ESPN set to end long run televising NASCAR

Craig Davis
Contact ReporterSouth Florida Sun-Sentinel
Sprint Cup final is end of road for NASCAR on ESPN as NBC, Fox take over broadcasts in 2015.

— Not only will Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speeday conclude the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it will mark the end of the road for a much longer-running NASCAR drama.

The Ford EcoBoost 400 will be the final NASCAR race televised by ESPN before Fox and NBC take over in 2015 as co-drivers under a blockbuster broadcast deal worth a combined $8.2 billion deal for the next 10 years.

Although they split once before, ESPN and NASCAR have been symbiotically linked for more than 30 years. The two have, in effect, grown up together.

"I don't think that NASCAR would be the sport and the entity it is today, and ESPN would not be the worldwide leader in sports today, if they didn't have each other," ESPN announcer Allen Bestwick said during a nostalgic news conference. "You can't separate the history of ESPN from NASCAR and the history of NASCAR from ESPN. They're just interlocked together in what's made them what they are today."

Sunday will be ESPN's 398th Cup race. The cable sports giant was in its infancy when it broadcast the first on tape-delay from Rockingham, N.C., in March 1981.

ESPN televised the sport from 1981-2000 and 2007-2014. The relationship spanned the eras from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson.

"If you look back on the history of both ESPN and NASCAR separately, you come back to ESPN and NASCAR together inevitably," Bestwick said. "NASCAR was this budding sport that had all this product, this great racing and these great characters, and it needed exposure, and this thing called cable TV came along, and this group that had an idea for a 24-hour all-sports television network, and they needed sports, and they got together."

The new arrangement is similar to 2001-06 when Fox and NBC split the season.

Fox will get the first five months of the Cup season, some of which will likely be shown on its all-sports network Fox Sports 1.

NBC will show the final 20 Sprint Cup Series races and final 19 Nationwide races of the season. NBC Sports Network will air 13 of the Cup events each year.

The racing and the TV coverage have both gotten considerably more sophisticated over the past three decades, pointed out ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch.

"I think our network has done a better job than anyone in the history of the sport of getting those radios on back and forth between a driver and crew chief and spotter or among those groups, and with the dual path-on-board cameras, you can actually see the driver in the car talking, see what he's looking at on the racetrack, and we can have a hand-held camera show you the crew chief," Punch said.

As for how ESPN will cover NASCAR beginning next year, network executive Rich Feinberg said, "I don't think you'll see much of a change. I can assure … all fans out there that we're going to continue to cover NASCAR across all our news and information platforms in a very significant way."

Kenseth wins

Matt Kenseth ended a long victory drought by bolting away on the final restart in Saturday's season finale of the Nationwide Series to snatch his first victory in 23 starts dating to last year.

Kyle Larson had gotten the jump on the previous restart with two laps remaining, but a crash back in the pack provided another opportunity. Kyle Busch squeezed out Larson for second place.

"I pretty much knew it was over. Thankfully, got another caution and was able to get rolling on that second one," Kenseth said. "When [Larson] chose the bottom I knew that I had a shot."

There was no drama for the drivers championship as Chase Elliott secured that last week at Phoenix. The 18-year-old son of Hall of Fame inductee driver Bill Elliott is the youngest NASCAR champion and the first rookie and teenager to win a title.

Elliott was on track for a 27th top-10 finish in 33 races before he blew a tire and hit the wall with eight laps to go and ended up 17th.

"I know it was ugly. We didn't have a very good run, but we'll take it," Elliott said, adding that the championship is "a dream come true."

He won three times and had 16 Top-5 finishes.

Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't surprised by the younger Elliott's rapid ascension, saying before the race, "I thought he could drive for the championship."

Brad Keselowski won't have a chance to vie for the Sprint Cup championship in Sunday's culmination of the Chase despite winning six races on the top circuit this season, but he did claim a consolation prize.

With an eighth-place finish Saturday he clinched the owner's title for Roger Penske, who had five drivers in the Nationwide Series.

Rebuilding Daytona

Daytona International Speedway will be missing its most recognizable profile for the Coke Zero 400 next July 5. The familiar white tower with its block "DAYTONA" will be removed following February's Daytona 500 as part of the $400 million overhaul of the iconic track.

Detailing progress on the Daytona Rising project, speedway president Joie Chitwood III said Saturday that a temporary race control will be set up for the July race, with a new tower housing the command center, press box and suites opening in time for the 2016 Daytona 500.

The venerable speedway is being transformed into a stadium-style facility with NFL-caliber amenities. The backstretch stands will be removed after the July race.

Chitwood said that 90 percent of the steel for reconstruction has been installed. There will be 40,000 new seats ready for the Feb. 22 Daytona 500. The backstretch stands will be removed after the July race.

Promoting safety

The Florida Department of Transportation announced Saturday that it will sponsor the 2015 Xfinity Series opener at Daytona to raise awareness of pedestrian and bicycle safety in the state. That will be the first race of NASCAR's second-tier series that has been known as Nationwide since 2008.

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