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David Poole, Charlotte Observer

NBC Out Of Bidding

NBC has withdrawn from negotiations to continue as a NASCAR television partner beyond the 2006 season, opening a door through which ABC/ESPN may walk to return to the sport, The Charlotte Observer has learned.

NBC informed NASCAR just more than a week ago that the network felt NASCAR’s asking price for rights to Nextel Cup and Busch races was higher than the value of the package, a source told the Observer.

Current television partners had an exclusive negotiating window in which they could work with NASCAR on a new deal.

But after electing not to continue negotiations, NBC has waived that clause allowing NASCAR to negotiate with new partners, and the source said NASCAR is already close to finalizing a new television deal that could be announced by early next week.

Fox Sports is expected to retain rights to Nextel Cup races in the first half of the season. Fox and NBC have had the season-opening Daytona 500 in alternating years in the current deal, but Fox is expected to get rights to that event each year in the new deal.

Cup races in the second half of the season, including the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, would likely air on ABC and ESPN, which are both owned by the Disney Company.

At least some of the Busch Series races would air on ESPN2, the source said. NASCAR chairman Brian France said last week at Kansas Speedway that he would like to see the Busch Series have its own broadcast identity. That raises the possibility that all or at least a majority of that series’ events could be on one network.

ESPN and NASCAR fueled each other’s growth through the 1990s, with ESPN’s  helping stock-car racing gain national exposure and with NASCAR providing attractive programming that helped ESPN get its networks picked up by more cable providers.

But when Fox/FX and NBC/TNT signed on to a $2.8 billion contract in late 1999, a deal that went into effect at the start of the 2001 season and expires at the end of 2006, ESPN was shut out.

“We have nothing to announce,” say ESPN spokesperson Michael Humes said. “We’ve said for a long time we would like to establish a relationship with NASCAR should the opportunity arise.”

A spokesperson for Fox Sports, reached late Friday afternoon, said that network had no immediate comment about the ongoing negotiations.

Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president for corporate communications, said NASCAR would make no announcement about a future deal until one is completed.

“I think it's fairly common knowledge that everybody knows we are working on our TV contracts and we're having discussions with our existing partners and others,” Hunter said. “It's no secret that ESPN is extremely interested.”

In April, NBC announced a six-year deal to broadcast NFL games in prime time on Sunday nights, paying a reported $600 million per year for those rights. That package begins next season. ESPN’s current Sunday night NFL package moves to Monday night in 2006.