- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - NASCAR’s current television contract runs through 2014, but Fox Sports chairman David Hill said the network will begin its negotiations on an extension this season.

“You never stop negotiating,” Hill told The Associated Press this week. “But, it will start to get hot in the next three or four months.”

Fox shares the Sprint Cup Series schedule with TNT and ESPN. The network partnered with NASCAR in 2001 on a six-year deal, and extended once, by eight years, through 2014.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said last month the series is happy with its current television partners.

“My expectation is they want to renew their involvement with NASCAR, and my hope is at the right time we’ll figure that out together,” France said. “The sports landscape in general, as you know, has heated up quite a bit, so we will be in a good position at the right time. We’re having conversations.”

Fox broadcasts 13 points races on NASCAR’s 36-race schedule.

Hill said he’ll never publicly discuss negotiations but insisted his passion for NASCAR _ and auto racing in general _ has not waned and the sport is good product for the network. He also pointed to last year’s improved ratings as proof Fox and NASCAR are a good fit.

“I think the whole season last year was a huge change in two things, and the most important was the young male demographic started to come back,” Hill said. “I think last year was a hugely important year for all of NASCAR, because I think we finally got over the debacle of the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow. The Car of Tomorrow was probably one of the greatest marketing mishandlings since they brought out new Coke.”

The 2011 NASCAR season on Fox averaged a three-year high of 8.6 million viewers, up 9 percent. It was the largest one-year audience increase in the 11-year history of NASCAR on Fox.

The male 18-to-34 demographic last year was up 20 percent over 2010, from 1.5 to 1.8 in the ratings.

Hill said it’s because the focus has returned to the personalities and has shifted from the cars. NASCAR introduced its current car model in 2007, and its struggles dominated many storylines.

“This sport has been built by some of the biggest and boldest and bravest personalities in the history of sport,” Hill said. “No one cares about the car. The car is second. It’s the driver, and I think that last year marketed that, and that’s why the young males came back.”

He also said Tony Stewart ending Jimmie Johnson’s five-year championship run helped spark interest.

“Last year was a huge break, and we’re almost over the hump,” Hill said. “May God bless Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus both, they are brilliant, but Tony Stewart has got the sniff of the apple. He’s exciting. He’s a bad boy, and there’s nothing better than having a black hat who is winning.”

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