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Races will start at consistent times

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR is moving to more standardized start times for Sprint Cup races in 2010, with East Coast events beginning at about 1 p.m. ET, West Coast races about 3 p.m. ET, and night races about 7:30 p.m. ET.

The lone exception will be the Coca-Cola 600, which will keep its 5:45 p.m. ET start time on Memorial Day weekend. Actual green flag times will be 15 to 20 minutes after the top or bottom of the hour.

NASCAR chairman Brian France and executives from ESPN, Fox and TNT announced the change at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. Next season, 28 races will begin at 1 p.m. ET, including the Daytona 500 to open the schedule.

"NASCAR fans have been asking for earlier and more consistent start times, and we are making this change for our fans, beginning with the Daytona 500 next February," said NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France in a statement. "We are revisiting our sport's tradition of earlier green flags, and the added consistency will make it easier for fans to know exactly when the races are being televised."

NASCAR officials confirmed weeks ago they were finalizing more consistent start times in part because of complaints from fans who say they are confused by the different times and in part because it will help teams save money.

This season's races had start times all over the board -- 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:20 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports, which televises the first portion of the 36-race schedule, admitted the networks made a mistake when they began tinkering with start times several years ago.

He said the move was to try to increase ratings, which typically happens with later start times. But research has shown NASCAR fans are entrenched in their tradition of noon to 1 p.m. starts.

"The nice thing about this sport, it's 60 years old but it's got a tradition that's like 500 years old," Hill said. "And you don't mess with that. As I said before, my bad, that's for sure."

Hill said he expects ratings that have decreased the past few years to drop again next year as fans adjust to the more consistent times. But he and the other executives believe the long-term benefit will be worth the change that France said was quite challenging with three networks involved.

All three executives said they have no scientific evidence that the start times are directly related to declining ratings, but they all agreed this is what the fans want.

"TNT had a couple of races in the middle of the schedule [where the ratings went up]," said John Skipper, executive vice president in charge of content at ESPN. "We've had four races up. We do see some signs of growth we'd all like to build on."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said two weeks ago at Dover that the earlier start times not only will help the fans, but will allow teams to get home earlier Sunday night and potentially shorten the work week.

Pemberton also confirmed that NASCAR is looking at more two-day shows, such as the one at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, as a cost-saving measure. Most race weekends typically are three days.

France said another benefit of earlier start times is more flexibility for rain delays. Last season, for example, ABC moved the end of the Phoenix Chase race to ESPN2 because of programming responsibilities for "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Skipper said a repeat of that incident was "highly unlikely," even before the start time change.

"We're sensitive to what happened last year," he said. "We would not want to repeat that scenario. It didn't serve the fan well. Our partners at NASCAR were terrific for understanding we did what we thought we had to do at that point. We don't expect it to happen again."

France added that he is pleased with the way the Chase format is working and he does not foresee any other changes for next year, although he reiterated the governing body constantly is looking for ways to improve.

"I actually think it's working better than it ever has been," he said, reminding that the top six drivers are separated by fewer than 100 points heading into Sunday's fourth race of the Chase at California.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.