Monday, October 13, 2008

Evernham becomes ESPN's New Wild Card

Veteran NASCAR journalist Dustin Long has been a frequent guest on Tradin' Paint this season. Long writes for several newspapers and is very good at expressing his views on TV.

This weekend, he wrote a column that contained one of the hottest topics where NASCAR TV and the viewers are concerned. It is a topic that always brings a ton of email and comments for a wide variety of reasons. That topic is Ray Evernham.

This year, ESPN introduced Evernham in February as a part-time member of the NASCAR on ESPN team. He has quietly been used in almost every role possible this season.

Evernham has been added as the fourth person in the Infield Studio as a commentator. He has been upstairs in the announce booth as an analyst. Viewers have seen him as a panelist on Monday's one hour NASCAR Now roundtable with Allen Bestwick. He has appeared on ESPNEWS and other ESPN programs talking about NASCAR as an expert.

You can read Long's column by clicking here. Below is the excerpt that got the attention of so many NASCAR fans.

Ray Evernham, who has a minority share in Gillett Evernham Motorsports, said he was not involved in the decision to release rookie Patrick Carpentier. Evernham stressed he's a minority partner in the team and hinted maybe that role could change to not being a part of the team.

"That's largely up to the Gillettes,'' Evernham said if he would remain with the team. "I want to help Mr. Gillette, and I'll do whatever I can to help him be successful, but I also want to pursue ... I'm enjoying my life at ESPN. I'm enjoying a little bit of semi-retirement. I want to help as much as I can, but I also want to make sure I have credibility with the viewers and that's important to me.''

Some folks feel that the real reason Evernham needs to keep his credibility with the ESPN viewers is because that is his next employment destination. Evernham created Race Wizard a while back, an ESPN2 series that featured Evernham's son Ray J. and offered explanations on various NASCAR topics with a family-friendly theme. That program did not return for this season.

Instead, ESPN slipped Evernham under the radar and brought him in-house for some additional TV exposure. There was no doubt that ESPN faced a tough situation. Evernham was still on paper a multi-car owner in the very series on which ESPN has asked him to comment.

Now, Evernham seems to be sending clear signals that he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at GEM. Amazingly, that comes at a time when ESPN is within weeks of ending that network's NASCAR coverage for 2008. Remember, in TV there is rarely such a thing as a coincidence.

Click here for the Yahoo! Sports post that addressed the TDP coverage of the Evernham issue. The topic was how Evernham consistently got a free pass from Allen Bestwick on GEM issues during the Monday NASCAR Now program. Evernham seems to have tried to answer just that question with his comments to Long.

Update: Evernham addressed the Carpentier issue on the Monday edition of NASCAR Now and basically repeated what he said to Long.

It should be interesting to watch carefully how Evernham is used in the final month or so of the NASCAR on ESPN season. What role Evernham will play for ESPN in 2009 has yet to be revealed, but it is clear that he is the former crew chief in favor at the moment.

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TWIN Responds To The Fans Once Again

It certainly must be interesting to be the Producer of This Week In NASCAR on SPEED. This Monday night show gets a lot of scrutiny for many reasons. In one form or another, it has been on SPEED for over a decade with Michael Waltrip as the last remaining original member of the "expert panel."

This Monday, Waltrip was joined by Greg Biffle and host Steve Byrnes to walk viewers through an hour of reviewing and previewing the NASCAR races. When this TV series began back in February, SPEED had the brilliant idea of putting the preview of the next race first and holding the highlights and discussion of the Sunday race until the second half of each show.

Needless to say, this did not fly with the fans for a lot of reasons. Spending thirty minutes talking about a race that was five days away was tough to take. By the time the "expert panel" came around to the weekend race, the wind was out of the sails on this program.

SPEED finally relented and moved the Sprint Cup race review to the top of the show. The results were immediate. The hot topics were being discussed right away. The dynamic between the panelists improved and this lively conversation seemed to lead perfectly into a preview of the next race. Problem solved.

After the name change from Inside NEXTEL Cup to This Week In NASCAR, the program also included highlights of the support races from the weekend. Nationwide and Truck Series highlights gave these two series a well-deserved moment in the sun.

By the time The Chase officially started, TWIN was going at full-speed and the shows were well received. Then, something interesting happened. Suddenly, SPEED decided that the very same viewers who had watched this series all season long needed to be introduced to the drivers in The Chase.

So, TWIN changed the program format again. After a brief discussion with the two panelists and before any highlights, Byrnes introduced a two-segment-long edited feature on one of The Chase drivers. The result was that both the Nationwide and Truck Series highlights were booted-off the program permanently because the show was now out of time.

Was TWIN chasing the elusive casual fan who did not know who Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart was? Were they trying to show-off the production skills of The NASCAR Media Group who gets to follow the drivers around for the weekend? The bottom line question is, who made that decision?

Since the beginning of this new issue, TDP readers have been expressing how much they are confused by this magazine-style feature. This week TWIN responded by changing the program format yet again. This time, the Sprint Cup review and highlights came first and the big Chase feature came second.

Brynes led a focused Biffle and a laid-back Waltrip through the Charlotte highlights and both drivers made good points during this segment. Biffle was especially effective as he saw some incidents for the first time on video and reflected on what he saw first-hand during the race.

For the first time in a long time, Biffle sounded like a driver seeking a championship. TWIN has experienced panelists who won races, but having the Sprint Cup champ on the show would be a huge bonus.

It was unfortunate that the big Chase profile featured the same NASCAR personality who was on the E:60 program on ESPN earlier this year. This time, no Chaser was front-and-center despite the feature being called a Chase profile.

Humpy Wheeler was interesting as always and there is no doubt that he must have his own weekly program in 2009. That NASCAR resource is going to waste without a platform to communicate with the fans and whatever TV network steps-up and makes Wheeler a deal is going to get a goldmine.

This week's fan email questions were outstanding, but the year is 2008 and TWIN needs to get videos from the fans and let them ask their own questions. If TWIN can post bonus segments on after every show, they certainly can change the decade-old mailbag over to an Internet video format. That would also allow those questions and answers to live-on as a reference on the website.

The Nationwide Series put on a good show at Charlotte and next week the Craftsman Trucks will race at Martinsville. It is a shame that neither event was reviewed or previewed even briefly on this program. It takes away from the purpose of this TV series as a whole.

TWIN is coming down the home-stretch of the first season and has proven to be a winning franchise for SPEED once again. Perhaps, the production staff will find a way to strike a compromise between these big Chase features and some Nationwide and Truck Series highlights.

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Tires And TV Proving To Be A Tough Mix

NASCAR certainly did not want the story of The Chase this season to be tires. ESPN certainly did not want to have Goodyear as a consistent storyline in the Chase TV coverage. Unfortunately, Saturday night at LMS did not solve either of these issues.

TV networks walk a fine line where tire failures and Goodyear are concerned. Not only is that company the official tire supplier to NASCAR, but they also advertise on the television coverage. While the tires would be the key issue of the evening, the ESPN on ABC crew had a problem right off the bat. They had to get on TV.

Allen Bestwick and his Infield Pit Studio crew of Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace tried to take to the air after the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina college football game ended, but many ABC stations had other ideas.

It was the local news that lots of NASCAR fans saw instead of the Lowe's Motor Speedway. Some ABC affiliates chose to insert local programming and then join the ESPN on ABC coverage at 7:30PM for the race. One ABC station covered the pre-race with a local charity telethon. Another showed college football highlights of the local teams. These ABC stations have proven to be a cagey bunch over the last two seasons where NASCAR coverage is concerned.

Bestwick and company set the table and passed the ball to Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. There were lots of potential storylines in this event, but it was clear shortly after the green flag flew that tires would be the story once again.

Once the race began to claim victims, ESPN returned to a practice that seems very strange. While AJ Allmendinger was interviewed after his accident, the network then focused on the Chasers who fell-out and left the racers just standing around. There was a parade of drivers out of the race who were never interviewed.

After the Allmendinger interview, ESPN chose to put on the screen a feature called Primetime Pulse. Three video boxes appeared on the screen, with an announcer telling viewers about the college football games in-progress on ESPN and ESPN2. The football game video and the scores appeared live.

Since not all the ABC local stations are owned by ABC, it certainly must have been interesting to some affiliates to have a cable TV promo for the ESPN networks appear on their over-the-air station. As NASCAR fans have found out, several ABC affiliates have rather frosty relations with ESPN in particular. On this night, thankfully no ABC stations left for local news as the race ran a bit long.

As the Carl Edwards mechanical troubles unfolded, the ESPN team all contributed to help keep viewers informed. Bestwick, Massaro, Petree and Tim Brewer all talked from an experienced perspective about the ignition problems as they unfolded. Great pictures from Edwards in-car camera worked to show the helpless Edwards being pushed to pit road.

An interview with Jack Roush by Mike Massaro served to let viewers know what the team had done to get Edwards back on track. Then, as is so often the case with ESPN, Massaro asked one too many questions. "Obviously, this is the last thing you wanted to see happen," said Massaro. "Can you give me some perspective of what this is like with six races remaining (and) a possible title on the line?"

Roush answered in perhaps the best way possible. "I'm sorry Mike I can't understand what you just said." That may have been a blessing in disguise for both parties.

The ESPN pit reporters are once again having a very hard time asking good fundamental questions with the race in-progress. Even Massaro is hooked on this strange emotional kick as if Jack Roush was at his first race and might suddenly break-out in tears.

It was Shannon Spake who drew the key assignment of speaking with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he fell out of the race. It did not go well. In what may go down as one of the worst interviews in NASCAR history, Spake fell apart on national TV. Here it is:

"Junior, can you tell me what you felt inside the car when that tire failed?" asked Spake.

"Pow...and then it went into the wall. About like every other tire that blows," answered a smiling Junior.

"Was there any indication leading up to the (tire) failure that something was going wrong?" continued Spake.

"I'd have let off! Hell no! I'd have slowed down if I knew the tire was going to blow like that," said Junior now just laughing.

"Can you describe the racing out there tonight?" asked a now flustered Spake.

"Do what?" said Junior puzzled.

"Was it battling that might have led to this tire failure?" Spake asked. The replays had clearly shown Junior alone at the time of the problem.

"No, I was riding. I was taking it way, way easy," answered Junior. "I think everyone else was too. It's a long race and we were all just kind of riding around waiting 'till the end." The look on Earnhardt's face as he walked away was priceless.

As the race settled down with over one hundred laps gone, Bestwick stepped-in to offer a race recap and rundown the drivers from 11th place on back. This works well and has been something used all too infrequently in these long races. One of the best parts of this feature is the electronic graphic that shows the time and distance between the car being discussed and the leader.

Green flag pit stops and then a caution served to mix-up the field right around the halfway mark. Punch and company never reset the field, never indicated which team got the lap back and never reviewed what had happened on the pit stops. The only information offered was the location of The Chasers. It was the beginning of a very confusing time.

The Matt Kenseth accident took out several cars, but the only interview was with Kenseth. TV viewers had now entered "The Chase zone." After the next caution, viewers again saw only where The Chasers were restarting and not the field. ESPN had switched gears and the remainder of the coverage would be Chase oriented.

Some great racing featuring Tony Stewart allowed the Musco track lighting and the outstanding camera placement to be shown-off with cars at top speed and the action intense. This made for great TV pictures and limiting the in-car cameras really helped to show fans what kind of racing this series can put on under the right circumstances.

Less than twenty-five laps later, the wheels started to come off this telecast. Cars began to get involved in incidents and the TV team was a beat behind. Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard, and others appeared to have racing damage but the telecast had other ideas. Taped comments from high-profile drivers like Gordon and Johnson were inserted even as the racing continued.

Stewart's speeding penalty, David Reutimann having pit road problems and other stories just did not make it to air as they happened. Not following Robby Gordon around after his pit stop problems meant going to replay for an incident, again. The network chose to insert the meaningless Monster Moment during green flag racing.

Final pit stops were confusing and ultimately only the racing helped to get things back on track toward the final laps. ESPN's love affair with drama helped viewers who watched the race to see Kim Burton instead of the top ten drivers fight it out to the finish line. This is the first race of the year where ESPN has abandoned the race for hype and drama at the finish. It was the Indy 500 all over again.

This broadcast is remarkable for two things. One, the call of the race on the radio, this time by the PRN Network, was exciting from start to finish. Hearing the announcers call the best racing on the track while watching ESPN focus on the leaders and The Chasers was frustrating. The difference in the agendas of the TV coverage and the radio broadcast could not have been made more clear.

Secondly, there was no series of laps where ESPN generated excitement and made this race thrilling for the fans watching at home. Yes, there were great pictures and sound made by the crew. But, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett were not hired to inject excitement into these telecasts and yet that is exactly what they are put in the position of doing. Bestwick cannot save these races from the infield.

ESPN is driving fans to the radio and to DirecTV's Hot Pass to find the excitement of racing that makes this sport fun and popular. A variety of announcers including Matt Yocum, Rick Allen, Hermie Sadler and Randy Pemberton were calling this race for other live TV outlets and doing a great job. PRN's Doug Rice and Mark Garrow always concentrate on the racing and the turn and pit reporters on the PRN broadcast never let the intensity slack.

Silence is golden, but not on live TV under green flag racing at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. The chunks of silence on ESPN this season are killing the hard work of the TV crew and leaving the experienced members of the NASCAR on ESPN team shaking their heads.

Next Sunday, NASCAR leaves the college football world and goes head-to-head with the early NFL games on Fox and CBS Sports. The short-track action from Martinsville is quite different from the high-speed excitement of Charlotte. Once again, the ESPN on ABC crew will be asked to step-up and compete with one of the strongest sports properties on TV today. That challenge will play-out at 1PM on Sunday afternoon.

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