Transcript of ESPN News Conference Live NASCAR racing returns to the ESPN networks this weekend, and four members of the NASCAR on ESPN team held a news conference at Daytona International Speedway today to preview the full season of coverage. The members of the booth, including lap-by-lap announcer Dr. Jerry Punch and analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, were joined by Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports.
ESPN2 will have live, flag-to-flag coverage of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Camping World 300 at Daytona on Saturday, Feb. 14, at noon ET. A transcript of the news conference follows:
THE MODERATOR: Rich, I know this is a question you've gotten a lot in some interviews you've done during the off-season. We're not really bringing anything new this year, but we're fine tuning. Maybe you could explain a little bit about that.
RICH FEINBERG: I've been asked a lot in the past few weeks particularly just about what ESPN is doing new this year. I've sort of come to terms with how to answer that, which is hopefully we're doing what we've always been doing, but we're doing it better than we've done in the past.
We spent the off-season talking about our efforts, how we can move to the next level, we go through a lot of details, whether it's engineering and operations, creative story lines, all those types of things.
At the end of the day for us this year it's about just taking the successes we've had from the past and building on them, growing further as a team.
THE MODERATOR: Dale Jarrett, our analyst, joined us in 2007 on a part-time basis while he was still a full-time driver. Last year he almost became full-time with us, but still had some racing. Once he finished with that, he was our guy for the rest of the year.
Dale, you're probably going to get asked this. You've kind of come full circle now. This is your first time at Daytona for the 500 when you're not a driver. What are your feelings about that?
DALE JARRETT: Actually Saturday night was kind of strange. I was watching the race. That's the first time since 1995 that I wasn't a part of the Bud Shootout. It was a little bit strange in that respect. Not being here having all the concerns of how we make our car better, just looking at the sport from a totally different perspective for the first time really from the very beginning of the season.
I'm really looking forward to it. It's given me an opportunity to just kind of look at the sport again in a different light, be able to talk about it in a different way, not having to be concerned whatsoever with race duties or anything like that. I'm looking forward to the year.
It's going to be an interesting year for everyone involved. Really looking forward to that. I enjoyed last year tremendously. Such a different challenge than what I'd been presented for over 30 years, because that was the total focus then, about driving a racecar, becoming a better race driver. Now I have something totally different to look at and really enjoy working with everyone at ESPN. We have a great crew. Looking forward to another year.
THE MODERATOR: Dale became quite a quick-change artist. There were a couple times last year where he literally got out of the car, threw on a suit, ran up to the broadcast booth. Now he doesn't have to do that any more.
Jerry Punch has been a part of motorsports broadcasting I believe in the 1980 Daytona 500 as a garage reporter for MRN. Jerry, you were telling me you'd been out in the Nationwide Series garage. Since that's the focus of us this weekend, you saw some interesting things out there.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: I think there's some great stories. I'm thrilled this year to be able to sit with these guys who will do a phenomenal job of analyzing what's happening on the racetrack. I'm excited about being in the garage area in the Nationwide Series because there are some very, very compelling stories that are developing.
The economy has been a challenge for many. In the Nationwide garage, a lot of the drivers and teams look at it as an opportunity. People say there's a lot of guys that don't have a lot of sponsorship, so I'm going to come back and be an owner. We see some teams developing that weren't here a year ago and plan on running the full series. You have Roger Penske who never in his career has run a full NASCAR Nationwide Series car. He will do that this year. Justin Allgaier is a great story. His parents drove him when he was 12 years old three and a half hours on a weeknight to night school to learn to do interviews in case he ever got a chance to be a driver. Guess what? When he was interviewed the first time by Roger Penske, that night school paid off.
Just a moment ago, talking to Evander Holyfield; he is a car owner in the Nationwide Series. He will be here for qualifying on Friday, the race on Saturday. That team is very excited. They have great equipment. They purchased some equipment from Chip Ganassi, the 40 car. A lot of stories to tell as the year develops in the Nationwide Series with 50 cars. 20 of them have to get in on Friday. I'm excited about the start of 2009.
THE MODERATOR: Andy Petree joined our team in 2007 after many years in the garage area as both a champion crew chief and winning car owner. You and I have talked about this before, but you're a fan of the aero package on the Nationwide Series on these restrictor plate tracks. Can you get into that a little bit?
ANDY PETREE: I am a big fan of this. This car has been around a long time in the Nationwide Series. This package now is four years old. But it's got these fins and things about them that make these cars draft real well. They handle relatively good. The track has deteriorated. When I say that, it's gotten a lot more bumps in it, it's getting a lot slicker. You're going to see a lot of guys really sawing the steering wheels and all that. It still makes these cars run in a pack. I've always liked that because restrictor plate racing to me is some of the most exciting racing anywhere. When you put them all together like that, you have them -- let's say a guy loses the draft, he still has a chance to get back to that lead draft, a lot like the new car. We saw over there in the Bud Shootout, Kevin Harvick lost the draft at least once during the night, ended up winning the race. That's one thing I love about this new aero package and about the package on the Nationwide cars.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions.
Q. Dale, you're a student of the sport. You grew up in the sport. Talk a little bit about 1979, the ending to that 500, what it meant. What do you think would be the outcome today if something like that happened?
DALE JARRETT: Obviously that was a huge moment in our sport. I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to do my top 10 list of people that I think have made a huge difference in the 60 years of this sport. One of them that I came up with -- actually, in talking with my dad, giving him who I was looking at, I had a list of about 15. I said, Help me with this a little bit. He gave me another name I hadn't thought of. It was Neil Pilson. He was the guy that brought live flag-to-flag coverage in 1979 for the Daytona 500. We had a spectacular ending to it.
I think that was one of the most important times for our sport. It did help that there was a huge snowstorm and everybody in the northeast was locked in pretty much, even in North Carolina, too. It helped kind of kick start our sport.
That wouldn't be a bad thing for Sunday. I think there's a possibility. I don't know if the guys are going to get out and fight. But that could very well happen. But I think an exciting ending to Saturday and Sunday, probably Friday night, too, in the truck race. But certainly for the Sprint Cup Series that possibility is very real. We saw the guys the other night, in talking to a number of them, the cars really don't drive that good to get the speed that they're looking for. They're trying to find a real balance with these cars.
It could certainly come down to something like that. Again, those type things, if you're the driver and you're involved in the accident, it's not necessarily a great thing, but if you look at it from a whole, look at what's good for the sport, something like that could be very exciting and kind of get this 2009 kick started.
We're in a good time right now. Even though it's very difficult for a lot of people, we have the opportunity on Saturdays right now in the Nationwide side, obviously on Sunday right now, to kind of bring some good things to people. You're looking for something good in your life. We can bring some pretty good stories. At least for three and a half, four hours, get away from the bad things. Turn away from those other channels where they're giving you negative information, come over and have some fun for a couple days. Hopefully we can do that and bring a lot of good stories, as Jerry was talking about.
Q. (Question regarding having to speak more succinctly while commentating.)
DALE JARRETT: These guys can comment on it more because they're hitting me to shut up all the time. It is difficult. You get something and have a thought. Ours is a little bit different, especially at a place like this, you can take a little bit more time. Things are happening so quickly in this that you need to make the point.
One thing I had to really learn, obviously I answered the last question that could have been answered in 45 seconds, I took two and a half minutes to answer that. Kind of my nature. That is something that I've worked extremely hard on. But I have two good people here that when I do get a little long-winded, they don't mind telling me. They're really great to work with. I've worked extremely hard on that. It is something, along with other things, I'm having to learn. It's totally new to me but I love doing it.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: Drag strips are a quarter of a mile, a basketball court is 94 feet, and a football field is a hundred yards. Where Dale, Andy and I go every week, the track changes size. There's a big difference in how much time you have to talk as an analyst. They have adapted well. At Bristol, where they're doing 14 and a half second laps, versus Daytona. They have to adapt each and every week to different circumstances with the same kind of coverage.
Q. Rich, I know everyone has touched upon the economic times, the impact it has on actual fans in the seats. Given the challenging times that people are facing, having to make better use of their discretionary funds, do you think this might provide an opportunity for ESPN to grow a bigger audience?
RICH FEINBERG: It may. I think we look for that opportunity to grow our audience in this sport and all sports we do all the time. Good times, bad times. It's sort of the name of the game. But for us, we want to see the grandstands filled. We want as many viewers as we can. We'd like to see it all. As Dale said, I mentioned this this morning in our staff meeting, one of the unique things about what we do in sport is we offer a departure from reality for a few hours. When you sit, just walk out that door and look at the headlines in the papers, every channel you look at or your personal bank statements, whatever it is, what's going on out there is affecting everybody. It's affecting the sport, fans, families, our business, quite frankly.
So to the extent that we can focus on good coverage, fun television, and the great sport of NASCAR racing, then hopefully we can offer that departure for fans. If they become bigger fans or we get more fans as a result of it, we get bigger things.
Q. Dale, for a long time there was a lot of talk in the sport about how well we were growing. Every track would have an announcement how big its purse is. Now it seems like there's sort of a departure from that. In this country we're talking about how much CEOs are making. Being around the drivers, knowing them, this whole business, do you think maybe there's going to be a backlash about the drivers making as much money as they do? Does that ever get dicey with the fans, given this economic deal?
DALE JARRETT: I guess it could. I would relate it a little bit -- I don't hear anybody saying anything about the actors and actresses, making the movies, performers and things, what they're doing, because it's entertainment. You have to look at a race driver. As much as we call this a sport, it is a sport, it is entertainment. So we're providing something.
I don't look for that to happen. I think that probably if there's a backlash, maybe the sponsors out here get a little bit more of it. It is unfair unless you know their whole business. Some of the sponsors out here right now have had some layoffs as far as their employees. People are asking, why are they still involved in this. They still have to do business. There's no better place for them to do their business and get their message across. There are still going to be -- there are still millions of fans that love this sport and will watch, whether they attend or watch on ESPN. So they have to get their name out there in front, so they still have to continue to do business. I think they're probably the ones that get a little bit more of it than what the drivers do at this point in time.
Has it reached that plateau? Yeah, probably, as far as the drivers. The ones that have good deals, they're appreciative of that. We'll get through this time like we have the others. It will be going back upward again in the near future.
ANDY PETREE: I mean, it's a free market society. That salary of these drivers is just dependent on the supply. If there was a great racecar driver on every corner, the price would be pretty cheap. The fact is there's not. This is a very difficult sport. These guys are very talented. They risk their life every day to do it and their salaries are high.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: As long as you have baseball players turning down $25 million for one year to play with the Dodgers, we should be okay over here.
Q. Dale, the new car has changed racing here fairly considerably. Take us through what the last lap would be in the new car. You're going to take the white flag. Where do you want to be? What do you need to do to win?
DALE JARRETT: I think that's gonna be dependent on each driver and each car somewhat. I don't think the lead is the place you want to be by what we've seen with this car the last year and now in the Bud Shootout. The drafting effect you have with this car allows you to lay back and get a run. You still need that push. You can't do it by yourself.
It would have been interesting if the caution hadn't come out the other night to see what might have happened in this respect. We've seen some great finishes here.
Personally, if you could say where do you want to line up, I'd love to be in second knowing I had a friend behind me. That's gonna be the whole key because if you happen to be sandwiched in between two teammates or you've got a Ford leading the show and Toyota trying to make a pass, the Ford sitting third, do you pull out and make that? I think a lot is going to depend on circumstances, the drivers, the make of cars. It's going to be very important.
Yeah, get me in second. But I'm not going to make that move until we're headed down the backstretch. I think that kind of goes back to the first question, could we see the same thing happen that happened in 1979. That the exactly the spot that I think it could happen, is going into turn three. If somebody's going to try to make an excessive block, that could happen. That's where I would like to make my move. You actually lay back a little bit going down into turn one and through turn one. That's where you have to start picking up speed and gaining that momentum and getting the car behind you on your bumper. That's the key to making a pass, is having the guy on your bumper to help push you, and then you can dictate what's gonna happen from there.
You might even be able to do it without him totally being with you. If you're able to do it right, you can get that push down the backstretch, you may be able to complete that pass because somebody back there is going to jump up and give you that push. It's going to make for an exciting lap. This car has brought a lot of that back.
Saturday is a lot the same thing because even though the cars are totally different, the package that Andy was talking about allows that to happen, too. We have that possibility. The trucks do a great job. We've seen that. We have a possibility for three great finishes here because of the aerodynamics of these cars and the throttle response they all have because they can use bigger plates now.
Q. Rich, how do you balance the natural urge to use every special toy, TV effect, let D.J., Doc and Andy tell the stories of the broadcast?
RICH FEINBERG: With great discretion I guess is my answer. Most of the toys or advanced technologies that we use in the show, our audio systems, computer systems, video systems, can be done at the same time as these guys are doing what they do so well, and that's describing the pictures on the screen to the viewers, trying to take you a little bit beyond the pictures.
We try to be discretionary in terms of when and how we use them. Some we use better than others on some weeks and some we don't. But at the end of the day the stories that these guys tell, the information that they bring along with our reporters on pit road, our pit studio, in our Craftsman Tech Garage, the totality of that information, all those voices, the experience they bring is really what we let guide our decisions that we make in the truck, that and what's happening on the racetrack.
The equipment that we use to then execute those stories sort of follows suit. But at the end of the day what happens on the track and the descriptions that these folks are making, the reports that are coming off of pit road really drive our content.
Q. Rich, obviously it takes a lot of people, a lot of stuff to put on a broadcast. How has the economy affected you? Have you been able to bring as many people? Have you started selling ads for your Cup races?
RICH FEINBERG: Let me start with the people and the economy. I believe our sales department is in the process of selling already. But I can't really comment on what they do because I represent the spending department.
We are a business, like anybody else, whether it's your family that's a business or a big conglomerate, a corporation. What we and all businesses are experiences this country is affecting us. I said to somebody yesterday, I was so happy to get here because the office for the last 12 weeks for me since we left Homestead has been a challenge because it's been all about the business and the economics of the business. Like anything else, you have costs and you have expenses and you have revenue. Hopefully revenue outweighs those costs.
We've had to do some belt tightening, like all businesses. We take that process very seriously. Our goal is that when you watch our telecasts on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, all our multiple platforms, that race fans will see no difference from what we've done in the past, and hopefully they'll actually see a positive difference because we've been doing it longer, we've been together longer. These guys have been together now for some time. With time and togetherness comes chemistry.
Yes, we're affected like everybody else. Just like the league is affected, the teams are affected, the sponsors. I think it was Mike Helton when he made the announcement about testing used the phrase 'stakeholders,' that everything that's happening out there is affecting anybody who has a stake-holding in this sport. We're no different than everybody else. We've tried to work our way through that. I think our product will represent a step forward in growth from what we've been in the past.
Q. Dale, do you go into this season assuming Jeff Gordon will win races or wondering if Jeff Gordon will win races? If the latter, how odd might that be?
DALE JARRETT: No, I go in assuming that he's going to win races. I think last year, for whatever reason, things just didn't line up. When they had cars capable of winning, they either made maybe a wrong decision at some point in time during the race that got them out of sequence to where they couldn't take advantage of the good car at the end of the race. Then they struggled at a number of places.
There's no doubt in my mind that they will win races and Jeff will be back in Victory Lane. It could happen as early as Sunday.
Q. Dale, Mark Martin seems to be the happiest little guy around this track. Can you recall just a few years ago what he was like, how you've seen the transformation, what things in particular you've seen in his transformation from what seems to be almost like a Grinch to a happy little elf in a way.
DALE JARRETT: I think sometimes, because of Mark's competitive nature and spirit, it maybe came across a little bit the wrong way, especially to you the media. He's just such a fierce competitor and he wants to do well. He's like the rest of us: when it's not going the way you want, you're not very happy.
But I think Mark at some point in time, and this probably happened a couple years ago, this is just my observation, he looked at life a little different. I think when he made his decision to cut back his schedule, he saw some other things going on in life that he hadn't really been able to enjoy, that it kind of gave him a new lease on life.
Then this opportunity came along. As great as this is for Mark Martin, it's so much better for the rest of us that are covering this sport and are a part of it. We have some hope here that something really special is going to happen for him this year. We're all going to benefit from that. Hopefully it will start right here on Sunday with an opportunity for him to get his first Daytona 500 win.
We talked about how special or a great ending on Sunday it would be if there were cars spinning, had things happening. There couldn't be anything more special I don't think for this sport than have Mark Martin win this. He's still that great fiery competitor, but he goes about it in a little different manner. It great to see him happy and have this chance.
We're all talking about is he going to win a championship. That's putting a lot of pressure on him for just going into a new organization. But he is the person that can handle that and has the talent and the ability to make that happen. It's a very tall order to go in and think about that. But that's what's great about our Chase system now. He has 26 races to get himself in position to make all of that happen. I think if things go like I think they will for him in these first 26, he'll have that very real chance in those last 10.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: I had a chance to sit back with Mark during the Grinch era. 19 consecutive years driving for Jack Roush. He admitted that he was burned out. He was tired. He's such a competitor. If he was a boxer or a wrestler, he gives you every ounce of what he has every single round. He wasn't getting the results he wanted to get. He wanted to spend time with Arlene, spend time with his son Matt, seeing if Matt wanted to be a racecar driver. He wanted to be a part of that. What dad wouldn't want that?
Then Mark told me last year, he said, Doc, I walked away, I wasn't there but every Sunday they still had a race. I realized how much I missed it. Then Mr. Hendrick, they actually did it on texting back and forth to get this put together, and as Dale so eloquently said, how great would it be for Mark Martin, who came so close four times, is so deserving, is so well-respected in the garage area, by the fans, by all of us, to become NASCAR's first 50-year-old champion.