How will Jim France lead NASCAR? Stars weigh in on interim CEO

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – The new man in charge of NASCAR struck a typically unassuming stance at the back of the garage Saturday morning.

Clad in a short-sleeved white shirt and a pair of jeans with a belt clip bearing a smartphone in an American flag-embossed case, Jim France could have blended in with any of the thousands of fans at Michigan International Speedway this weekend.

If not for vice chairman Mike Helton sitting in a chair to his left, there was no obvious sign that the recently named interim CEO and chairman of NASCAR appeared to quietly be taking stock of the enormous responsibility he inherited Monday after an indefinite leave of absence by his nephew, Brian France.

Public anonymity seems just fine with Jim France, who rarely has granted interviews during more than three decades as a high-ranking executive of NASCAR and International Speedway Corp.

Approached by two reporters for comment Saturday morning, France politely declined and said he was getting “my feet on the ground” and needed “time to get caught up to speed.”

What about the multitude of approving drivers and team owners in the NASCAR industry who said he already was well versed?

“I’ve been fooling them, you know,” France joked, adding that he might comment “when I get to the point of feeling where I feel like I have something smart to say.”

But then the 73-year-old lingered to say something that spoke volumes in its own way – fondly reminiscing with a reporter who covered France racing a Legends car more than 25 years ago.

While his net worth once was estimated at more than $1 billion and he’s helmed a publicly traded company, “businessman” is rarely the word used to describe France – particularly by those whose fortunes he will directly affect as NASCAR’s final authority.

“A racer,” said Clint Bowyer, who first got to know France well while on a weekend fishing trip more than 10 years ago. “When you really get to know him and talk to him and get some words out of him, he knows what is going on. He loves sports car racing, loves flat track racing, loves motorcycle racing.

“This guy is a racer. He is definitely a neat guy. If you talk to him, if you know him, I think you have experienced that. All of my conversations with him have revolved around racing, all forms of racing. That is cool and a breath of fresh air to be around someone like that.”

Ten drivers got a glimpse of his low-key management style Friday night when he attended a Drivers Council meeting at Michigan. France mostly listened but unobtrusively added some viewpoints as hot topics such as the 2019 rules package were discussed.

“He just weighed in, and I think everybody in the Drivers Council knows him in some capacity or have met him,” Ty Dillon said “There was no blip in the meeting where we spent time introducing Jim and figuring out what role he was going to do or how he was going to change NASCAR. It was just continuing down the path of working together to make the sport better.

“It was business as usual.”

It actually was business as it was nearly 20 years ago when Jim France stepped in to guide NASCAR for several months (with Helton as his primary lieutenant) as Bill France Jr. took a leave to battle cancer.

Though Jim France kept a low profile during his first stint as NASCAR’s acting chief, he was at the track weekly just as his older brother had been and in the same hands-on manner of their father, who was engaged full time for a quarter-century while running the sanctioning body that he founded in 1948.

Since being named CEO and chairman of NASCAR by his father in September 2003, Brian France took a decidedly different approach than his predecessors, whom he admitted were more heavily interested and involved in competition.

Brian preferred to delegate on-track matters to an executive team while focusing on long-term strategy and negotiating title sponsorship and TV contracts. He annually attended roughly a third of the 36-race schedule.

That drew pushback from champions such as Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who both thought the CEO should be more available at the track.

Both probably will be glad to learn that Jim France is expected to become a weekly fixture – but in a manner very different from his older brother, who often sat in a director’s chair outside the NASCAR hauler and was highly approachable to the media.

Jim France will be avoiding cameras and microphones but likely will stay actively involved behind the scenes in a style that Stewart finds likable.

“Jim’s very grounded,” Stewart said. “I feel like Jim’s a guy who is in touch with what’s going on, and that’s what you’ve got to have.”

Said Keselowski: “He’s been a really friendly person to me. He reached out to me a couple of times in the past. Obviously, he’s got a vested interest in seeing (NASCAR) be successful. I think that’s great. He’s been around to see the history of the sport. I think time will tell. I don’t really have a strong thought on it now until I can see it in action.

“I would definitely be encouraged to have a relationship with him and to see the garage have a relationship with him.”

Many drivers already have some strong ties with France, who has been heavily involved with the direction of the IMSA sports car series since founding the Grand-Am road racing circuit in 1999.

Kyle Busch said he “probably would admit that I have a better relationship with Jim than I did with Brian. I’ve seen Jim around, I’ve talked to him a few times and he’s kind of been more of the IMSA side for NASCAR and now is on our side here with the stock-car side.

“I’m looking forward to building that relationship more and seeing what all that entails. I think there needs to be a good dialogue between the leadership of NASCAR, whoever that is from top through the next 10 and the drivers and the team owners. Hopefully Jim can be that guy to give us that type of confidence.”

Jimmie Johnson was invited on a few fishing trips with the France family and once had France’s daughter as a neighbor in Charlotte for a few years (France’s son in law got the seven-time series champion into road cycling).

“I’ve been around Jim a lot over the years,” Johnson said. “His love for motorsports and NASCAR was always very apparent to me, and with the decades of experience he has within motorsports, I feel very confident that he’s going to be able to get in there and lead as he needs to.

“My experience with racing the Rolex 24 is certainly something he’s very passionate about and heavily involved with, so I’ve been around him a lot and think he’s got a great temperament and certainly knows racing.”

Said Kevin Harvick, who has interacted briefly with France: “It’ll be interesting to see his perspective on things. It’s not like he hasn’t been involved, just not on a weekly basis and day-to-day decisions. It’ll be interesting to see how all that works out. I think that’s one thing everyone could work on in making sure that the relationship with the drivers is better than it has been in the past.”

Denny Hamlin viewed France’s move as similar to Coy Gibbs moving into a management role on Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR division after running its Supercross teams.

“It’s kind of that same thing with Jim,” Hamlin said. “He was over on the IMSA side and now he’s over here on the Cup side. He’s obviously not a very talkative guy, but their whole family has done a great job of really rejuvenating some of their racetracks and making them better and I’m glad that they’re reinvesting in our sport and they’re here for the long haul.

“I’m confident in Jim doing a great job.”

But he will be doing so quietly. In the driver meetings at Michigan for the truck and Cup series this weekend, France snuck in just before the start and took a seat, blending in with the crew chiefs, drivers and sponsor VIPs.

His attendance was only noticeable after the race when he chatted at length with team owner Roger Penske.

“Jim has got a lot of knowledge about the sport and grew up in the sport and obviously with his dad and Bill Jr., and I think under the circumstances, he certainly understands the dynamics of the sport going on today with the marketing of the sport,” Penske said. “We’ve dealt with him on the IMSA side. A real rational guy. He’s a good friend of the guys in the garage area, and at this time I think, for me, it was the right thing for him to do to step in. He probably wasn’t ready to do that, but as a leader, he would always be ready to do that.”

Power rankings after Bristol: Brad Keselowski is new No. 1

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Kevin Harvick is out and Bristol winner Brad Keselowski is the new No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Keselowski was the unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers. Harvick had been the unanimous No. 1 the last two weeks. He falls to second in this week’s rankings.

Kurt Busch made the biggest climb, going from 10th last week to No. 4 in this week’s rankings. Three drivers dropped out of the top 10 from last week: Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Brad Keselowski (30 points): Right place, right time at Bristol, taking advantage of contact between Chase Elliott and Joey Logano to sail on to victory lane for second time in last three races. Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (26 points): Saw his streak of 13 consecutive top 10s end at Bristol with an 11th-place finish. Last week: first.

3. Chase Elliott (25 points): Won once in the past week and was in contention for a second win until he hit Joey Logano late at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

4. Kurt Busch (20 points): The elder Busch brother has gone from third to 10th and back up to fourth in the last three power rankings. Last week: 10th.

5. Jimmie Johnson (14 points): The seven-time champ has been knocking on victory’s door for each of the last four weeks, including finishing a season-best third at Bristol. Is that 104-race winless streak ready to end? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Kyle Busch (13 points): Rebounded from a cut tire and 29th-place finish at the second Charlotte race to take fourth at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

(tie) 6. Austin Dillon (13 points): Eighth at second Charlotte race and followed up with a strong sixth at Bristol. Last week: unranked.

8. Denny Hamlin (11 points): Much like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, his streak of up-and-down results continues. Runner-up at second Charlotte race and 17th at Bristol after a late incident. Last week: seventh.

9. Ryan Blaney (4 points): Continues his search for consistency. Finished third at second Charlotte and was strong at Bristol until spinning while running second and then was hit, ending his race. Last week: unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (3 points): After rough first five races of rookie season, has bounced back with three finishes of 11th or better in his last four races. Last week: ninth.

Others receiving votes: Austin Cindric (2 points), William Byron (1 point).

Nashville Superspeedway to host Cup race in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

No official race date was given in the announcement, but The Tennessean reported Tuesday that a “very tentative” date of June 20, 2021 has been set for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The 1.333-mile oval is owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., which also owns Dover International Speedway. One of Dover’s two race dates will be moved to Nashville.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a release. “The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport, and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Such a move likely means that Speedway Motorsports’ efforts to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville will not take place in 2021.

Nashville Superspeedway last hosted Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Series races from 2001-11.

“Our company is excited about the terrific opportunity to not only host a NASCAR Cup Series race weekend but opening our Nashville facility will enable us to host other exciting forms of racing and entertainment options,” Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Dover Motorsports, Inc, said in a release. “We are also proud that our long history with NASCAR will continue at the Monster Mile in 2021, and we also look forward to hosting the 9th Firefly Music Festival next summer.”

The Associated Press stated that the idea of Nashville Superspeedway hosting NASCAR races again came after the city hosted the Cup Awards in December for the first time.

“Especially after the awards banquet, it was, how do we get to Nashville as soon as we possibly can?” Tatoian told The Associated Press. “It made it a fairly easy discussion that it was through Dover Motorsports.”

Tatoian told the AP that updating the track would cost $8-10 million. He also stated that capacity would be between 25,000-50,000.

Dover has hosted two Cup races a year since 1971. It has had a race weekend postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dover is expected to host a Cup doubleheader Aug. 22-23.

“It looks more and more like we’ll be hosting a doubleheader,” Tatoian told the AP. “That’s a strong scenario and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Penalty report from Bristol Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued its penalty report for the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend.

The only penalty was a $10,000 fine for Chris Gayle, crew chief on Erik Jones‘ No. 20 Toyota, for having one unsecured lug nut after Sunday’s Cup Series race.

 

Stats, Quotes and Moments: The NASCAR Cup Season So Far

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The first nine races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season have been a long, strange trip.

Beginning with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 16 – a race that concluded the following Monday due to rain – and ending with Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, it took 106 days to conduct nine races at seven race tracks. That was after NASCAR endured a 71-day COVID-19 imposed break from action.

Here’s a look back at the first quarter of the season and where the series stands ahead of race No. 10 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

Key stats

– Through nine races there have been six different winners and three repeat winners. Not among them are three of the last four Cup champions: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.  Since Truex’s rookie year in 2006, this is the first time all three have been winless through the ninth race of the year.

– Due to COVID-19, the Cup Series held a Wednesday race for the first time since 1984.

– The three races on 1.5-mile tracks have seen three different winners: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott. They are part of a stretch of nine different winners in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks. The last time there was nine in a row was in 2008-09. The last time there was more than nine was 2001-02 when there was 10.

– Elliott, who has just one win, has the best average running position: 7.748.

– The driver with the best average average finish who hasn’t won yet is Kurt Busch: 11.6

– Only four out of 19 times has a stage winner finished in the top 10 (Hamlin won after winning Stage 2 at Daytona, Alex Bowman won after winning Stage 1 at Auto Club Speedway and Harvick finished second at Phoenix after winning Stage 1 and Logano finished sixth after winning Stage 1 at Charlotte 2).

Chase Elliott after winning Thursday’s Cup Series race at Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

– The Stage 2 winner has finished 11th or worse in each of the last eight races.

– Hendrick Motorsports has led the most laps this year (780) and won the most stages (10), but has just two race wins.

– 21st: Matt Kenseth‘s average finish in his five races driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car after replacing Kyle Larson. Larson was fired by CGR in the aftermath of his use of a racial slur in an iRacing event in April.

Key Moments

– Daytona 500: After a push from Ryan Blaney gave Ryan Newman the lead on the last lap, a violent wreck coming to the checkered flag resulted in Denny Hamlin earning his third Daytona 500 win and Newman being taken to the hospital with a bruised brain. He walked out of the hospital two days later with his daughters. Newman missed the next three races and returned at Darlington on May 17.

– Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney was leading late when a caution came out for a Ross Chastain spin. It set up a two-lap shootout for the win. When pit road opened, Blaney and Alex Bowman, who was running second, both went to pit road. Joey Logano, running third, stayed out. Logano went on to win and Blaney finished 11th.

– Darlington 1: Denny Hamlin stayed out under a late caution due to having run out of fresh tires. Hamlin held onto the lead for one lap until a caution came out for an incident between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. During the caution, it began raining and the race was made official, giving Hamlin the win.

– Coca-Cola 600: Chase Elliott was three laps away from winning when the caution came out for his teammate, William Byron, spinning after cutting a tire. Elliott’s team chose to pit for tires as a majority of the leaders stayed out. After restarting 11th, Elliott could only race back to third place (before Jimmie Johnson’s disqualification) in overtime as Brad Keselowski won.

Key quotes

“We were in a position to finish it off, and we got destroyed for no reason. You would think these guys would be smarter than that. We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. The same one over and over again. It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out I guess.” – Brad Keselowski after he was eliminated in a large wreck in the Busch Clash, which began when his teammate Joey Logano threw “a stupid block.”

“I thought it was warranted, and he was deserving.” – Chase Elliott on the middle finger he displayed at Kyle Busch following the contact between the two drivers that wrecked Elliott late in the May 20 race at Darlington.

“Imitation is the strongest form of flattery or something, I don’t know what it is. Huh, that’s cute.” – Kyle Busch upon being informed Chase Elliott performed his trademark bow after beating him in the May 26 Truck Series race at Charlotte, which earned Elliott (and a COVID-19 relief effort of his choice) a $100,000 bounty for beating Busch.

“He wrecked me. He got loose underneath me. The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad.’  But I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish. …  I passed him clean. It’s hard racing at the end, I get that. It’s hard racing, but, golly, man, be a man and take the hit when you’re done with it.” – Joey Logano after Sunday’s race at Bristol, when contact from Chase Elliott while racing for the lead took them out of contention