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Opening Day for NASCAR’s Chase Sets the Tone on ESPN

Opening Day for NASCAR’s Chase Sets the Tone on ESPN

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where race telecast critique is the main idea. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series ran while the IZOD IndyCar Series held their season finale.

NBC Sports Network brought us the exciting conclusion to the IZOD IndyCar season.

*MavTV American Real 500*

On Saturday night under blinding sunshine (literally), the IZOD IndyCar Series held their 500-mile season finale at Auto Club Speedway. On this night, there was really but one big story for the race, that being the championship. However, more was at play here than just the title chase.

IndyCar Central started out with a look back at the craziness that was the Baltimore Grand Prix presented by SRT before getting into the pre-race interviews. The primary feature of the show was a one-on-one interview that Marty Snider conducted with Will Power. The main topic of discussion included the upcoming championship battle with Ryan Hunter-Reay and how Power has been unable to finish in recent years.

However, this devolved into a look back at last year’s mess at Las Vegas and how Power was able to get himself back out there on ovals. As time goes by, more and more drivers have publicly stated that they don’t like ovals in the series, and one (Mike Conway) actually stepped out of his ride this past weekend claiming that he isn’t comfortable on ovals anymore. (I suspect Conway still relives “that nasty wreck on the last lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500″:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dh2LjdVewb4 on a regular basis. Yes, he’s won since then, but I’d argue that he’s never been the same.)

Saturday night was also Bob Jenkins’ final race at the helm for the NBC Sports Network. The 65-year old Jenkins is retiring so that he can take of his wife, Pam, who is suffering from brain cancer. To that end, a special feature was put together with a number of colleagues, drivers past and present and other personalities (including Tony George) talking about Jenkins’ contributions to the field. Admittedly, this piece was kinda heavy on NASCAR footage, but it is true that it was Jenkins’ bread and butter for 20 years. Regardless of the series, it really drove home just what Jenkins has meant to race telecasts since the late 1970′s and just how much respect Jenkins has in the series. I loved this piece. It all but moved Jenkins to tears (he claimed that he “had the jitters” after it aired).

I think Tony Stewart wanted in on it, too, but they didn’t talk to him for the piece, or if they did, his quotes didn’t make air. Stewart did reference Jenkins’ retirement during an interview on NASCAR Countdown on Sunday afternoon. However, this was the only time it was referenced on ESPN all weekend.

The race coverage was generally pretty good. There was a whole lot of racing for position out there during the 500 mile race and the NBC Sports Network did a pretty good job in covering as much of it as they could. However, all of the updates on the points did get quite annoying. It was like they felt the need to keep jamming it down our throats that Ryan Hunter-Reay needed to finish fifth or better to get the title.

The focus on this title chase was such that when Alex Tagliani blew an engine with 20 laps to go, the commentary wasn’t so much about how a driver who had only just lost the lead to Ed Carpenter had just retired from the race, but about how Hunter-Reay had moved up into that all-important fifth spot. Cripes. Wish we could have gotten a replay of what happened to Tagliani. As of Monday night, Racing-Reference’s box score for the race lists Tagliani as being out due to a wreck when Tagliani described what happened as a blown engine. There is quite the disconnect here.

Post-race coverage was extensive. In addition to the normal checks of the unofficial results and the final championship standings, NBC Sports Network provided interviews with Hunter-Reay and Carpenter, along with the championship winning spouse (Beccy Gordon) and car owner (Michael Andretti). Finally, there was also coverage of the trophy presentation, which thankfully, went off without a hitch unlike what happened at Homestead in 2010.

Based on what I’ve written above, you might have gotten the idea that the championship focus actually hurt the telecast unequivocally. While it didn’t necessarily help certain parts of the race (the last lap in particular was quite rough with everything that happened), most of the event was quite enjoyable to watch.

Now, there is some uncertainty for the future of IZOD IndyCar Series telecasts. As of yet, there is no replacement for Jenkins. Paul Page will be a free agent at the end of the year, while Mike King (play-by-play man for Firestone Indy Lights telecasts) could also step in. Personally, I’d prefer that King not step in. His style is better for radio. Others think that Brian Till should get it based on his performance subbing for Jenkins at Baltimore. When we get some information about Jenkins’ replacement, we’ll report on it.

*Dollar General 300*

On Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series returned to Chicagoland Speedway for their second visit of the year. However, as I thought might happen, football once again encroached on NASCAR Countdown’s time slot. I was prepared, though. I assumed that Countdown would be shifted over to ESPNEWS while the Wake Forest-Florida State blowout wrapped up, and that is exactly what came to pass. A simple way to estimate what’s going to happen slot-wise for NASCAR Countdown is to check in on the game one hour prior to the scheduled end of the game’s time slot (in this case, they had just started the second half). If they’re well into the third quarter, then (barring some kind of screw-up), you’re probably good to go.

On Saturday, there were over 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter when Countdown was due to start. So, straight to ESPNEWS we went. Viewers were treated to championship analysis that took up roughly half of the show, along with five pre-race interviews. During his interview, Sam Hornish, Jr. mentioned that NASCAR granted his team a free engine change prior to qualifying and didn’t force them to drop to the rear of the field. I don’t understand this. What the deuce? Sure, had they not changed it, he might not have finished, but that shouldn’t matter. He changed it during a race weekend. That’s a penalty.

Race coverage was OK, but still focused on the front. With a regular championship battle as opposed to the Chase, ESPN doesn’t necessarily have a specific group in the race that will garner the vast majority of coverage.

Late in the race, ESPN put the permanent point check graphic below the scroll. Gotta tell you, it is a little early for that. After Chicagoland, there’s still seven races to go.

Post-race coverage was somewhat brief due to the race going over its timeslot. In accordance with typical ESPN policy, the start of the Florida-Tennessee game was pushed to ESPNEWS so that some post-race coverage could be shown. We ended up getting four post-race driver interviews, plus an interview with the winning crew chief (Mike Kelley). There were also multiple checks of the point standings before ESPN left for the football game.

Quite frankly, this was actually the more inclusive of the two races from Chicagoland Speedway. It was still focused on the frontrunners, especially towards the end of the race. The last few laps were spent completely focused in on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s “school bus” (mind you, that school bus had the warning lights in the wrong order). Now, Stenhouse was not being challenged at all. There were a couple of other battles for position on track (for example: Hornish vs. Annett), yet they chose to stay close as heck on Stenhouse. I suppose the production truck wanted Marty Reid to go on and on about Stenhouse. C’mon guys, you gotta do a little bit better than that.

Also, I noted that Reid was a little bit more enthusiastic than normal this weekend. That’s good to see. I generally consider him to be kinda boring to listen to.

ESPN brought us all the news from Chicagoland Speedway for the Cup and Nationwide Series.

*GEICO 400*

Finally, we come to the first race of the Chase. We know how much ESPN likes the Chase by now. Also, some changes have been made. First off, there was the Kid Rock presence that ESPN announced last week. I actually did not find it distracting in anyway. He simply introduced the opening montage for the weekend, and some of his music was used in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide telecasts. Admittedly, this integration was done fairly well. Its nothing like when ESPN used Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” as their theme music in 2007. That was distracting.

Also, there were some new graphics in play here. Most of what ESPN uses is within their own style, and it has been that way for years. However, this past weekend, we saw new graphics that were done in Sprint’s colors for the Chase. I’m on the fence on them right now.

The primary feature during Countdown was a look at “the Vision of Champions.” We got soundbites from a few active champions, plus three retired champions (Richard Petty and ESPN analysts Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace) on what it takes to be a champion. Admittedly, I don’t think its all that different from what it takes to win races. Also, there were a lot of close-ups on eyeballs in the piece and based on what I saw on Twitter during the show, this turned off some people. I can have that either way.

Another piece had a number of drivers talking about what it was like to be in the Chase. What did we take away from this? Basically that it’s the pinnacle of the sport. Some drivers talked about some of their losing efforts and what they had to change in order to improve their performances.

Also, there was a surprise during the show when Jeff Gordon showed up “unannounced” in the Pit Studio (let’s face facts, there’s almost no such thing as someone just popping by for the heck of it in NASCAR) to give Brad Daugherty a t-shirt. That was a little weird, to be honest. However, there was genuine surprise there.

Race coverage was pretty much what I expected out of ESPN for the Chase races. The 12 Chasers got an incredible amount of coverage, almost regardless of where they were running out on the track. Drivers like Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, who managed to race themselves (on merit, mind you) into the top-5 on Sunday were all but ignored. This is the type of coverage that just drives me nuts.

SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Dave Moody said in response to a fan on Twitter Monday complaining about the lack of coverage for non-Chasers that if they “Run up front…[ESPN] can’t ignore you.” I disagree with this statement. Of course they can. Logano ran as high as third during the race and got very little coverage prior to Lap 129. ESPN did two “Up to Speed” segments during the race, but one of those was Chasers-only. At least they mentioned that ahead of time so people didn’t get excessively sore about it. Regardless, it was still kinda telling that they skipped right over Logano’s Dollar General Toyota like he wasn’t even there.

Honestly, I had almost forgotten about ESPN’s NASCAR NonStop setup for the second half of Chase races (the side-by-side commercials). They had not publicized that fact at all prior to Sunday this season. I had almost forgotten about it when Allen Bestwick brought it up during Countdown. I will say that it did give us footage of Jeff Gordon slowing after pounding the wall and I thought it worked well. I had originally thought that the NonStop breaks were a little longer than last year, but a quick check of last year’s notes proves otherwise.

Post-race coverage was actually pretty substantial. ESPN provided viewers with eight driver interviews, plus interviews with the winning crew chief (Paul Wolfe) and car owner (Roger Penske). Knowing ESPN’s focus on the day, they made sure that there were multiple ways to check the points (in and out of the scroll) as well.

Overall, the telecast was way too Chase-focused for my taste. In addition, ESPN missed a number of things. They failed to show debris that brought out multiple cautions. However, I must give them some props for showing the shock piece that came out of Matt Kenseth’s car under the caution that ultimately ruined his day. In addition, they failed to notify viewers that Kurt Busch went behind the wall, or that he came back into the race (I guess he had rear end issues). Kurt was in the top-15 before this occurred. That’s really sad, to be honest.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Chase for the Sprint Cup continues in Loudon, New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series will both be at Kentucky Speedway for a standalone weekend. However, it must be noted that there is a Barrett-Jackson Auction scheduled for this weekend. Simply put, it will wreak havoc on SPEED’s schedule.

*Friday, September 21*
*Time Telecast Network*
*6:00 AM – 7:30 AM* Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore Free Practice No. 1 _SPEEDtv.com^_
*9:30 – 11:00 AM* Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore Free Practice No. 2 _SPEED_
*12:00 PM – 1:30 PM* Sprint Cup Practice No. 1 _SPEED_
*7:00 – 7:30 PM* NCWTS Setup _SPEED_
*7:30 – 10:00 PM* Camping World Truck Series Kentucky 201 _SPEED_
*10:00 – 11:30 PM* Sprint Cup Series Qualifying _SPEED*_
*11:30 PM – 12:00 AM* SPEED Center _SPEED_

*Saturday, September 22*
*Time Telecast Network*
*5:00 AM – 6:00 AM* Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore Free Practice No. 3 _SPEEDtv.com^_
*9:00 – 10:30 AM* Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore Qualifying _SPEED_
*11:00 AM -12:00 PM* Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour _SPEED_
*12:00 – 2:00 PM* Whelen Modified Tour F.W. Webb 100 _SPEED_
*3:30 – 4:00 PM* NASCAR Countdown _ESPN_
*4:00 – 7:00 PM* Nationwide Series Kentucky 300 _ESPN_

*Sunday, September 23*
*Time Telecast Network*
*7:30 AM – 10:00 AM* Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore _SPEED_
*9:00 – 10:00 AM* NASCAR Now, Pre-Race _ESPN2_
*10:30 – 11:00 AM* SPEED Center, Pre-Race _SPEED_
*11:00 AM – 1:00 PM* NASCAR RaceDay Fueled by Sunoco _SPEED_
*1:00 – 2:00 PM* NASCAR Countdown _ESPN_
*1:00 – 3:00 PM* V8 Supercar Championship Series Sandown 500 _SPEED*/_
*2:00 – 5:30 PM* Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 _ESPN_
*~5:30 – 6:00 PM* NASCAR Victory Lane _SPEED_
*7:00 – 8:00 PM* SPEED Center, Post-Race _SPEED_
*9:00 – 10:00 PM* Wind Tunnel _SPEED_

*- Tape Delayed
/- Highlighted coverage
^- Available via free online streaming
~- Approximate

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. Remember, I’ll be covering this past weekend’s American Ethanol 200 presented by Hy-Vee in this week’s edition of the “Critic’s Annex”:/notice/9557/ in the Newsletter. For the September 27th edition of the Annex, I will be covering the F.W. Webb 100 for the Whelen Modified Tour, a race that was just recently announced as being televised this weekend on SPEED.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, if you would like to contact any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

“SPEED”:http://www.speedtv.com/feedback
“ESPN”:http://espn.go.com/espn/contact
“NBC Sports Network”:nbcsportshelp@nbcuni.com

As always, if you choose to contact the network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

“Contact Phil Allaway”:http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/18439/

About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Newsletter Editor for Frontstretch since mid-2008, Phil is responsible for the site’s Monday-Friday FREE e-newsletter that keeps fans up-to-date with the latest racing news, along with exclusive features and commentary. Our head news writer, Phil also doubles as our broadcast critic, keeping broadcasts honest for years with his Couch Potato Tuesday column. A writer for the Troy (NY) Record, Phil is also one of the lead reporters at Lebanon Valley Speedway in Pennsylvania every weekend during short track season.