Monday, September 1, 2008

Knaus Continues To Learn The TV Game

SPEED viewers have watched Chad Knaus work alongside of Larry McReynolds and Bootie Barker on NASCAR Performance for several seasons. Talking about the most detailed and intricate technical issues associated with the sport seemed to be a natural for Knaus.

It was interesting this season when SPEED decided to add Knaus to the re-vamped Monday night show now called This Week In NASCAR. This show features conversation about a wide variety of issues, almost none of them technical.

New host Steve Byrnes was feeling his way through this program when it first began and the pathway was a bit rough. Working with Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle and Knaus proved to be a challenge.

Added to that task was the format that SPEED demanded. After a very brief chat, Byrnes and his panel offered a thirty minute preview of the race that was six days away and never touched the highlights from just the day before. Needless to say, it did not work with the fans.

While all the behind-the-scenes chaos was going-on with the format, a funny thing happened on-the-set. Waltrip and Knaus began to develop a relationship that continues to evolve. Waltrip discovered that Knaus could take a joke and actually had a sense of humor. Knaus discovered that the only way he was going to survive on this TV series was to learn to ignore Waltrip on a regular basis.

The resulting on-air dynamic has been fun to watch and played a major role in making Monday nights on SPEED interesting again. It also helped that the network executives finally relented and let the race review lead the show. It made a big difference.

This week, Byrnes, Waltrip and Knaus were all tired from a long California weekend and a three hour time zone shift. Waltrip started slow, but got himself back on-track by suggesting California go to restrictor plate racing immediately.

Of course, this resulted in Knaus trying to find the words to disagree while not gloating on the fact he had the dominant car all weekend long. It was too late, Waltrip was gone off on a tangent and Byrnes was laughing so hard he could not talk.

"I can't believe we still have a show," said Knaus while rubbing his temples and shaking his head. Byrnes and Waltrip had long since gone to "giggle land" and the movie references were flying. For veteran viewers of this show, it was somewhat ironic that Knaus sounds more-and-more like a former TV partner of Waltrip.

Kenny Schrader spent many Mondays shaking his head at Waltrip's comments. Eventually, Schrader developed a style of ignoring Waltrip just like Knaus is trying to perfect. This week, Knaus cut-through the clutter and the chaos like a veteran TV professional.

The Richmond preview featured some excitement after a very boring weekend at California. The TWIN production team pulls the best footage to back-up the comments from the panel and this week was no exception. Just seeing the three-wide racing, hot tempers and racing action served to finally help fans actually look forward to a COT race.

A key element of this program's success is the features and interviews that the NASCAR Media Group can put together. They have all the resources from the track and the NASCAR footage vault, so things like the outstanding feature on Clint Bowyer and his dad can result. I have the feeling we might see that one again on RaceDay.

As this program goes forward, Knaus is clearly going to grow his role as the voice-of-reason while Waltrip just continues to be himself. These two have already combined for some memorable moments this season and things should only get better. If the TV executives will just let them come back next week, of course.

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Bestwick Tries Hard To Polish A Brick

There seems to be no quit in Allen Bestwick when it comes to working some excitement into a race. Even on a Monday while hosting NASCAR Now, Bestwick was constantly pushing different agendas to his panelists and hoping for some good conversation.

It was Boris Said, Ricky Craven and Ray Evernham who provided the analysis and the sarcasm about the Fontana racing weekend. Said was plain-spoken about the polite and politically correct comments from Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. It was Knaus who indicated that they had to work to have the car "come to them" in order to win.

Said quickly predicted that the car had "come to" Knaus sometime on Thursday, long before any team even took to the track. The #48 was fast off the trailer, on the pole and won the race. Point well taken.

It is sometimes tough to have two drivers on the panel, but Craven and Said have totally different personalities. This combination of panelists worked well and Craven's insights about the forgotten drivers still in Chase contention was well-received.

"Showing you why nothing can be considered final until the checkered flag waves," said Bestwick as the show went to commercial. The footage on the screen showed Kyle Busch making contact with Dale Junior in an earlier Richmond race. By emphasizing the word "nothing," Bestwick was backing-up his on-air scolding of the ESPN broadcast team who essentially gave the race to Johnson slightly after halfway.

Bestwick had broken into a Rusty Wallace comment and asked Jerry Punch if he remembered who won last week? Referring to Busch being dominant and Carl Edwards winning the race, Bestwick was trying to get the broadcast crew back into the game. His comment caused a moment of silence, but then the same-old monotone commentary started again.

Evernham and Said are enjoying the opportunity to work together. These two fit well and have a good time remembering each other's comments during the show. Having a team owner and a go-or-go-homer on the show is certainly an interesting contrast.

After the highlights, Bestwick ran down The Chase profile and led to comments on several of the contenders. "Bowyer is expected to make The Chase." mentioned Said. "Ragan has nothing to lose."

On the potential of Kasey Kahne sneaking into the final twelve, Said said no. "Unless Ray has that voodoo doll with the pins that go into the tires," stated Said. Craven made sure to give Evernham a quick frisking just to make sure.

This week, even the nicely-edited weekend highlight reel from the NASCAR Now staff could not lend a lot of excitement to the program. While Brad Daugherty may have predicted on-track action, the real race occurred in the pits and Johnson was able to make up any deficit a short time later.

Hosting an unstructured segment covering various topics, Bestwick let his panel talk about everything from the Top 35 rule to the problems with the Team Red Bull pitstops under pressure on Sunday. Said surprised the entire panel when he said that he agreed with the Top 35 rule, but simply would like to see all the cars qualify even on a rain-delayed race weekend.

Bestwick let the panel move on to the Saturday Nationwide Series race. He never mentioned that this race started on ESPN Classic Network because of college football. After voicing the highlights, Evernham reminded Bestwick that the Nationwide Series continues to use the old points system that rewards consistency and does not require wins. Evernham also confirmed that the Hendrick rotor in Brad Keselowski's car was from an outside manufacturer.

Bestwick again hammered home the point that no one can know what is going to happen until the checkered flag falls. Comments from a sad Denny Hamlin who had dominated at Richmond early-on backed up Bestwick's contention. Evernham reminded viewers how hard it is to get a lap back at Richmond. He recounted his own experiences with one of his drivers making The Chase and one falling-out at that track.

Said predicted Bowyer making The Chase, while Evernham and Craven focused on the final bonus points being available on Saturday night to wrap-up the Richmond profile. This was an outstanding preview of the important points for fans to remember as this night race approaches.

Bestwick floated the new testing policy being considered by NASCAR to the panel next. All three veterans kept their good humor while explaining that non-NASCAR tracks have suddenly become valuable because the COT is such an unknown quantity. Changing the testing over to the early days at the Sprint Cup Series tracks got favorable reviews.

There was a lot of very diverse NASCAR information presented to fans in this hour. The panel proved to be a good combination of personalities and even Boris Said fit-in well with this group. After letting go of Fontana, Bestwick offered a good preview of both the upcoming Richmond weekend and The Chase For The Championship.

Next week, Monday's NASCAR Now will expand to 90 minutes and feature a big preview of the upcoming Chase on ABC. At the usual time of 5PM ET, Bestwick will have Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Tim Brewer, Ray Evernham and Andy Petree on the program. Team ESPN will be in full-force and it should be a fun show.

(photo courtesy of Robert Leberge/Getty Images)

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France Ready To Expand Drug Policy

When writer Ryan McGee penned a story about Aaron Fike, it took many fans and NASCAR team members by surprise. The words "heroin" and "NASCAR" had not really been heard together before. Click here to read the story.

When McGee appeared on ESPN2's NASCAR Now and spoke about the reality of this Craftsman Truck Series driver using illegal drugs on race day, it shook the sport to its core.

In a follow-up column (click here), we tried to motivate the NASCAR Now reporters to keep this story on the front burner. Unexpectedly, we got some very strong help from many Sprint Cup drivers who did not mince words when asking for a random testing policy on race weekends.

Owners like Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham talked about their existing drug testing policies and how the world had changed from a time when hangovers from a late night at the bar were often a driver's only challenge.

The drivers recently banned for life or suspended from the sport are a diverse bunch. Their drugs of choice were also diverse. While this story had a shelf-life of a couple of weeks, it faded into oblivion because of NASCAR's stalling tactics where a modern drug testing policy was concerned.

One point to remember in all of this is how much time and effort ESPN recently spent on speculating about driver changes and posting "good guesses" online about where someone like Ryan Newman or Martin Truex Jr. was going just to "scoop" the competition.

The second point is how SPEED ignored the drug testing issue except for a brief mention on RaceDay and a comment on Wind Tunnel. SPEED has no dedicated news program that focuses on NASCAR during the week and on the weekend the focus is on the happenings at the racetrack.

Hopefully, the company where you work has a random drug testing policy and offers confidential assistance to those who fall into the pattern of addiction. Most of us had to be screened and agree to random testing even prior to our first entry-level jobs.

This issue is not about steroids. It is not about taking amphetamines before a race like baseball players do before a game. It is not about pain-killers for a nagging injury when an athlete makes the decision to take an injection and then play.

The question raised by McGee and pursued briefly by the media was about the use of illegal or prescription drugs and the effect on the workplace. In this case, the workplace happens to be going very fast and pit road happens to be very dangerous.

France talked to veteran reporter Jim Utter of on Sunday. "We will be looking at broadening testing, even though we have a lot of latitude today," said France. "We're going to broaden it. The circumstances around all of sports have changed in the past three, four or five years. We need to be mindful of that."

As some media observers note, France and NASCAR have not been mindful of that in the past and were considering no changes until the ESPN the Magazine article and NASCAR Now appearance by McGee shocked the sport. Heroin is a strong word. It is made stronger when the addict was racing with the drug in his system in a top level professional NASCAR event.

Perhaps the E:60 news magazine or Outside the Lines program with Bob Ley would be a good place for France or Mike Helton to present themselves to the fans and explain what they are about to change for 2009 and why it took the media to force these changes.

Fike told McGee that no one from NASCAR had ever followed-up about his addiction problems since his heroin arrest. Maybe, the reality of random testing would have saved Fike's career. The one thing the arrest did trigger was a "moment of clarity" for NASCAR itself.

Now, Mr. France and the NASCAR executives are very slowly coming out of "denial" and being forced to deal with the reality of addiction for the first time. We wish them luck in their recovery.

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Tony Stewart In "Rolling Stone" Magazine

You keep asking, so here it is again. Tony Stewart Rolling Stone story link. Click here.

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Pretty Pictures Can't Help ESPN With The Racing

The momentary excitement of several restarts worked to give TV viewers a small taste of the Sprint Cup Series actually racing in Fontana, CA. Even during these special moments, the ESPN broadcast booth was silent.

Sunday night, it had come down to the "COT fleet" to deliver the thrills of high-speed racing to the fans. ESPN was simply not going to help.

During the pre-race show, Allen Bestwick and company worked hard to present a diverse group of stories and had several discussions that involved all four of the race analysts. Give it to Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. They delivered to the ESPN broadcast team a solid set-up for the race.

Once the transition "upstairs" was made, a familiar scenario occurred. Unlike last week at Bristol, the old ESPN was back. Analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were put in a tough position that they have come to know all too well.

These two have been stepping-in to describe accidents, restarts and even crew members having trouble in the pits. The reason is simple. No one else is doing it.

After producing the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night, the NASCAR on ESPN team knew full-well that Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race was going to need all the excitement possible from the announcers to keep viewers interested. Instead, the broadcast slowly ground-down to another low-key affair where the only thing exciting from Jerry Punch was reading the promos and "throwing" to commercial.

It was clear early-on that the pit reporters would be used extensively to update the progress of both the race leaders and The Chase participants. ESPN offered two comprehensive rundowns of the field during the 250 lap race. Each time, they stopped at the top 15.

This season, ESPN has offered a very complicated picture of how the Sprint Cup Series is being presented to the remaining fans. Looking at the ESPN on-air team there are all-stars, grizzled veterans and rookies. It's a good combination.

Fontana told the story of a TV team that has all the ability on paper, but cannot find a chemistry to make NASCAR racing exciting to the TV viewer. This has been the challenge for ESPN since they took over the coverage. Lack of excitement.

Before all the blame is put on the COT, remember the outburst from Bestwick in the Infield Pit Studio slightly after the halfway point in the race. Punch was once again droning-on about the dominance of Jimmie Johnson while the ESPN pictures showed Johnson endlessly lapping alone on the big track.

"Remember who won last week?" yelled the normally reserved Bestwick. The message he was trying to send to Punch was that the race is not over when one car is dominant. Punch had completely given-up calling the action and was just content to let Jarrett and Petree add any content to the program other than positions on the track.

By the halfway point of this race, any fan who had not left this telecast was multi-tasking. It was only by using DirecTV's Hot Pass, listening to the MRN radio broadcast, or using one of the online scoring services that viewers could truly get any kind of perspective on the race. It was sometimes as if ESPN just did not care.

The network focused once again on the top five or ten cars and never even acknowledged that the rest of the field existed. The triple splits on the caution flag pitstops were great. The new driver "soundbite" effect that keeps the race in the background was fine. The graphics were great and the audio was crystal clear.

What was not fine was the commentary. Yes, this was not Richmond or Darlington. Yes, the track is going to string-out the field. Yes, this race is going to take a lot of work to make it exciting. Yes, there will be long green flag runs.

All of this was known well in advance and ESPN could not answer the bell. Last year at this time, we speculated that this ESPN crew was tired having done the Nationwide Series races since February. Last year at this time, we wondered what was wrong with Jerry Punch. Last year at this time, we wondered why ESPN only covered the leaders and the stars of the sport.

This season, fans are simply getting more of the same. Here is a final example. With 28 laps to go, an exciting restart let over forty cars loose to run to the finish.

This was the entire commentary of the play-by-play announcer.

"28 laps to go on a two mile oval here in Southern California...Fontana," said Punch.

After five seconds of complete silence, Jarrett jumped-in and started to call the action on the track. As he knows all too well from his first season in the booth for ESPN, if he does not do one will.

Something has to change before ESPN heads into Richmond and transitions over to the ABC Television Network. Fans are not going to stick around when college and pro football is underway to watch this low-key and almost numbing TV commentary of Sprint Cup races. What a shame for all involved.

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