CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Race fans, start your clickers. And make sure the TV listings are handy.

Beginning in 2007, NASCAR viewers will need both to navigate their way through a 36-race television schedule.

NASCAR agreed to an eight-year, $4.48 billion television deal Wednesday that will split its schedule among the networks beginning in 2007. The 36 events will be aired on Fox, ABC/ESPN and TNT, and the annual all-star race will be on Speed Channel.

Although the actual races will have scheduling continuity, the remainder of the weekend programming – qualifying, practices and the Busch Series – will be spread out all over the dial in deals that run through the 2014 season.

“This is a major accomplishment for the NASCAR drivers, teams and track operators that have made this sport what it is today,” chairman Brian France said. “The new broadcast partnership is also good for the fans, because they will have so much more NASCAR content from a variety of media and new media sources.”

Marc Ganis, a sports marketer who heads Chicago’s Sportscorp Ltd., dismissed a suggestion that the multitude of networks could prove confusing to viewers.

“NASCAR is sufficiently attractive to audiences that they will look for where the races are from week to week,” he said.

Under the new deal, Fox gets the Daytona 500 and the 12 races that follow, TNT gets a six-event stretch over the summer, and ABC/ESPN closes out the schedule with 17 races – including all 10 Chase for the championship events.

The deal marks a return to the sport for ABC/ESPN and the furthering of a long-term relationship for TNT.

ABC/ESPN had been shut out of the last TV contract, a six-year, $2.8 billion deal that began in 2001 and split the schedule among Fox, NBC and the network’s sister stations. When NBC declined to extend its contract with NASCAR, it opened the door for the networks, owned by The Walt Disney Co., to negotiate.

ABC was one of the first networks to televise stock car racing in the 1960s, and ESPN introduced flag-to-flag race telecasts in the 1980s. The network was NASCAR’s leading carrier through the 1990s, but has not aired a race since 2000, when it lost the rights to NBC and Fox.

Disney worked hard to be included this time around, agreeing to pay about $270 million a year to split the final 17 races on the schedule between ESPN and ABC.

“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 90s,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ABC/ESPN. “Our tradition is rich, and our future is bright. To NASCAR, its drivers and fans we say, Welcome home.’ “

ESPN’s networks also will be home to the lower-tier Busch Series. While most of the Busch races will be on ESPN2, the deal calls for no less than three events to air on ABC. ABC is the only network that has discussed talent, confirming Wednesday that Jerry Punch will be part of the broadcast team. Punch began covering motorsports on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” in 1987 and has been involved in the Indianapolis 500 coverage since 1989.

TNT, meanwhile, fought to continue a 22-year relationship with NASCAR. The network, in conjunction with NBC’s part of the 2001 deal, has aired seven to eight races a season and wanted to remain involved despite NBC’s withdrawal.

So TNT came up with about $80 million a year for a stretch of six races in June and July. TNT was adamant that it wanted continuity in scheduling and a marquee event.

“We got both and we’re thrilled,” David Levy, president of Turner Sports, said of the network deal that includes the July 4 weekend Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway and races 14 through 19 on the schedule.

Fox, meanwhile, continues its run of scheduling the first portion of the season. The network extended its deal to pay about $205 million per year for 13 races and the exhibition Budweiser Shootout.

Although it might be easy to find programming on race days, everything else could be a chore for the rabid fan because of the technicalities of the agreements. For instance:

• Speed Channel will air the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series except for two races, which will be broadcast by Fox.

• Nextel Cup qualifying and practices will be broadcast on a combination of Speed, ESPN and ESPN2.

• Speed will broadcast the preliminary races held prior to the Daytona 500.

• In addition to the all-star race, Speed also gets the Pit Crew Challenge.

Spreading the content around was the only way NASCAR could make deals affordable for its partners.

Both Fox and NBC lost money on the last deal and in declining to extend its contract, NBC said the value the network put on the NASCAR package was far less than the asking price.

Ganis said the multilayered deal shows NASCAR remains a hot property even after extensive tinkering to its championship format the last two years.

“This validates his (Brian France’s) concept of the Chase for the Cup,” Ganis said. “This validates his positioning of NASCAR as a national sport.”

AP-ES-12-07-05 1733EST

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