Danica Patrick (10) and Bobby Labonte (32) collide between Turns 3 and 4 as Ryan Newman (31) tries to avoid them during the second of two qualifying races for the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday,
Phelan M. Ebenhack
February 20, 2015

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) The loudest cheers for the Daytona 500 this weekend may not come from the speedway grandstands.

NBC executives swear they're pulling for Fox during Sunday's race for an unlikely reason.

''We would love to see Fox break our record,'' said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. ''A healthy Daytona signals a healthy NASCAR, which is good for everyone.''

ESPN and TNT are out. Fox is in and so is NBC, which is back in the NASCAR business nine years after the final Daytona 500 to air on the network drew a record 11.3 rating with an average of 19.4 million viewers.

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

Fox Sports has a deal to air the first five months of Cup races beginning this 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. This all puts NASCAR at $820 million a year for the length of the 10-year contracts.

The staggering sum has both networks expecting a ratings bang for their bucks, even as flat viewership and sagging attendance have socked the sport. Last year's Daytona 500 averaged 9.3 million viewers in a race delayed more than six hours by rain. The 2013 edition won by Jimmie Johnson averaged 16.7 million viewers, but down from nearly 18 million who watched in 2007 and 2008.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France said his series is still ''one or two'' for American sports viewers every weekend from February to September.

''When you judge it all, we're pretty comfortable that this is not only the most dominant motorsport in North America by a wide margin, but we're competing nicely with the most competitive sports landscape in the world,'' he said.

NBC still has time to tinker before its July debut.

''We think we can bring a lot to the party and really help them regain their momentum and continue to grow the sport,'' Miller said.

Up first, Fox is ready to wave the green flag on the NASCAR season with Sunday's race.

The race marks Fox's 15th Daytona 500 following its debut in the 2001 edition marred by the death of Dale Earnhardt. Mike Joy, the play-by-play announcer, and analysts Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds have called every start, wreck and checkered flag over that span - punctuated, of course, by Waltrip's ''Boogity, boogity, boogity!''

''The main difference is that Fox Sports is an analyst-driven production,'' Joy said. ''You see that in football, baseball, and you see it in NASCAR. That in and of itself was a big culture shift from the way that CBS, ABC and NBC were putting sports on the air, where their anchors were at the top of the telecast and then they would fill in with analysts specific to a given sport.

''This was very different right from the start and I think that's one of the big reasons it works so well.''

Fox will air 10 Sprint Cup races and Fox Sports 1 will air six Cup races until the handoff to NBC for the July 5 race at Daytona. Fox (two races) and Fox Sports 1 (12) also have the first 14 races of NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity Series.

NBC will air just seven races, including the final three of the season, on network television. The other 13 will air on NBCSN, which airs in 85 million homes.

Fox can count on some star power in the Xfinity booth: former Cup champions and active drivers Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick will rotate as guest analysts for its telecasts. Gordon, a four-time champion, is adding to his race weekend workload before he ends his full-time Cup schedule after this season.

''Every Saturday, I'm in my bus watching the Xfinity races and I'm drawn to it,'' Gordon said. ''I'm learning from it as well as critiquing it.''

Gordon said his impeding exit from the sport has only ''ramped-up the interest level'' from both Fox and NBC for his services next season.

Maybe Gordon can ask former Hendrick Motorsports colleague Steve Letarte for advice on moving from the track to the booth. Letarte won the Daytona 500 last year calling the shots for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Letarte turned in his crew chief headset for an announcer's earpiece for the NBC team.

He will join lead announcer Rick Allen and analyst Jeff Burton. Letarte left the weekly grind of NASCAR for the relative comfort of the booth for family reasons. The trio will make a dry run this weekend using Fox's feed.

''I'm down here trying to understand the other side of the sport that maybe I don't know,'' Letarte said. ''Heck, we won this race a year ago. I think that relevancy is really going to come through. I don't think I have to put a tremendous effort into that in year one.''

He has a decade to figure it all out.

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