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It wasn't exactly the first week Fox Sports' Chairman David Hill had envisioned for his network's initial NASCAR coverage.

The Daytona 500, the first race under Fox's new $1.6 billion, eight-year pact with NASCAR, produced the race's best ratings in 22 years but also the tragic death of the sport's top star, Dale Earnhardt.

"One minute you are on top of the mountain; the next you are being hauled into the abyss," says Hill. "It was dreadful."

Following the tragedy and flood of media coverage drawn to NASCAR, the big TV question surrounding the sport now is how will it affect its popularity and national ratings.

"Obviously it brings a lot of attention to the sport, negative or positive, and this is clearly the most negative way you can get publicity. But I don't think it hurts it; sadly, I think it helps," says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of Schulman Advanswers NY. "And if there is any sport out there that's going to have growth, this is the one that has surely shown the growth. It seems to be becoming more and more popular."

Fox's Daytona 500 coverage averaged a 10.0 rating/24 share in the national ratings and 32 million viewers, the highest ratings for the Winston Cup event since 1979, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox and co-owned cable network FX have all the of Winston Cup races through June. Then, NBC and TBS take over the coverage.

"They were very pleasing figures. I just hope its indicative of the rest of the season," Hill said. "One of the things I have learned over the years, though, is to never predict a rating, never. We just hope they are going to be good."

Hill's Fox Sports division has built its reputation over the last eight years through the use of technology, and Hill says there will likely be more to come as the season continues. (See separate story, page 44.)