By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The TNT portion of the NASCAR television schedule begins next week at Pocono and the network will attempt to give fans a backstage pass during its six-race run.
TNT will showcase one driver per week in an “All Access” segment during its pre-race coverage. First up will be Denny Hamlin, who will be followed by the network from the time Sunday’s race at Dover concludes all the way through next Friday’s qualifying at Pocono.
TNT will follow Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team through their weekly preparations.
“We’re hoping fans get a deeper, insightful look at the driver, the teams and what goes on week-to-week,” said Craig Barry, senior vice president and executive creative director, Turner Sports. “I think that this type of television, this all-access, fly-on-the-wall type television is becoming more and more prevalent in what we do.”
TNT will then do the same thing with Brad Keselowski leading into Michigan, Juan Pablo Montoya before Sonoma and Kurt Busch before Kentucky.
It could make for compelling television as teams are generally hesitant to give too much of a glimpse of their preparations for risk of revealing strategy. Barry said TNT is aware teams could find the process invasive as cameras follow them for a week, but “we were very forthcoming in telling them what we expected, and giving them examples of what we were looking for” in recruiting participants.
The network also plans to televise one feature each week highlighting a driver away from the track. The spotlight will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr. before Pocono as reporter Ralph Sheheen visits NASCAR’s most popular driver at his “Whisky River” property and “Car Graveyard.”
The network will use analysts Kyle Petty, Wally Dallenbach and Larry McReynolds in the booth with play-by-play announcer Adam Alexander, who will also host the 60-minute “Countdown to Green” pre-race show. Reporters Sheheen, Marty Snider, Matt Yocum and Chris Neville will patrol pit road before and during each race.
“These guys have worked together for us for a long time — that is a really important aspect,” Barry said. “We take a lot of time to create a situation that the announcers and the talent can play off each other and build their chemistry.”
Indeed, Turner is entering its 31st consecutive year of NASCAR coverage. The network’s “Summer Series” of six races is part of a television package shared between Fox and ESPN. The current contracts all run through the 2014 season, but Fox has already renegotiated its extension.
NASCAR chairman Brian France last week said “there’s a lot of interest, that’s a very good thing,” about the remaining portion of NASCAR’s 36-race schedule. But France also indicated he’d like NASCAR to stay where it is on the television guide.
“My hope is to renew with the incumbents,” France said. “But that’s why you have negotiations and discussions. We’ll have to see how that plays out.”
TNT declined to comment on its position regarding upcoming NASCAR negotiations.
The network also declined to discuss fan criticism over the amount of commercials packed into a NASCAR broadcast. Fans have grown increasingly frustrated with all three networks, arguing too much time is spent on advertising at the expense of at-track action.
TNT was the first network to adopt side-by-side coverage by going “Wide Open” during its July race at Daytona and splitting the screen between the commercial and the on-track action. It’s not known if the network will use the feature this year.
“I feel like we really haven’t completely decided on that,” Barry said. “We are looking at a bunch of different scenarios.”
TNT will not use an overhead camera in its coverage, but made that decision before a cable from Fox’s “CAMCAT” camera snapped during last Sunday’s race at Charlotte. Several cars suffered heavy damage and 10 fans were injured when a part of the rope landed in the grandstand.
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