Let me preface this before I continue: the ESPN NASCAR team is alright. Pretty much everything else at ESPN from Sportscenter to College Football to "Oh God I can't go more than five seconds without talking about the Lakers or Red Sox" pretty much sucks.
Now, if you missed the rain-delayed NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover yesterday, then you missed a treat. From sign on to sign off, the ESPN crew did a tremendous job with the cards they were dealt. When the bottom fell out and heavy rains pelted the Dover International Speedway about one hour prior to the scheduled start of the race, the tv crew knew they would be in for a long day. And they were: the race ended at about 7:45 last night.
I've really been impressed by ESPN's NASCAR coverage this year. Last year, you couldn't have paid me to say something nice about their coverage. But this year, the on-air and behind the scenes folks have made such an improvement that I would venture to say they have the best product out there.
I think moving Rusty Wallace to the pit studio was a smart idea. He knows his stuff, but he presents it in a way that is often confusing and makes him sound dumb. He also has a tremendous conflict of interest being that he is a 2-team car owner. Last year, "My son Stephen" was almost more popular than draft-tracker. Note: Please don't bring that back.
Alan Bestwick was obviously the best choice for the host of the infield pit studio. He has about as much knowledge as any member of the broadcast media and has that presence about him that ups the level of the program.
I was very critical a year ago about the trio of Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and Rusty Wallace. While Dr. Punch may be better suited for a pit road reporter, he has gotten better. I would like to see a little more emotion from him when it becomes necessary to do so. Remember back to Dale Sr's final win at Talladega in 2000? Jerry Punch was on the play-by-play for ESPN that day. His words sent chills down my back that day, and after watching that video a couple weeks ago, it still does. If he can bring that level of enthusiasm and excitement to the broadcast, then ESPN is really in business.
Andy Petree is the most pleasant surprise of the season. He did well in the booth last year, but I think with all the extra on-air time on NASCAR Now, he has really turned into an excellent broadcaster.
Finally, I think with the addition of Dale Jarrett later this year, the ESPN crew will gel into the successful product they produced in the 80's and 90's. I am actually looking forward to ESPN's first Cup Series race, and would gladly do without tv coverage for the six weeks that TNT has coming up.
ESPN gets what the NASCAR fan wants to see. They show the leaders; they show the back of the field. They show the winner crossing the finish line and then the rest of the cars cross the line as well: a concept that FOX still doesn't get.
FOX built their brand into the benchmark for NASCAR coverage when they took over in 2001. But in the 7 years since, their coverage has gotten a little worse each year. With Digger becoming more important that showing a pass for the lead, then the folks at FOX need to get to work during the off-season.