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NASCAR Chairman Brian France discusses sport’s future, young drivers, series sponsor

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — NASCAR Chairman Brian France praised Monster Energy for what it has done in its first season as the sponsor of the Cup Series and said that “we’re very pleased with where that relationship is.’’

As for if Monster Energy is expected to renew as title sponsor beyond 2018, NASCAR President Brent Dewar said: “We work on those things all the time.’’

France, speaking to the media before Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, noted the challenges with a new sponsor.

“This is only the first year and there are always growing pains, but as I said earlier, we’re thrilled,’’ France said. “The promises they’ve made, they’ve kept, with the young demo, edgy shows, edgy marketing, putting our drivers in different places in different light. That’s what we want. They’ve delivered on that. 

“And like anything else, I think it will get better as they ‑‑ this is also a hard program. It’s a complicated program. It’s the best program, but to execute across all these platforms, it’s a big, big sport. There’s nothing like it, so you don’t get an opportunity to just go, well, we’ll do it like that guy did it or this guy does it over here because nobody can have, today anyway, in a major sports league, an entitlement position like this, so it’s a great program, but it ‑‑ and I think it will get better next year.’’

France and Dewar spoke on several other topics Sunday. Here’s what he said:

On race lengths:

Dewar:  “Race lengths, which interestingly we got a great research and analytics group, and you’ll love this, we asked these things, and one-third like them exactly the length they are, one-third want them to be longer, and one-third want them to be shorter.  So it’s unanimous that they love racing, and so ‑‑ but that’s part of what we work with the track partners, the race teams and the broadcast partners to find that optimal distance so we have the right show.’’

On drivers not being able to continue because of lack of sponsorship:

France: “The reality is, as Brent said a minute ago, Matt (Kenseth) has had a long 20‑year plus career.  That’s unthinkable in most sports, and he’s performed at a high level.  We’ll wish him well, but he may be back, too.  He’ll have to get the right opportunity for him.

“And the rest of it is a performance sport.  If it’s difficult for anybody ‑‑ this is not picking on any one driver, but if you’re not performing at a high level, it may be difficult for you to stay in this sport.  It will be difficult for you to stay in the sport, for any driver.  That’s not picking on anybody.

“I think for those reasons, that’s where we’re at.’’

On the young drivers in the sport:

France: “They are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well. You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase (Elliott) almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group. But it’s true, we’re in a transition, too. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited. We’ve got a great, great bunch of ‑‑ 19, 20, and they’re talented, so we’re in good shape.’’

On his biggest worry in NASCAR:

France: “Well, I’m really more optimistic right now, and I know you may expect me to say that, but we’ve made the transition largely. We’ve gotten the council meetings going. We’ve gotten charters in position so we can get our interests aligned more closely with drivers, OEMs and the charters and the team owners. We have the young drivers already in place. We’d like a couple more, of course. We’ve got some diversity with Bubba Wallace going in the 43 car. We like that. We’d love to see more of that. And we like all the changes that we’ve made in the last four or five years, including stage racing this year. It has created the things that we thought were important.

“Now, there are things out of our control, how millennials and other fans of ours are consuming not only our sport but all the sports. That’s obviously a challenge for everybody. Attention times, the platforms they want to view and consume, they’re changing.  TV is still ‑‑ always will be linear TV, critically important, but other things now will give us a great opportunity, and we’re positioned well there. But it’s true, there is always disruption when you have the kind of changes on a macro level in sports, and then couple that with our transition stuff, it’s understandable.

“But I’m glad we made all the decisions that we made in the last five to eight years.  hank goodness we did each and every one of those.  Just imagine if we didn’t. Imagine where we would be.  We wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the things that are available to us today.

“So we’re excited about ‑‑ and the biggest thing we’re excited about is, and Brent is leading the charge here, and I attended the last team owner council, is we’re on a fast track to get ‑‑ and it’s hard. It’s always been hard, to get the competition level up, and some of that is done by formats like stage racing and cutoff events and so on, has obviously stepped up the competition level. But there are other things we can do that are important to us.

“So we’re realistic about things that are changing that we don’t control outright, but we like where we’re at and we like where we’re going.’’

Natalie Decker recovering from gallbladder surgery

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Natalie Decker, a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series driver, is recovering after undergoing surgery to have her gallbladder removed.

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Decker, who raced for DGR-Crosley in 2019, posted on Instagram Wednesday about what led to the surgery, including problems with her gallbladder the kept her from taking arthritis medication.

“Hi everyone now that I have had the surgery to remove my gallbladder I will share the whole story!” Decker said. “I have been not being able to eat much food and have been in so much pain every time I eat we went through lots of testing like upper endoscopy and gallbladder function test! They finally figured it out and my gallbladder wasn’t functioning right! I had to get my gallbladder removed before I could go back on my Arthritis medication. I’m so thankful everything went very well!”

Decker, 22, made 19 starts in 2019. Her best finish was 13th in the spring Las Vegas race.

John Hunter Nemechek joins Front Row Motorsports’ 2020 driver lineup

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John Hunter Nemechek will join Michael McDowell as a full-time driver at Front Row Motorsports for the 2020 Cup season, the team announced Thursday, confirming it will retract to two cars.

Nemechek will drive the No. 38 Ford, taking over the seat held by David Ragan before his retirement. He will work with crew chief Seth Barbour.

McDowell will continue to drive the No. 34 Ford.

Nemechek competed in the final three Cup races of 2019, substituting for Matt Tifft in the No. 36 Ford following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway in October. Tifft parted ways with the team in order to focus on his health.

Nemechek, the son of Joe Nemechek, joins a rookie class that includes Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Brennan Poole.

“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to drive for Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports,” Nemechek said in a press release. “Having driven the last three races with this team in 2019, I feel like we already have a foundation to start the 2020 season. I’m looking forward to continuing to build FRM.”

Nemechek, 22, competed full-time in the Xfinity Series in 2019 driving for GMS Racing. He finished seventh in the standings after earning six top fives and 19 top-10 finishes. He has six Truck Series wins in 99 starts since 2013.

McDowell returns for his third full-time season with Front Row.

“As an organization, we have made a lot of strides with the help of all our partners of our program,” McDowell said in the press release. “I’m ready to build on that momentum with (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer). and the rest of our team. We’ve always had steady growth and I think we’re going to continue to see that next season.”

Said team owner Bob Jenkins: “We are looking to the future with a young talent like John Hunter Nemechek. John Hunter impressed us at the end of last season, he comes from a racing family, and he’s a winning driver. We believe that we can grow with him in the years to come.”

 

Nashville Fairgrounds in negotiations with new race promoter

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While the city of Nashville reviews a new proposal from Speedway Motorsports, Inc, the Nashville Fairgrounds have entered negotiations with a potential track promoter for Fairground Speedway’s 2020 season, The Tennessean reported Wednesday.

The newspaper reported that the Fairgrounds is negotiating with Track Enterprises to promote at least three races at short track.

The development comes a month after the Fair Board voted to terminate its contract with Formosa Productions over outstanding debt.

Fairgrounds spokesperson Holly McCall told The Tennessean that it was approached by Track Enterprises’ Bob Sargent about being involved in races on the short track next year.

Sargent has a history with the track, having promoted ARCA races there for roughly five years, according to The Tennessean.

Speedway Motorsports, which had previously struck a deal with Formosa Productions looking to bring NASCAR racing back to the track, had announced a $60 million renovation proposal in May.

A spokesperson for Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who was elected in September, told The Tennessean it was reviewing a new proposal from SMI.

McCall told The Tennessean the Fairgrounds had not yet received a new plan from SMI.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor Cooper during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week in Nashville. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. on Cole Pearn’s departure, what he seeks in next crew chief

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. got a phone call from Cole Pearn on Sunday and Truex quickly had a very bad feeling about it.

“When he started talking it was in the back of my mind that, ‘This is not good. I feel like something big is about to come,'” Truex recalled. “Sure enough, it was surprising.”

Pearn had called to tell Truex what everyone else would learn the next day: after five years together, he was resigning as his crew chief and leaving NASCAR.

Truex discussed the end of Pearn’s tenure and what he wants from his next crew chief during a break from giving out Christmas toys to patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“Thought I could get a couple more years out of him, to be honest,” Truex said before admitting he completely understood Pearn’s reasons for getting out of NASCAR while seemingly at the top of his game: a long season that keeps him from seeing his family.

“I understand the grind, I understand just how hard he has to work to produce a level of competition that he does,” Truex said. “I’ve seen it first hand, his hours and what’s he’s willing to do. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the garage willing to put as much work into racing as he did.”

He continued: “It’s time for him to move into doing something else. His kids are growing up too fast and he doesn’t get to see them that much. It was big decision for him and I know … he feels somewhat like he let all us down. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family, we all understand and all our guys will understand, we’ll go on and try to the best with someone else filling his role.'”

When it comes to figuring who will take over as crew chief on the No. 19 Toyota, Truex said, “We’ve got a few guys in mind. I feel like we’re narrowing it down. We should know something in the next couple of days for sure.”

Whoever takes over will follow in the wake of a crew chief who worked with Truex to produce 24 wins in five seasons, four appearances in the Championship 4 and the 2017 Cup title.

How did half a decade of success with Pearn change what Truex wants from a crew chief?

“Honestly, that’s a good question,” Truex said. “Obviously, I need to find somebody that has his demeanor, a guy that approaches racing the way he does, because it’s kind of what works for me. I feel like we approach racing the same way, Cole and I did. Our attitudes and just the way we thought about things was so similar. We could almost finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s so weird, we’re so different people outside of racing. In racing, that’s just the way we grew up. Our dads racing and racing go-karts and moving up through the ranks ourselves. We just did things a lot the same and we had similar beliefs in the way we did things. Just kind of the same thought process.”

Truex believes he and Pearn “approached a lot of things together more so than me being a rookie and him being a veteran like it was when I first started.

“No question, he was really good at getting the most out of me and I’ll need somebody to do that,” Truex said. “I’m not the most outspoken guy and so I need sometimes somebody to pull that information out of me, especially when it comes to the cars and building the cars. When they’re not good enough, how do you make them better? He was really good at that. I feel good about the guys we’re talking to and we’ve got a few options there and hopefully it’ll work out.”