Race Weekend Central

ESPN Looking Forward to Coming Home

ESPN personalities will tell you that it happens time and again; NASCAR fans approach them and comment on how much they enjoyed the coverage the cable network provided to their favorite sport and how much they miss that coverage since it virtually disappeared following the 2000 season. Old memories never fade, though, which caused many fans to be thrilled earlier this year when it was announced that ESPN would be returning to NASCAR.

As the specifics get announced and plans get put in place, the pressure is on for ESPN to not only live up to their own reputation but to surpass it. One excellent move ESPN has made toward capturing the old magic for longtime viewers, as well as capturing new generations surfing the channels, is to reunite some of the crew that made it happen both on and off the camera back in NASCAR’s early days.

Dr. Jerry Punch is probably one of the most beloved television personalities among NASCAR fans, thanks to his many years of excellent work on pit road. When NASCAR and ESPN parted ways, Punch was one of the few personalities that did not make the switch to one of the new networks, choosing instead to stay with ESPN. That meant that his days of covering NASCAR were over for the foreseeable future but Punch did what he had to do and moved to other sports, working broadcasts of college football, college basketball and other motorsports like the Indy Racing League.

But his dream was still to return to NASCAR as a lead announcer, and Punch’s patience has paid off. At last, he will head the broadcast team next season when ESPN returns for the start of an eight-year deal. “Dreams really do come true with Disney,” Punch quipped during his network’s media presentation of next year’s race coverage team.

Along with Punch, ESPN adds former driver Rusty Wallace and former Nextel Cup Series team owner Andy Petree to the booth as color analysts. Pit road duties will be in the familiar hands of Allen Bestwick and Dave Burns, as well as newcomer from the IRL Jamie Little and RPM2nite alum Mike Massaro.

Most people are surprised to realize Massaro did not work with ESPN when they covered NASCAR in the past, joining the network the year after they aired their last NASCAR race, because he is so well known as the reporter who was denied access to the garage in a somewhat nasty dispute between outgoing ESPN brass and incoming FOX network personnel. Five years down the road, the dispute has toned down, leading ESPN producers to joke that Massaro holds the record for the most interviews conducted at nearby airports.

ESPN will also be the exclusive home of the NASCAR Busch Series in 2007 and will employ the same broadcast team for that series. Dale Jarrett will follow in the footsteps of his father Ned, a favorite member of ESPN’s old broadcast team, and assume analyst duties in the booth in place of Rusty Wallace for a number of those races.

Fans should see a significant improvement in the quality of Busch Series broadcasts when ESPN takes the reins in that series. Networks currently covering that series do not generally give it as extensive of coverage as the Nextel Cup Series receives, using perhaps only eight of 24 cameras available to broadcast a race, in an example cited by ESPN producers.

In contrast, ESPN plans to give Busch Series races the same production treatment as the Cup Series, employing equipment and graphics the current networks reserve only for the bigger-budget broadcasts. ESPN hopes the Busch Series will also benefit from the stability of having one network as a full-time home and intend to give it the respect and treatment worth of the second-most popular motorsports series in the nation.

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