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On the road again

After going from November 2000 until last Saturday between races, ESPN is happy to resume NASCAR telecasts

February 22, 2007|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

It had been a long pit stop for ESPN.

The network went from November 2000 until last Saturday between NASCAR races.

"The count for anybody asking was, as of today, 2,278 days since we televised our last race," Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, said at Daytona Beach, Fla., last week, three days before ESPN2 televised the Busch race there.

Fox televised the main event at Daytona, and that will be the case again at California Speedway this weekend. ESPN and sister network ABC don't get their turn to televise Nextel Cup races again until the end of July. But ESPN has the Busch Series to itself for the entire season, most of those races being shown on ESPN2.

Saturday's Busch race at California Speedway will be on ESPN2 at 4:30 p.m., after half an hour of pre-race coverage.

But that's not all. ESPN2 will televise the final practice session for that race Friday at 10:30 a.m. and qualifying at noon Saturday.

ESPN has been widely credited for helping popularize NASCAR with its coverage over a 20-year period beginning in 1981. But then Fox, NBC, TNT and Speed Channel bumped ESPN off the track, requiring the long pit stop.

In December 2005, NASCAR announced a new eight-year, $4.48-billion television contract that would take effect this year. This time, NBC got bumped and ESPN was back, having agreed to pay $270 million a year.

Besides the entire Busch Series, ESPN got the final 17 of 36 Nextel Cup races, including the 10-race "Chase for the Cup."

Fox has the first 13 Nextel Cup races of the season and TNT the next six. Beginning July 29 with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, ESPN will televise six Cup races and then will put the remaining 11 on ABC.

NASCAR is glad to have ESPN and its sister networks and various media platforms back in the fold.

"We really have all the bases covered," said Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president in charge of broadcasting. "Fox and TNT, with their entertainment element, reach a broad audience. Speed Channel reaches the hard-core NASCAR fan. ESPN reaches the casual sports fan who may not yet be a hard-core NASCAR fan."

ESPN, of course, has many ways of reaching people on various platforms beyond traditional television. There's, ESPN360 broadband service and ESPN on wireless hand-held devices. There's also Spanish-language coverage via ESPN Deportes and coverage on ESPN Radio.

Also, a new show, "NASCAR Now," is shown weekdays on ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m.

John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president in charge of content, said, "A lot has changed at ESPN since we did our last race in 2000.

"At this point, we no longer think of the races as a three-hour event; we think of the races as an opportunity for us to establish ESPN as the 24/7 home of the NASCAR fan."

He added that, through ESPN the Magazine, radio, Internet, broadband platforms, and wireless phones, "We expect to give the NASCAR fan an opportunity to get race coverage wherever they want to get it, whenever they want to get it, and on whatever device they want to receive it on. We continue to think there's a lot of growth in NASCAR. We think it's a growth property."

Even David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports, is glad to see ESPN on board with NASCAR.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Hill said. "The amount of commitment that they contribute is absolutely terrific. And what I'm more excited about is the way that ESPN is presenting NASCAR on 'SportsCenter,' like it's a real sport.

"So the more exposure that this sport gets across the board, the better it is for everyone involved. I've always taken to the belief that a rising tide lifts all ships."

Added Hill, "That being said, I think at the end of the year our package will be No. 1. And I say that with all modesty."

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