Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bittersweet Homestead Race Closes NASCAR TV Season

When the weather is right, Homestead certainly is the best place to close-out the NASCAR season. Sunday afternoon, the weather was right.

ABC made beautiful HD pictures and sound that served to remind viewers that a large part of NASCAR's attraction is the spectacle of racing. Once it got dark, the spectacle only got better. On TV, this was a beautiful race to watch.

By the time Allen Bestwick started the NASCAR Countdown show, TV viewers had already been offered four hours of pre-race TV programming. Along with a three hour RaceDay show on SPEED, ESPN2 had offered a one hour morning edition of NASCAR Now.

Bestwick found himself repeating some of the same features that had already been used on that morning show once again. This left the pre-race show rather flat and it seemed that Bestwick was not particularly happy. This has been a strong season for him and Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty all worked hard to contribute to the scripted program.

As one might expect, the focus was on Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of other news stories. There are always a lot of management cooks stirring the soup at big events like this. This may have explained the lack of zest and fun from the Infield at the start.

Dr. Jerry Punch was once again helped by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in describing the action from the start. The in-race reporter was Dale Earnhardt Jr. and that was certainly an interesting choice for this final event.

The race followed the familiar scenario of the ESPN team hopping around from car to car without establishing an overall perspective. Snippets of information were continually offered about various cars without tying the field or race together. It was almost an exercise in offering graphic information and updates early-on in the event.

Just like a good basketball game where no one notices the referee, on this night the TV directing was first rate. While the stories might have been selected by the Producer, the images put on the screen were on-target and great to watch.

Unfortunately, the short attempts at adding some excitement to the race by Punch were not working. He is a reporter and was much more comfortable adding information and asking questions rather than calling the action on the track. Even as Tony Stewart charged to the lead in his final race for Gibbs, Punch never grasped the moment.

With the long green flag runs, Bestwick and company were mostly heard and not seen. Tim Brewer and the Tech Center could have mailed it in and were never a contributor to this telecast. Credit goes to Dale Jarrett for often trying to bring Ray Evernham and Rusty Wallace into the telecast by asking them questions directly.

Petree and Jarrett have kept ESPN viable this season with their easy-going conversations and veteran perspectives on the racing. They often mix directly with the pit reporters in conversation and it sometimes seems as if Dale Jarrett would like an opportunity to handle the play-by-play role now filled by Punch.

As the gas mileage wars raged in the final laps, it was Petree and Jarrett who helped the viewers understand all the issues. Live use of the team scanners played a great role in the final laps. TV technology worked well as the season came to a close.

This was a bittersweet ending for NASCAR this season. ESPN again struggled in areas that Fox and TNT did not. TV ratings were not the continued climb that having ESPN and ABC close-out the season were intended to bring. Add-in the on-going economic issues and this was basically a memorable season only for the success of Johnson and his team.

During the last off-season, the ESPN executives made wholesale changes in the on-air staff covering both the races and reporting from the studio. This year, has added NASCAR writers and began to integrate them into on-air roles.

Unfortunately, the ESPN culture continues to hate NASCAR regularly on the air. Tony Kornheiser's recent PTI comments again helped to confirm the ESPN belief that NASCAR is not a sport. Around the Horn will not even tolerate a NASCAR mention.

When college football began, ESPNEWS stopped covering the post-race news conferences and NASCAR was again pushed to the back burner across the company. Mike and Mike, First Take and the other ESPN sports-talk programs would rather take a sharp stick in the eye than talk NASCAR.

What ESPN Vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg does in this off-season is going to be critical to nursing the sport through 2009. Feinberg now has a firm foundation in the NASCAR Now studio and with his writers.

If he can make some positive changes in the broadcast line-up, next season may be a strong step in the right direction. Feinberg's biggest challenge may well be within ESPN. NASCAR needs fair and equal treatment across the board where TV programming is concerned, regardless of what other sports are in season.

As we end the final race, we would ask for your comments on this telecast and the ESPN season of seventeen Sprint Cup race telecasts. To add your comment, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and talk about the final race of 2008.

Sprint Cup Series Final Race On ABC From Homestead-Miami Speedway

The NASCAR on ESPN crew is at the end of a seventeen race Sprint Cup Series TV assignment. They began in July with the Brickyard in Indy and now find themselves in South Florida to crown a champion.

While there has been a relatively short string of races on the Cup side, this same ESPN crew has been working the Nationwide Series events since February. The coverage of the Nationwide race on Saturday showed a very tired Dr. Jerry Punch who could not muster even a moment of excitement during the event.

As the final three laps rolled by, it was Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree who once again jumped-in to add a description of what was actually happening on the track. It was Petree who said "two to go" as the cars flashed across the start-finish line. After the excitement of the Craftsman Trucks on Friday, this was tough to take.

That is the Sunday challenge for the NASCAR on ESPN team. Keep the energy and excitement high for this final time as two races unfold in front of the TV viewers. While drivers battle to lead and win the race, Jimmie Johnson will be battling to keep himself in the right position to win his third consecutive championship.

In the Saturday race, the long green flag runs resulted in limited exposure for Allen Bestwick and the Infield Pit Studio crew. Bestwick will start the day with NASCAR Countdown at 3PM with a 45 minute show. If long green flag runs are again the order of the day, his crew may be heard more than seen all race long.

ESPN has again expanded the infield staff by adding Ray Evernham to the mix. That puts him alongside of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. Bestwick has to manage three opinions and personalities in every segment now instead of two.

The pit road reporters were frustrated on Saturday. Only once were they allowed to do a reset of the field and it was much shorter than needed. Jamie Little, Shannon Spake, Dave Burns and Mike Massaro have lots of information and just needed some time to relay it to the audience.

ESPN has changed the racing philosophy and now interviews drivers who are out of the race even though they are not Chasers. The pit road crew has become more in-tune with speaking directly to the crew chiefs rather than relying on scanner chatter and what they observe to offer facts to the viewers.

Tim Brewer was another participant who could have just taken a nap once the Nationwide Series race started on Saturday. Fast laps and lots of action on this multi-groove track left little time for the Tech Center. Long green flag runs and few engine problems on Sunday may afford Brewer another long rest.

Just as ESPN's SportsCenter has grown from two hosts showing highlights to a seemingly endless crew of talking heads offering opinions, this network philosophy is being reflected in ESPN's NASCAR coverage. This race will have twelve announcers all trying to contribute to a fast-paced live sporting event with no scheduled time-outs or halftime. That equation is perhaps not the best.

Keys to watch will be when and how the Producer integrates the various announcers and the role that the infield plays in the overall program. Which pit reporters have Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards will also be important. Look for just how often ESPN offers "up to speed" segments where the field is reviewed.

On Saturday, ESPN often went to the in-race reporter or inserted a feature instead of resetting the field after a caution flag and pit stops. This left the TV viewers relying on the silently scrolling ticker at the top of the screen for any information on the vast majority of the field. It was fundamentally poor TV producing.

Pay attention to how often Punch resets the field after a caution or a commercial break. This is the final race and there are a wide variety of reasons teams are going to be racing. Driver championship, Top 35, Rookie Points, Manufacturer title and many other issues will all be playing out on the same track at the same time.

Homestead is once again making great pictures and sound. With no grandstands anywhere but the frontstretch, this track has great camera placement and offers fantastic aerial views. Tough to catch for the Director sometimes is the long pit access road. Pit road, however, is great for viewers and the race off is going to be exciting.

The final lap coverage is always tough as so many things are happening at the same time. Race winner vs. Chase winner might be a tough call. After the final lap, NASCAR has a script that the TV network follows in terms of race winner first and Chase winner second. Keep an eye out for how that shakes-out live.

This is the final in-progress race post for 2008. To add your TV-related opinion, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you again for taking the time this season to stop by The Daly Planet.