ESPN Set For Return

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For nearly seven years, many NASCAR fans have longed for ESPN to return to the sport.

That wish is about to become a reality.

ABC/ESPN are ready to jump back into the sport the networks helped build with a comprehensive television package in 2007, the first of an eight year contract.

After a successful run televising NASCAR racing during the 1980s and 1990s, instrumental in the sport's growth and popularity, ABC/ESPN left after the 2000 season when FOX and NBC locked up the broadcast rights.

When NBC decided not to renew its deal after the 2006 season, ABC/ESPN jumped in quickly.

"ABC Sports first exposed sports fans to the racing excitement of NASCAR in the 1960s, and ESPN and the sport grew up together in the 1980s and 1990s, said George Bodenheimer, ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports President and Co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. "Our tradition is rich, and our future is bright. To NASCAR, its drivers and fans we say, 'Welcome home.'"

With 17 NEXTEL Cup races, including the entire "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" schedule on ABC, and the complete Busch Series rights, the networks will present 52 races this season of NASCAR's top two divisions.

Putting together the broadcast team that will bring the races into fans' homes was an important piece of the puzzle. The networks opted for a mix of old and new faces in hopes of finding the right chemistry for the broadcasts.

Dr. Jerry Punch, who was a vital part of ESPN's early NASCAR coverage, landed the plum role of play-by-play announcer, an assignment that touched the veteran broadcaster.

"I want fans to smell the rubber burning when they sit in their living room," Punch said. "I want them to get up off that sofa and dust grass off their pants because when that car spun out they were there. I want them to get up and have to go wash the gasoline smell off their face. That's what we want to be able to do. We want the NASCAR experience to come out of the screen into their living room ESPN-style."

Veteran driver Rusty Wallace and former crew chief Andy Petree will join Punch in the broadcast booth while pit road reporting will be handled by Allen Bestwick, Dave Burns, Jamie Little and Mike Massaro.

A variety of ancillary programming will be part of ESPN's coverage including pre and post race shows as well as a new daily progra, "NASCAR Now."

The thirty-minute daily news show will debut on ESPN 2 on February 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio host Erik Kuselias will lead the show and be flanked by a large roster of reporters and "insiders" including drivers Boris Said and Stacy Compton as well as former NBA player and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team owner Brad Daugherty.

The overall plans look to bring unprecedented television coverage to fans. What remains to be seen is if those fans will again embrace the network as they did seven years ago.

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