Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Jerry Punch Mails in the Nationwide Race While TNT Shines

Welcome, race fans. For nearly 50 years, the Fourth of July weekend at Daytona has marked the ceremonial, and in the case of this season, the physical halfway point. The Truck Series took the week off, so it was the Cup and Nationwide series competing at the World Center of Racing this weekend.

The Cup Series’ Coke Zero 400 is the centerpiece of TNT’s Summer Series, so they roll out some extra stops for the race. As you may already know, TNT refers to the near-commercial free broadcast as their “Wide Open Coverage.” More on this a little later… for now, in keeping with the chronological order, we’ll start with the Nationwide Series’ Subway Jalapeno 250 on Friday night.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona

The Subway Jalapeno 250 was one of the few races this season which aired on a station other than ESPN2. The main ESPN channel aired the race. Maybe it’s just me thinking here, but when a race gets moved up to a bigger channel, I think that they should have their “A” game on. This was seemingly not the case Friday night.

Editor’s Note: According to ESPN PR, ESPN and ESPN2 are now available in the exact same number of households, making neither channel “bigger” then the other in terms of their potential audience.

Quite often this season, I’ve been critical of Dr. Punch in the booth and his general lack of enthusiasm for calling the races. I’m not alone in this. Other writers have stated this problem and fans have stated similar views. And after what I thought was improvement in recent weeks (New Hampshire not included, because Marty Reid was in the booth instead of Punch), Daytona was a big step back. It just seemed like there wasn’t anything there from Punch. Yes, he commentated on the race, but the man seemed to put zero emotion on it. It’s like he’s got physical issues or something, like Dick Vitale did recently.

Vitale actually was diagnosed with lesions on his vocal cords in Dec. 2007 and had to take a sabbatical from doing college basketball games for a couple of months as a result. After that, he had to take speaking lessons to learn how to project his voice from a different section of his vocal cords. Previously, his commentary style, which bordered on outright yelling, was centered on one part of his cords, which led to the lesions.

My point here is that Dr. Punch is not a newbie. He’s been around for a long time, although most of that time has been sideline/pit reporting as opposed to actual booth work. Dr. Punch is now 55 years old and has been on sports broadcasts with ESPN for 25 years. As a result, he’s got quite a bit of mileage on his vocal cords. Of course, this is just a hypothesis.

The truth is that these enthusiasm issues have been following Dr. Punch for quite a while now. This isn’t new. I’ve never really been a fan of Dr. Punch in the booth either for NASCAR or for college football games. Back in the pre-TV deal era (pre-2001), Dr. Punch served as a pit reporter mainly, but also did selected NASCAR support races as the play-by-play commentator. In addition, Punch was the backup play-by-play guy for Winston Cup races if Bob Jenkins was unavailable.

I can only recall two Winston Cup races off the top of my head prior to 2007 that Dr. Punch did play-by-play, the 1990 Checker 500k at Phoenix and the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega. I remember Dr. Punch acquitting himself well in those races.

Off the top of my head, I think these issues are a direct result of ESPN’s current NASCAR deal. Currently, ESPN has the rights to the entire Nationwide Series schedule (35 races), the final 17 races of the Sprint Cup season, plus practice and qualifying sessions. It’s a pretty grueling season, probably a tougher schedule than any other single on-air commentary team has. It could almost be argued that Dr. Punch is “saving himself” for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the end of the month, which, mind you, is for a series that ESPN has basically not publicized all that much this year, outside of SportsCenter highlights and the roundtable discussion on NASCAR Now.

However, it comes off as Punch is mailing in his work with the Nationwide Series. Unlike Sprint Cup, ESPN is the only TV partner for the Nationwide Series. If Dr. Punch comes off as disinterested in those races, it can make the entire series look bad. This is not just something that ESPN should be looking at closely, but NASCAR itself should also be looking into the situation and having a say on the matter.

The Cup Series returning to ESPN on the 26th for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard could result in a split commentary crew for much of the rest of the season. There are a few standalone races for the Nationwide Series (Gateway, ORP, Montreal, Memphis) remaining, ones that will almost definitely see a “B team” led by Marty Reid sent to cover those races. What about the other races for Nationwide? Will Punch be commentating on those events as well and possibly mailing those races in?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Editor’s Note: ESPN has reconfirmed to us that Marty Reid will be their play-by-play announcer for all Nationwide Series races once they begin covering the Sprint Cup schedule. Reid’s announcing duties will begin at O’Reilly Raceway Park the end of July and continue through the rest of the 2009 season.

Now, some people may ask, how difficult is it to call a NASCAR race? I’m honestly not sure. I’d like to think I could, but I’ve never been in a broadcast booth before. The extent of my TV experience is answering a question about voting on Election Day in 1994 when WTEN (ABC affiliate, Albany, N.Y.) sent a cameraman to my Social Studies class to cover our class vote for governor (George Pataki vs. Mario Cuomo. I think Pataki won, just like in real life). It didn’t make air.

I had a discussion at work about the toughest sports to call for television last week with my 18-year-old co-worker, Jordan. We came to the conclusion that ice hockey is the most difficult sport to call, followed by lacrosse. Both sports feature constant back and forth motion, and in hockey’s case, quite difficult to pronounce names. Motorsports (of any form) came in third, just ahead of basketball. Naturally, baseball is the easiest, since it’s generally the slowest paced of the sports.

Aside from Punch’s issues, I do have some other thoughts on the race telecasts.

Both Friday and Saturday night’s telecasts had a rather astounding lack of driver interviews despite a substantial number of wrecks. More on this during the Sprint Cup section of the critique. During the Nationwide race, there was a lot less of a chance of a car being repaired and sent back out on the track for points during the race than on Saturday night. The obvious reason for that was that the race was 150 miles shorter. Yet the only interviews from a driver involved in a wreck that I can remember were with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after crashing out along with Patrick Sheltra, Justin Allgaier and Steve Wallace, as well as Kerry Earnhardt after he crashed.

I wish ESPN could have tracked down Sheltra and gotten his thoughts about the incident. Sheltra was making only his third career start in the Nationwide Series and was running very well before crashing out. Better yet, I would have liked to hear from Chase Austin, who was in the middle of a whole bunch of action Friday night, including spinning out Sheltra, which caused the aforementioned wreck that took out Earnhardt Jr.

Also, there was definite overusage by Dr. Punch of the “Shootout Style” phrase to describe the double-file restarts that debuted in the Nationwide Series at Daytona. I was already pretty sick of it over the past couple of weeks, so I decided to introduce the “Shootout Style Count” this week. Unlike the Digger Count from back during the FOX portion of the season, this count will cover the entire weekend.

In addition, it covers all of the different NASCAR TV partners and not just one of them. My unofficial count came to 17 Shootout Style references. And that is not counting Nationwide Series qualifying from Daytona, which aired while I was at work on Friday. I’m pretty sure that Dr. Punch or one of the other on-air personalities for ESPN could have slipped a few Shootout Styles in there.

On the positive side, ESPN actually cut out of a commercial break to show the aftermath of the Sheltra/Earnhardt Jr./Wallace/Allgaier crash. I’ll give them some brownie points there. That was unexpected, yet welcome. Also, the Full Throttle graphic has a speed reading on it now. This speed is tied to the telemetry off of one of the cars, as Dr. Punch stated Friday night. As to which car it corresponds to, that’s anyone’s guess. I’m guessing that it corresponds to the leader’s car, whoever that might be (in this case, I think it was Matt Kenseth).

Post-race coverage was very slim, a result of the race running over its time slot by 15 minutes. ESPN conducted interviews with the top-three finishers (Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards), then quickly left air to get to SportsCenter. Due to the way the race ended, with a multi-car crash forcing a yellow after the white flag came out, the fans did not get to see the unofficial results or the points standings before ESPN left Daytona – which flat out bites.

They definitely should have stayed at Daytona longer so that NASCAR could have more time to sort out their scoring loops and video evidence. During that time, ESPN could have squeezed in more interviews.

If I were to give the coverage a grade, I would give it a C-. ESPN needs to improve their Nationwide Series coverage substantially in the coming weeks, but with the Cup Series coming back at the end of the month, an adjustment is likely not in the cards. Especially once the Chase comes around, the series will be treated as an afterthought to ESPN.

On Saturday, TNT had their annual Wide Open Coverage of the Coke Zero 400. What this means is that, yes, there are commercials. However, most of these commercials were placed in a box taking up most of the lower right hand corner of the screen. During the time that those ads are on screen, the race continues on in the background with sound muted. The only full-screen commercials that aired during the race were the ones that featured local commercials, like ads for Fuccillo Hyundai in Niskayuna, N.Y., where apparently the deals are Huge. Man, that guy annoys me.

See also
Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: 2009 Firecracker 400 at Daytona Race Recap

Back to the commercials in the boxes. They worked fine, except for one: the Viagra ad. Now, I don’t care about Viagra or the benefits that it provides to people who cannot “perform,” but when it screws up the broadcast, I do have a problem with that. During the first time their ad aired on lap 66, the screen would freeze every second and a half or so. There would be pinkish colored vertical lines on screen as well. It actually reminds me of an issue back during the All-Star Race on SPEED back in May right before a commercial break.

Now, when I see technical issues on Sprint Cup broadcasts, the first thing that I do is query the other producers and viewers of our Live Blog to see if anyone else had the same issue. If it’s just me, I can just write it off to an issue with my cable box. This was the case at Auto Club Speedway back in February when my picture kept breaking up on the standard definition feed of FOX. Now, I cannot even watch anything on the SD feed of FOX on my basement TV.

But, this issue was noticed by other people in the blog. I don’t pretend to know what causes those types of technical issues, but I know that it does make it kind of difficult to watch the race if the issues persist. Luckily, this problem was a one-time thing, though.

Another slight technical slip-up was on lap 143, while TNT was showing one of those Coke Zero ads that were seemingly made exclusively for this race. While showing the ad, TNT tried to insert some kind of information bar about Tony Stewart. I have no clue what it said, since it was underneath the commercial box. Whatever it was, it was pointless because of the ad being on at the time.

I’m not 100% on this, but it seemed like there were more of those Wide Open commercials than last year. At times, it seemed like there would be a group of two or three of those ads separated by only maybe two or three minutes of full-screen racing. In addition, I’m really not all that sure about having the play-by-play guy (in this case, Ralph Sheheen) introduce the individual ads. It just doesn’t look right to me.

I did like the interview during the NASCAR on TNT Live! show where Wally Dallenbach interviewed former Cup Series car owner Junie Donlavey. For those of you who don’t remember, or did not follow NASCAR in the early 1990s, Wally Dallenbach actually drove a bunch of races for Donlavey in 1991, with some support from Roush Racing (since Dallenbach was going to Roush to drive a full season in a No. 16 Keystone Beer Ford in 1992).

Granted, almost nothing that Donlavey said in the interview was new to me, especially since I read Ken Schrader’s book, Gotta Race!, but it was still informative. Donlavey admitted in the interview that he viewed his team not as an upper echelon one competing for victories, but as a stepping stone team for relatively new drivers (and crew members) to the Winston Cup Series.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the late Elmo Langley’s team (the No. 64 Ford) was more or less one step below Donlavey’s. Schrader admits in his book that he paid $125,000 for five races in Langley’s No. 64 in 1984. The idea was if he performed well in the No. 64, then Langley would help Schrader progress his career in Winston Cup. That apparently happened, because Elmo recommended Schrader during the season to Donlavey, who then signed Schrader for 1985.

Moving on, I can understand why this was done Saturday night (since Coca-Cola was sponsoring the race through their Coke Zero division), but I did not like all the emphasis being put on the Coca-Cola Racing Family of drivers. Heck, there wasn’t this much emphasis on them during the Coca-Cola 600 back in May, and that race was sponsored by the main division of the Coca-Cola Company. Drivers that are part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family were distinguished by their names in the scroll being red with a white background.

In addition, the number graphics for those drivers contained a white number inside of a red Coca-Cola cap on a white background. However, I don’t think that those drivers really needed the additional emphasis during the broadcast. It makes TNT look like they’re playing favorites, which they more than likely were not doing.

I believe that the booth crew did a great job Saturday night. Ralph Sheheen had more time to get ready for his play-by-play role this week, and as a result, his performance was pretty much what I expect out of him: a steady one where he basically does his job, but doesn’t really get in the way. It’s almost like he sees perfection in his role in much the same way that an umpire in baseball does. You know he’s there, he does his job, and no one gets ticked off at him.

As for Bill Weber, there was absolutely no reference to him at all during the broadcast. It’s like he doesn’t exist. On Wednesday, TNT announced that Weber would be sitting out the remaining two races (Saturday night, and next weekend in Chicago) in TNT’s schedule as a result of the incident in Manchester, N.H. In addition, Adam Alexander was brought in to take Ralph Sheheen’s place on pit road.

I have no idea whether this suspension is a Turner-mandated cooling down period for Weber, or an outright sacking, but the public wants to know what’s happening here. I, personally, have received emails from readers asking me what’s up with Weber. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the specifics of what happened in that hotel lobby on June 26 and I know that TNT will never tell exactly what happened. I just want to know whether Weber will be back next year, so that I can pass that information on to my readers.

And if not, I’d like to know whether we’re actually looking at an on-air audition for next year or if Sheheen, who has done quite well in his fill-in role, is just keeping the seat warm for someone else.

Late in the race, Kyle Petty made a reference to why TNT was not interviewing seemingly anyone that was involved in any of the crashes on Saturday night. He claimed that they were all involved in getting their cars fixed and didn’t want to talk to TNT’s reporters. I found this to be kind of rare that a commentator would take the time to explain this during a broadcast. Petty claimed that people “from Twitterland” were asking him about it.

The truth is that John Daly from the Daly Planet actually tweeted Petty during the race and basically asked him, in a nice way, of course, “What the Deuce is going on here?” Petty answered him on air within two minutes and then sent Daly a personal Twitter message going into slightly more detail during the next Wide Open ad. That message also included a picture from TNT’s infield set taken during a pre-race commercial. I’ll touch on this a little more in-depth in a couple of paragraphs.

The post-race coverage was once again a little short, but I can understand it since TNT was also over their time slot by the time the race ended. TNT provided fans with interviews of Stewart, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Edwards and Denny Hamlin, in addition to a full field rundown and points check before leaving. On RaceBuddy, Larry McReynolds and Marc Fein provided some additional analysis of the race, and then included additional interviews with Joey Logano, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.

Personally, I think that the Wide Open Coverage was quite good. I’ll admit that I’m definitely used to the typical way of broadcasting races, and using this system, it’s actually quite difficult to take a bathroom break if there’s never much more than a minute at a time that the action isn’t on screen. Of course, that’s not really so much of a gripe as it is a side effect of continuous coverage. There are some bugs that need to be worked out, but I’m confident that TNT can take care of them. I’ll give their broadcast an A-.

However, that Twitter exchange from earlier got me thinking. I don’t really want to sign up for Twitter because I feel that, for the most part, it’s pointless, especially if you already have a Facebook page. In that case, it’s redundant because Facebook already has a function where you can type out updates without being bound by a 140-character limit. Anyone who knows me knows that I basically can’t get anything across in 140 characters or less. Everything would look disjointed. In fact, those previous two sentences would just barely fit in a Twitter post.

However, many media personalities have Twitter pages already. In the NASCAR television media, each of NASCAR’s TV partners has Twitter pages. In addition, various NASCAR media personalities have their own Twitter pages. The aforementioned Kyle Petty, Wendy Venturini, Rutledge Wood and our own Kenny Wallace are just a few examples. A few drivers also have Twitter pages, like Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip. Michael McDowell in the Nationwide Series (who, by the way, will be in the No. 81 for MacDonald Motorsports this week) has tweeted from the drivers’ seat in the past.

I used his page to figure out why he had to spend time in the garage back at Darlington (apparently, it was double ignition box failure, with some smoke in the car to boot). Oh yes, and if you run into McDowell, ask him about Bob Evans. He seems to go on about the restaurant constantly on his Twitter feed. Also, some of our staff writers here at Frontstretch have Twitter pages of their own.

This has caused me to reconsider whether I should sign up for Twitter, not so that I can write out random messages about myself for a bunch of people I really don’t know to read, but so that I can get in contact with some of the TV personalities in NASCAR. The benefit would be that I would gain more of an understanding of working on-air during these telecasts. And, of course, there’s the fact that I can pester the on-air staff for reasoning for certain things that happen on-air. It could possibly make the TV critiques better in the long run. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series are both at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. The Nationwide Series will race in the Dollar General 300 Friday night on ESPN2, while the Cup Series will race Saturday night in the LifeLock.com 400 (not to be confused with the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway last month) on TNT. Many of you will be quite sad to see TNT go after what has been an up and down past few weeks – it’s their last telecast before ABC/ESPN takes over for the rest of the season.

I will provide my opinions of those telecasts in my next critique; in addition, if something else piques my interest, I’ll talk about that a little bit as well.

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.

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

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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