono and the upcoming Chase for the Championship.

At 2PM, ESPN will switch to race coverage and that means Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree upstairs in the announce booth. This big track with very repetitive laps should be a true test for Punch and company of how they can handle a very long and sometimes very boring Cup race.

Look for Bestwick and the Infield Studio crew to be used a lot more in this telecast once the race hits the midpoint. Last season, this was the now infamous "shut-up and drive" race that included on-camera celebrity interviews under green and also SportsCenter updates. One big issue was Suzy Kolber and her crew talking about the race on-camera while the cars roared by in the background at full speed.

This season, ESPN has the potential to put on a very good show from the HD pictures to the brand new line-up of announcers. The Pocono race will be the first good test of ESPN's Sprint Cup commitment and may well signal a positive shift in momentum for this TV crew down the stretch.

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NASCAR Tempers Rising At ESPN's Reporting

The Thursday edition of NASCAR Now was on-the-air. Tim Cowlishaw was along to offer his views of Indy and the upcoming Chase for the Championship. The outstanding video piece seen earlier on ESPN was replayed showing Richard Childress and his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects from the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. to the current state of NASCAR. The scenery from his Montana ranch was beautiful.

Among all the news and notes read by host Ryan Burr, one big item was missing. On Wednesday's show NASCAR writer David Newton had led the program by stating that, according to his sources, Ryan Newman had agreed to drive for the new Stewart-Haas Racing team. This column will detail our reaction to this type of journalism.

Later that same night, this column appeared written by Ryan's wife Krissie on her personal blog. Here are the quotes that relate to Newton and ESPN:

"There have been some recent articles posted that reporters have put out that sound factual. However, Ryan has not verbally agreed to anything and is still working on his 2009 and future plans."

"This has been a week of controversy. I don't know how those celebs in LA handle all the false information and attention the media puts out there. Don't even get me started on Rusty Wallace!"

"We had an appearance for Watkins Glen Race Track in NY and then we came to PA to spend a little time with my family before the race weekend craziness. Which is now going to be more insane thanks to an ill-informed reporter from ESPN. Sorry, if you can't tell I was a little ticked."

So, we have the wife of the driver stating that David Newton was wrong and Rusty Wallace has her upset. If the topic at-hand was a racing incident, that would be one thing. What Krissie Newman is upset about is ESPN's constant push to have "breaking NASCAR news" and exclusive NASCAR stories when they really do not. She says they lied about her own husband.

Her post comes on the heels of Martin Truex Jr. blowing-up in a profanity-laced reaction to Newton saying on national TV and that Truex was staying at DEI because "sources" told him that a deal had been done. Word is that report sent Truex directly to a verbal face-off with DEI executive Max Siegel.

The simple question is, what is going on here? NASCAR Now has been on-a-roll since February with Allen Bestwick leading the Monday roundtable shows and Nicole Manske handling interviews like a seasoned pro. Somehow, Ryan Burr seems to be in the host position when these types of rumor and innuendo stories come to the air. These two were no exception.

Burr grilled Newton on Wednesday about the validity of the Newman story and even showed a videotape of Newman seeming to contradict the Newton report. This sudden internal tension was very strange on a TV series that has been outstanding for the last six months. What has changed?

After all the fuss of a lead story on Wednesday, somehow the direct denial by Newman's own wife of that very issue did not even cause a blip on the NASCAR Now radar on Thursday.

Unlike other sports, ESPN is finding that it cannot manufacture and manipulate the news about NASCAR to serve the network's own agenda. The relationships between the long-time members of the NASCAR press corp and the key figures in the sport run deeper than David Newton or Rusty Wallace will ever experience. If Newton's stories are not verified in the mainstream NASCAR media, that should throw-up a red flag.

ESPN's other NASCAR reporters Marty Smith, Angelique Chengelis and the recently-added Ed Hinton have been very quiet on these two topics. Silent might be a better word.

Maybe they remember the anger and ultimately the national news stories of last season. It was Tony Stewart who led the way on this topic. "Every time we've got to deal with somebody from ESPN it's a sharp knife trying to dig for dirt," he said. "Do we always have to leave with a dagger in our back from ESPN? Here is the original story from the website.

It would have been nice if Burr acknowledged the Krissie Newman statement, but the issue is much bigger. Knowing when to report a story and when to back-off is ultimately the responsibility of the editors at and the producers at NASCAR Now.

Perhaps, a well-place phone call or two would help to get some perspective on the information that Newton and others sometimes bring to the plate using "anonymous sources" in the NASCAR garage.

It should be interesting to see how the ESPN reporters are greeted in Pocono and how the network executives decide to handle this growing problem for the remainder of the season.

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