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Daytona 500 draws crowd

Sunday's Daytona 500 on Fox did a 10.9 preliminary national rating (23 audience share), tying the highest rating for a NASCAR race, NBC's coverage of the 2002 Daytona 500 on the first anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death. NBC and Fox alternate on the season-opening 500; Fox then covers the first half of the schedule, and NBC takes over with the July race at Daytona.

National ratings were up 3 percent over last year (10.6/24 on NBC), and eight of the top 10 metered markets posted double-digit increases (with Boston and Los Angeles the exceptions). In Boston, the race did a solid 8.6 rating, down a tenth of a point, and LA dropped from 6.9 to 5.3. A rating point represents 1 percent of a market's total TVs, with the share representing the percentage of sets in use tuned to a particular show.

The Fox researchers were happy to point out that the last five Daytona 500s (since the race went to broadcast TV on Fox and NBC) have averaged a 10.5 rating nationally, topping the last five NBA Finals (10.3), the last five final rounds of the Masters (9.6), and the last five Kentucky Derbies (6.9). Notable and quotable from Fox's coverage:

* We never actually saw Jeff Gordon take the lead, either on the crash with 19 laps to go or, again, with three laps to go.

* Watching a high-definition recording after seeing the race on standard broadcast made the HD production all the more impressive. In standard def, we took analyst Darrell Waltrip's word for it that a tire casing came off Ricky Rudd's car and caused the day's first wreck. In high def, you clearly saw it happen.

* "Bump drafting," which is legal in NASCAR, would be called "road rage" on a highway.

* Waltrip: "The odds favor some, the gods favor others."

* Driving into the sun is tough at 65 miles per hour around Boston. How hard is it at 190? * These cars don't have speedometers, but our screens do?

* Anyone else get the impression that NASCAR is trying to smooth out Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s image? * Our viewing group liked the double-flashing yellow caution lights on Fox's graphic.

* Cable Cam worked. You could see its shadow on the track much of the time when it was in use.

* Another Waltripism: "Coopetition," meaning drivers working together "as new and maybe temporary friends."

* The "Fox Car,' on a rotisserie-like spit, made it easy for Jeff Hammond to detail the oil cooler short-circuit plaguing Mark Martin's car.

Packed lineup
Tonight shapes up as a time to set the VCR or DVR, with a must-see PBS documentary (Channel 2, 10:30 p.m.), HBO's "Real Sports" (10 p.m.), and Celtics-Lakers (FSN, 10:30 p.m.). Watching the PBS debut of "The Team That Changed The World" wouldn't be a bad high school homework assignment. The documentary revolves around the Harlem Globetrotters' unintended role as worldwide ambassadors of goodwill and chronicles how they introduced much of the world to basketball. Their showy game has become a big part of today's pro game, and they paved the way for the integration of the NBA. In contrast to the unrepentant Jose Canseco, US sprinter Kelli White talks frankly on HBO's "Real Sports" about using the banned substances THG and EPO, how she felt empty when she won two World Track and Field gold medals, and how she came to incur a two-year ban from competition. "It's a lot of work lying," she tells correspondent James Brown. "I sacrificed the real Kelli White for 2003. I wanted her back." But, she said, "It's not just me out there doing it." "Real Sports" also has segments on golfer Vijay Singh, a disabled skiing program for US soldiers injured overseas, and a followup on a Louisiana middle school custodian-turned-youth-basketball coach.

Set-up roles?
FSN has Red Sox relievers Mike Timlin and Alan Embree live on "New England Sports Tonight" at 10 tonight, leading into Celtics-Lakers . . . The NFL Network is breaking ground with two hours of live daily coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis Saturday through Tuesday (noon-2 p.m., with repeats at 8 p.m.). The network's "Total Access" is live from Indianapolis nightly at 7 Thursday through Monday . . . The third-ranked Boston College men's basketball team has TV dates tomorrow against Villanova (ESPN2, 9 p.m., with Sean McDonough and Bill Raftery) and Saturday against Seton Hall (Channel 5, noon) . . . Word is that former Angel Gary DiSarcina (via Billerica and UMass) auditioned well as a candidate to replace Bob Tewksbury (now a sports psychologist in the Sox organization) in the NESN studio analyst rotation . . . The Globe's "Sports Plus" will feature a half-hour with Sox general manager Theo Epstein tomorrow (NESN, 6:30 and 10:30 p.m.). Tom Caron hosts, with the Globe's Gordon Edes and Chris Snow on the panel . . . From Globe "Sports Plus" producer Alan Miller: "I overheard one of the New York writers in Fort Myers saying, `There are three teams in New York now: the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox' " . . . Golf fans won't find a lot of HD programming this year. On broadcast TV, only the Masters on CBS (Augusta National is permanently wired) is scheduled at this time. On cable, all of TNT's sports programming is transmitted in HD for those systems that carry it . . . Just wondering, after reading ESPN senior vice president Mark Shapiro's quotes that replacement programming is returning better ratings than the NHL did a year ago. He also said he was optimistic that the league has a future on TV, though ESPN has yet to pick up its option to cover the league next year. Does that mean Disney and ESPN have gotten big enough to form their own hockey league? They could brand it ESPNHL, fix the rules, set pay scales, and make it a TV draw. Rights fees? There wouldn't be any . . . WEEI's Whiney Awards Thursday night raised more than $20,000 for the American Heart Association.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is

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