ESPN/ABC takes over with NASCAR ratings falling

ESPN's famous hype can't always mesmerize — recall the fates of Cold Pizza, Arena Football, Stephen A. Smith and ESPNHollywood— but it can always pound away.

And as it airs what's left of NASCAR's season starting with Sunday's Brickyard 400, it's deploying heavy throw-weight to a sport that didn't used to need it.

Fox's first-half NASCAR coverage finished down 12% from last year. TNT then picked up races and ended down 6% from 2008 and, as ratings drooped annually, was down 21% from 2006. ESPN/ABC, in its third year airing NASCAR's top circuit, saw its race ratings slip slightly last year.

ESPN is revving its engines, with its TV channels this week carrying at least 19 hours live from the Indianapolis track and another eight hours of race reruns. It won't air Sunday's race live on its ESPN360 broadband service, which might drive a few viewers to TV. Sunday, it will add a so-called BatCam to zip along a cable above pit road and its prerace show includes talk show host Kelly Ripa chatting with driver Jeff Gordon. Julie Sobieski, an ESPN programming vice president, notes "the SportsCenter brand" will be at the track — for a Saturday show — and ESPN will air a Thursday night Feel Your Heart Race special that's "a 30-minute promotion of Nascar Nation."

ESPN announcers sound onboard. "This has all the ingredients to be the best (Brickyard 400) yet," says race announcer Jerry Punch. "Although people might say that's hype." Says analyst Dale Jarrett: "You can say we're just trying to hype this for TV, but this is a huge event for drivers."

Says Sobieski: "We're doing everything we can from a TV standpoint." USA Today

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