ESPN nears checkered flag in NASCAR coverage

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) When the checkered flag waves on Sunday's race, ESPN will wave goodbye to NASCAR.

ESPN and NASCAR are headed toward their second split following the finale that will crown a Sprint Cup champion. NASCAR cut ties with ESPN and signed billion-dollar TV deals with NBC Sports Group and Fox Sports starting in 2015.

ESPN has been as much a staple in NASCAR the last 30 years as the Earnhardts and Pettys. ESPN televised the sport from 1981-2000 and 2007-2014; a marriage that helped a fledging network grow into a global force and let NASCAR blossom under needed national exposure.

''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. ''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.''

ESPN aired its first NASCAR race in March 1981 with tape-delayed coverage from Rockingham, North Carolina.

Then, only the Daytona 500 aired live in its entirety, and that had only started in 1979. Portions of other select races aired on a delayed basis, sometimes weeks later, on network television.

ESPN aired its first live flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR Cup race on Nov. 8, 1981, from Atlanta.

From there, the relationship was off and racing - Sunday's broadcast will mark ESPN's 398th Cup race. ESPN aired 262 in the 1981-2000 era and the rest in the current eight-year contract that started in 2007.

ESPN's racing reporters, many who are sticking with the network in other sports, wanted the focus on championship weekend.

''We're not here to be the story, we're here to cover the story,'' ESPN reporter Jerry Punch said.

NASCAR viewership during the Chase is up 3 percent from last season (4,318,000 viewers vs. 4,194,000) making it the most-viewed since 2011.

ESPN is going out with a championship bang on Sunday. The network will have a tower camera assigned to follow only championship drivers Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano during the race. All cars will be equipped with onboard cameras and each team will have a robotic overhead camera in pit stall to document pit stops.

ESPN also will have a graphic below the scoring ticker across the top of the screen to show where all four are running at all times during the race.

NASCAR also did not re-sign with Turner Sports this season after eight years.

The 10-year deal with NBC Sports Group begins in 2015 and gives the network the final 20 Sprint Cup Series races of the season and final 19 Nationwide races. NBC last broadcast races in 2006 before ESPN took over its portion of the schedule.

Fox Sports has a deal for the first five months of Cup races beginning with the 2015 season, and it also runs through 2024

NBC Sports paid $4.4 billion for its rights and the Fox Sports deal is now worth $3.8 billion.

It puts NASCAR at $820 million a year for the length of the 10-year contracts.

John Skipper, president of ESPN, said the network will continue to cover NASCAR when its deal expires.

ESPN was not allowed to do on-camera interviews at the track from 2001-06, and its reporters were forced to race to a nearby helipad after races to speak to drivers before they headed home.

Both expect a more amicable relationship in the future.

''It's bittersweet to wish them goodbye,'' NASCAR chairman Brian France said. ''We're still partners in other things together.''

There might be one more surprise Sunday: Hall of Fame driver-turned-broadcaster Rusty Wallace has urged six-time champion Jimmie Johnson to serve as the in-race reporter.

With Johnson out of championship contention, Wallace said the timing was right for the Hendrick Motorsports driver to guide fans through the race.

''I just love what ESPN has done for me,'' Wallace said. ''We've all had our bumps in the road. We've all learned, and I wish we were continuing on, but we're not.''

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