The view from my couch

The "New" Inside Nextel Cup
by Cheryl Lauer
October 20, 2005

When I first heard that new SPEED Channel head, Chris Long, had decided to revamp this show, to say I was very unhappy is real understatement. Allen Bestwick had hosted the show since it's inception on the old Speedvision Channel back in 1996. The driver panel had been made of Ken Schrader, Johnny Benson, and Michael Waltrip. The first thing Long said was he was getting rid of Bestwick and Benson. I understood that Benson was not the most outgoing of drivers, and despite him being one of my favorite drivers on the track, I could probably have lived with the show getting someone a bit more outgoing. After all, it is a discussion show. The comments Long made about "getting someone younger" irked me a bit though (as the recent emphasis on age among TV networks always does). But I was absolutely astounded that Long was planning on dumping Allen Bestwick! And then to hear he was being replaced by none other than Dave Despain! So my initial vow was that I would never watch the show again after Bestwick left. My biggest complaint was that Bestwick has many years experience covering NASCAR, both on the Motor Racing Network and now on NBC TV broadcasts. Despain, on the other hand, has always made no secret that NASCAR is not his favorite form of motor sports. While I enjoyed Despain's work on the pre-race shows ESPN used to do, I have not been a fan of Wind Tunnel at all. Next, it was reported that Kevin Harvick would replace Benson, supposedly to "spice up" things. Now I can't say Harvick is not a talented driver, but he's also a very controversial figure, which I just didn't feel was right for this show. Ultimately, it was announced that SPEED had signed Brian Vickers to join the panel on this show. I felt this was a good choice as Vickers is certainly a less controversial figure, but also has the distinction of being a former Busch Series champ (as did Harvick). So when the new format debuted on September 12th, I decided to break my vow of "abstinence" and check the show out.

Since that time, I can't say that I've been a weekly viewer of the show; however, I have seen several episodes over the last month. I have to grudgingly admit I've seen some positive changes. The first being that Despain keeps a tight reign on Michael Waltrip whose tendency to try and take over the show during the last four years had really turned me off from a show that used to be my favorite on television. Not just my favorite show, but the old Inside Winston Cup was actually the only show I watched on TV for many years. Other than that, my tastes ran to commercial-free movie channels and live races only.

On the episodes of the new show that I've watched, I don't believe Ken Schrader has been on but one time. And, frankly as I'm always fond of saying with regards to racing on TV, sometimes less can be better. The week before Talladega, Jeff Burton sat in for Vickers, along with Waltrip and Despain. Burton was an excellent choice as a guest to discuss the dangers of a restrictor-plate track since he's become the leader of safety initiatives in NASCAR over the last few years. I also liked that Burton did not allow Waltrip to steal the spotlight, but was an assertive and articulate speaker. Not that Waltrip is not articulate; it's just that his tendency to go off on sponsor tangents and his "me, me, me" mentality had become a constant irritation to myself and many other viewers. During this episode, Burton and Waltrip seemed to work well together, with neither dominating the conversations or straying from the topic at hand.

The last two weeks, regular panelist, Vickers, has been on with Waltrip and Despain. Vickers is also quite an articulate and impressive speaker for someone of his age. He's respectful when he disagrees with something, but assertive enough to easily hold his own against Waltrip; something that was missing from the show in the last few years. I have particularly enjoyed Vickers' and Waltrip's disparate views of several issues because of their age differences and levels of experience in driving. After Talladega when the subject of bump-drafting came up, Vickers was quick to point out that the drivers have been doing it ever since he's been in Cup, so he doesn't know any other way. This view nicely contrasted with Waltrip's view that bump-drafting is reckless and dangerous (a view I support wholeheartedly). This past week, the drivers were discussing the changes made in the track surface at the Lowes Motor Speedway. Vickers said he liked the bumps in the old track surface, saying that things like that gave the track character. Waltrip had an opposing view, but did agree he liked tracks with individual characteristics. These types of discussions showcase the driver panel and reminded me that Waltrip can make well-thought out contributions to the panel. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

Some changes in the format of the show are obviously the producer or Despain's choices. These include the set where the drivers are now sitting on taller swivel chairs, with monitors next to them so they can view highlights from the races. What really looks silly is that each driver now has a clipboard with notes or a script to follow. Frankly, I preferred the original set from a couple years ago where everyone sat behind a desk. Right now everyone's legs just seem to be flopping around from those tall stools. Second, the large pictures behind the drivers now change weekly. I see this as a very positive change. The production team now ensures highlight photos from that week's race and winner are in those frames. I really like this approach as the pictures displayed there under the old show format had been the same for the last two seasons and I was real tired of seeing them every week. Another change in the content of the show is that Despain relies heavily on scanner communications from the drivers in conjunction with video highlights of the races. I'm not sure if I care for this change or not. It seems to cut down on the actual analysis of the races by the driver panel and that's something most fans tune into this show to see. Scanner bites can be interesting if they provide new clips we didn't already hear on the weekly broadcast. Despain uses some new material, but a lot of them seem to be things a regular race viewer has already heard.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised with the show so far. I like that Despain clearly keeps Waltrip on the topic at hand and Waltrip seems to be making an effort to act more professional as well. Humor is fine, but the some of Waltrip's diatribes the last few years have just bordered on ridiculous. As much as I liked Allen Bestwick, and it was clear he tried to control Waltrip, he didn't always succeed. Perhaps it was a case of the team being together too long for anyone to take him seriously. I actually surprise myself in admitting that because I really admired much of Bestwick's work on this show a lot. However, Waltrip taking over the show in the last few years had pretty much driven me away from it at times. I didn't even bother to tune in a few times earlier this season because I didn't feel like hearing Waltrip's shilling for his sponsors all the time, or his clear bias against drivers he doesn't like.

I do feel Despain's sarcasm about NASCAR and the sanctioning body could be toned down just a bit. But then, what real race fan isn't sarcastic about NASCAR these days? So for now, I'll continue watching to see how the show evolves. See? I can eat crow when I overreact to news of a change in a show I enjoy. :-) Keep up the good work, guys!

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