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Nationwide to sponsor Busch Series in '08

Nationwide Insurance has signed a seven-year deal to become the title sponsor of NASCAR's No. 2 series beginning in 2008.

Nationwide replaces Anheuser-Busch, which has sponsored the second-tier Busch Series for 26 seasons.

The series will be called the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

NASCAR chairman Brian France, who made the announcement Wednesday, said the decision to go with Nationwide came after "a very thorough process of trying to find the right partner, adding up what we think is important for the series and all the things that you would expect us to be thinking about. We know this is going to propel the series even further."

Neither France nor Nationwide chief marketing officer James Lyski would reveal the numbers involved in the agreement, but it is believed to be between $10 and $12 million a year, similar to the amount that was being paid by Anheuser-Busch.

But Lyski said the company will not hesitate to spend money to back its sponsorship.

"We plan to put a lot of resources into supporting this sponsorship and advancing the profile of the NASCAR Nationwide Series," he said.

NASCAR officials hoped to finalize a deal with a new title sponsor months ago but couldn't get a company to agree to the reported $30 million a season asking price for NASCAR's No. 2 racing league.

Sprint Nextel pays $75 million a year as the title sponsor for Nextel Cup, NASCAR's top racing series. The Busch Series is considered by most observers as the second most popular racing league in the country.

The Subway restaurant chain was reportedly the leading candidate to replace Busch before Nationwide became involved.

While the Busch Series has been very popular, drawing big crowds
at the race tracks and getting TV ratings second only to Nextel Cup
in U.S. motor sports, there has been some criticism that in recent
years it has become little more than a mini-Cup series.

Cup drivers, known as Buschwhackers, regularly compete in Busch
races, many for their high-dollar Cup teams, and dominate the
series. That leaves little room for new teams and new drivers in
what is supposed to be a developmental circuit.

"That wasn't a major consideration for us," Lyski said. "We
looked at it to say, is this a competitive series? Is it one that
excites the fans? Is it one that holds true to our core values
about safety and delivering an on-site experience? All those things
resonated with us.

"Whether the Cup guys come down and race or don't, I think this
is all about the drivers that are racing in the Nationwide Series
demonstrating that they are some of the best in the world and
having very competitive and exciting races," Lyski said.

France said no immediate changes are anticipated in the rules
governing who competes in the series, but he added, "We think we
can do some things down the road to distinguish it within the three
national series that we have."

"We have been, candidly, waiting for our partner [and] now we
know it's Nationwide. We'll be working on those things together to
highlight the series, promote and position the series differently
than it is today. But we start in a great place," he said.

Allstate is the official insurance company of NASCAR, but this
new sponsorship deal will likely require Nationwide to take over
that role.

Nationwide recently signed a new four-year agreement as a corporate sponsor for the Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns six tracks that play host to NASCAR races. But one SMI official said that deal could change because of the new agreement to sponsor NASCAR's second-tier league.

Nationwide is expected to
reach a similar deal with International Speedway Corp. ISC currently has a contract that lists AAA Insurance as the "Official
Auto Club" of its 11 tracks.

ISC is the publicly traded sister company of NASCAR, and both
are owned by the France family.

It's not clear if Nationwide will be required to meet
advertising requirements with ESPN, which is in the first year of
an eight-year contract to exclusively broadcast the Busch Series.
ESPN worked with NASCAR to find a new sponsor for the series, and
it was believed that the advertising requirement held up talks with
several companies.

NASCAR is hoping to avoid the kind of controversy that has accompanied Sprint Nextel's sponsorship of the Cup series.

NASCAR became embroiled in a lawsuit with AT&T over its refusal to allow AT&T to put its logo on Jeff Burton's car after it bought Cingular, which had sponsored the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing car. NASCAR fought the name change because of its exclusivity agreement with series sponsor Sprint Nextel, another telecommunications company.

After months of legal wrangling, an agreement was reached last month to allow AT&T to sponsor Burton's car through 2008.

"We've taken that into consideration and will be working on a plan that gives the appropriate rights to Nationwide in their category," France said. "I think it's fair to say that both [our] companies are comfortable with that and we'll be working with our team owners who have a conflict, and there are a couple.

"They're minimal in relationship to what other potential sponsors to the series might have been," he said.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com. Information from The Associated Press contributed to this story.