CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Dale Jarrett will replace Rusty Wallace in the booth this season for ESPN’s coverage of NASCAR, while Wallace will become the lead analyst for the network’s studio programs.

The move is not exactly surprising – Jarrett thrived last season when he helped call Nationwide Series events last year.

, and many believed he was headed into a second career of broadcasting when he retires from racing after driving the first five races of 2008.

It’s the same path his father, Ned, took upon his retirement from racing. The two-time Cup champion was part of ESPN’s crew from 1988 to 2000 and became one of the most respected analysts in NASCAR. He offered his son advice when he began dabbling in the booth last season.

“He told me to relax and just talk like I do,” Dale Jarrett said last summer. “I think that’s the thing I always loved about my Dad, he never tried to be somebody that he wasn’t. And I can’t be somebody else if I tried. So he just told me to relax and have fun with it.”

Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion, will join Jerry Punch and Andy Petree in the booth. The three have been friends since high school in Hickory, and all entered NASCAR about the same time.

Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion, joined ESPN upon his 2005 retirement. He was an analyst in 2006 for ESPN’s coverage of the IndyCar Series, and moved into the NASCAR booth last season when the network reacquired the television rights for half the season.

But Wallace struggled at times in the booth, and fans complained he mispronounced drivers’ names and didn’t seem comfortable.

Now in the studio, Wallace will run all the studio programs and will fill in for Jarrett when needed.

Also, Allen Bestwick will host NASCAR Countdown, joining Wallace and analyst Brad Daugherty on the pre-race program.

Nicole Manske has also been hired to host NASCAR Now, ESPN’s daily magazine-style show. She will share the job with Bestwick and Ryan Burr on a show that struggled last season with hosts as viewers never warmed up to a rotating cast of personalities.

In addition, Shannon Spake was promoted to full-time pit reporter to replace Bestwick. She’ll be joined on pit road by returnees Dave Burns, Jamie Little and Mike Massaro.

ESPN will cover all 35 Nationwide races this season and the final 17 Sprint Cup races of the season.

AP-ES-01-23-08 0905EST

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