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.”

Stephen Nasse DQ’d, Travis Braden declared Snowball Derby winner

Photo courtesy 5FlagsSpeedway.com
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What was the greatest day of Stephen Nasse’s late model racing career turned into the biggest nightmare just over two hours later.

After roaring through the field from a next-to-last starting position (36th in the 37-driver field) to win the 52nd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, Nasse and his car were disqualified due to an illegal equipment violation found in post-race inspection.

As a result, original race runner-up Travis Braden was ruled the winner, while 14-year-old Jake Garcia, making his first career Snowball Derby start, moved up from third-place to runner-up.

This marks the third time since 2013 that the Snowball Derby winner has been disqualified for violations: Chase Elliott was DQ’d in 2013, giving the win to Erik Jones; and then in 2015, Christopher Bell was DQ’d, giving the win to Elliott.

Nasse was DQ’d for a titanium violation in the brake system of his car, apparently the first time such equipment has been found in Derby cars. Here’s an interview with chief technical inspector Ricky Brooks, courtesy of AutoWeek.com’s Matt Weaver, explaining Nasse’s disqualification:

Braden, a West Virginia native, told Speed51.com about his victory, “It feels very special. But I know it’s going to feel more special with a little bit of time. It stinks we couldn’t have won the race outright, but I know these guys won the Snowball Derby. We brought a car here capable of winning this race outright.”

Nasse took to Twitter to express his feelings about being disqualified:

Nasse’s car was the only one to fail post-race inspection.

Had Garcia won, he would have been the youngest winner in Derby history (Chase Elliott holds that record at 16 years, 6 days old, in 2011).

Rounding out the top five were Canadian native Cole Butcher in third, Jesse Dutilly in fourth and Preston Peltier in fifth. The race was originally scheduled to be run Sunday, but persistent rain pushed the event to Monday afternoon/evening.

Braden adds his name to a long list of Derby winners including Kyle Busch (2009, 2017), Erik Jones (2012, 2013), John Hunter Nemecheck (2014), Chase Elliott (2011, 2015), Christian Eckes (2016) and Noah Gragson (2018).

Several other notables and their finishing positions included veteran Cup driver David Gilliland (27th), JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry (29th), and NASCAR Cup driver Corey LaJoie, who suffered early problems and finished 31st. Former Roush Fenway Racing Xfinity Series driver Ty Majeski finished 13th, and ARCA Menards Pro Series West (formerly K&N Pro Series West) driver Derek Kraus finished 18th.

Majeski appeared headed to the win with less than two laps to go when he was involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 317, bringing out a red flag race stoppage.

That opened the door for Nasse, Braden and Garcia — before Nasse was disqualified.

As a result, instead of earning what would have been the 100th late model win of his career, the 25-year-old Majeski, a native of Seymour, Wisconsin, was left with a wrecked race car and finished 13th.

“I’m just extremely frustrated,” Majeski told Speed51.com. “We had a real good car, a car plenty capable of winning. This is a tough one. Man, it sucks.”

Here are the updated results:

52nd Annual Snowball Derby Official Results

Pos. # Driver
1 26b Travis Braden
2 35 Jake Garcia
3 53b Cole Butcher
4 30 Jesse Dutilly
5 48 Preston Peltier
6 51s Chandler Smith
7 22 Casey Roderick
8 18 Hunter Robbins
9 36 Dan Fredrickson
10 53j Boris Jurkovic
11 119 Dalton Zehr
12 12G Derek Griffith
13 91 Ty Majeski
14 9C Jeff Choquette
15 43 Derek Thorn
16 81 Giovanni Bromante
17 7d John DeAngelis
18 2 Derek Kraus
19 54c Matt Craig
20 9m Brad May
21 51a Michael Altwell
22 20m Cole Moore
23 75 Jeremy Doss
24 16 Lucas Jones
25 26p Bubba Pollard
26 10 Kaden Honeycutt
27 54g David Gilliland
28 112 Augie Grill
29 57 Josh Berry
30 14c Connor Okrzesik
31 7 Corey LaJoie
32 21p Jeremy Pate
33 11 David Rogers
34 15 Rodrigo Rejon
35 4 Kyle Plott
36 78 Corey Heim
37 51n Stephen Nasse DQ

 

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Oh baby: Austin Dillon and wife Whitney expecting their first child

Photo courtesy Austin and Whitney Dillon
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The NASCAR baby boom continues.

Austin Dillon and wife Whitney announced Monday on Instagram that they are expecting their first child. Baby Dillon is due in June 2020, the couple revealed.

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DILLON PARTY OF 3 ❤️ Coming June 2020

A post shared by Whitney Dillon (@whitneydillon) on

 

 

As part of a photo shoot at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of Austin’s first career Cup win, Austin and Whitney Dillon made the baby news reveal on the same day as their second wedding anniversary.

They were married Dec. 9, 2017, at Childress Vineyards in Lexington, North Carolina.

Baby Dillon will be the second great-grandchild for team owner Richard Childress and wife Judy. Austin’s brother, Ty, and wife Haley welcomed daughter Oakley Ray Dillon on Nov. 22, 2017.

News of Austin and Whitney’s forthcoming bundle of joy comes on the heels of Corey LaJoie and wife Kelly are expecting their first child around Easter 2020, as well as the last week’s birth of the second child, daughter Autumn, to driver Brad Keselowski and wife Paige.

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NASCAR shocker: Cole Pearn resigns as Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief

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In what is one of the biggest surprises of the NASCAR offseason, Cole Pearn has resigned as crew chief of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the team announced Monday afternoon.

Pearn has decided to leave the organization to pursue other opportunities, the team said in a media release.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision,” Pearn said in a statement. “At the end of the day, I really want to spend time with my family and actually see my kids grow up.

“Being on the road, you are away from home so much and miss a lot of time with your family. I don’t want to miss that time anymore. I want to be there for all the things that my kids are going to experience while they are still young.

“I love racing and there isn’t a better place to be than Joe Gibbs Racing, but I don’t want to look back in 20 years and think about everything I missed with my wife and kids while I was gone. They are what is most important to me.”

Added Truex in a statement, “I cannot say enough good things about Cole and what he has meant for my career. I appreciate his hard work and dedication to our race team over the past six years going back to when he was my engineer at Furniture Row. Our friendship is what matters most to me and I’m happy that he’s doing what’s best for him and his family.”

About an hour after the blockbuster news was made public by JGR, Pearn appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody and further expounded on his reasons for stepping down, saying:

“Everybody in the sport understands the grind of what the schedule is. To do it at the top level, you have to be all the way in. I was somehow making it work with my family until my kids got in school and once they’re in school and you have a day off on a Thursday, it really doesn’t matter. You pretty much go all week and you barely see ’em.

“I didn’t want to look back at my life and miss those moments. For me to get the opportunity to work in racing has been just a dream come true and then to have the success we’ve had just blows my mind. When you’ve achieved more than you’ve ever dreamt, you look at the other things in life you’ve been missing and I just felt like it was time.”

What’s next for Pearn?

“We’re working on that and going to let the dust settle a bit,” Pearn told Moody. “I’m must looking forward to being around the family. I’m going to keep myself busy. I’m definitely too young not to do anything so I’m definitely going to keep working, that’s for sure.”

Pearn conceded that both Truex and team owner Joe Gibbs were shocked when he revealed his plans to step away.

“Yeah, I definitely don’t think anybody saw that coming,” Pearn told Moody. “There’s no easy way to deliver that news, especially to people you respect and care about. I’ve been losing a lot of sleep trying to figure out the best way to do it, but at the end of the day, just being honest and speaking from the heart was the way to do it. They’re both amazing people and I think they took it about as best as anybody could.”

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 and Pearn, who had already been with the team as an engineer, moved to the crew chief role for the 2015 season. In 179 races together, Pearn and Truex combined to reach the season- and championship-deciding Championship 4 race four different times, achieving one championship (2017), two runner-up titles (2018 and 2019), 24 wins, 70 top fives, 110 top 10s and 12 poles.

Of note, their 23 wins together from 2016 through 2019 are the most of any driver-crew chief combination currently active. During the most recent playoffs, the team claimed three wins, a pair of runner-up finishes and only finished outside the top seven once in 10 races.

The pair moved to JGR for the 2019 season from the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. They compiled a NASCAR Cup series-best seven wins, 15 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s in 2019. During the playoffs alone, the Pearn-led No. 19 team claimed three wins, a pair of runner-up finishes and only finished outside the top seven once in 10 races.

JGR said in its statement that a replacement for Pearn as crew chief for the No. 19 will be announced at a later date.

Fellow crew chief Rodney Childers, of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team, along with others took to Twitter to express their feelings on Pearn’s departure:

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North Wilkesboro Speedway gets makeover for ‘date’ with iRacing

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Twitter
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North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina hasn’t hosted a NASCAR national series event since September 1996 and it’s not about to anytime soon.

But, thanks to the efforts of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the historic short track may soon have a second digital-based life on the iRacing simulator.

Earnhardt posted images on social media Monday showing the track’s aging surface cleared of debris that had grown up on it over the years.

With the images, Earnhardt said the track is “getting a trim for an important date with @iRacing.”

This comes a few months after Earnhardt discussed the subject of cleaning the racing surface and scanning it for use on iRacing with Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on an episode of “The Dale Jr. Download.”