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.”

Clint Bowyer, William Byron look to extend streak of first-time winners in playoffs

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In the 15-year-history of the NASCAR playoff era, only 16 times has a Cup Series playoff driver earned their first win of the season in the playoffs itself.

Two of those occurrences have happened in the last two weeks.

Kyle Larson got the streak going with his dominating win in the Round of 12 opener at Dover International Speedway. That snapped a 75-race winless streak for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

It continued Monday when Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney barely beat Ryan Newman to win at Talladega Superspeedway. It snapped a 37-race winless streak for Blaney.

Can the first-time winner steak continue?

If it does, it will take place Sunday at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). But of the 16 instances a playoff driver earned their first win in the playoffs, it’s only happened once on the 1.5-mile track.

Jack Roush and Mark Martin celebrate winning the Banquet 400 on Oct. 9, 2005 at the Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Mark Martin was the winner on Oct. 9, 2005, a day that saw Roush Fenway Racing put four of its five cars in the top five.

It was Martin’s first win in 52 races. It was just the second time a playoff driver’s first win in a season came in the playoffs. The first was three races earlier at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Ryan Newman).

Ahead of Sunday’s race there are only two Cup Series playoff drivers left who could potentially extend the streak: William Byron and Clint Bowyer.

Aside from securing them spots in the Round of 8, wins by either would be notable in their own right.

A victory by Bowyer would be his first on his home track in 23 attempts in the Cup Series. Like Martin, a victory would end a 52-race winless streak.

Bowyer’s best finish at Kansas was a runner-up finish in his second start in 2007. Since then he has just two top fives at Kansas, including a fifth-place finish in this year’s spring race.

Bowyer enters this race 11th in the standings, 24 points back from the cutoff line.

“We know what we have to do this weekend,” Bowyer said in press release. said. “We need to get stage points, a great finish and maybe even a win. We finished fifth here in May, we just have to do a few spots better this weekend.”

A win by Byron would be significant because he’s yet to win a Cup Series race in 67 starts.

In his previous three Kansas starts Byron’s only managed to finish once. The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed 20th in the spring after starting third. He won in his lone Truck Series start there in 2016 and had a top five in his only Xfinity Series start at the track in 2017.

After he was eliminated in a wreck at Talladega, Byron enters Sunday last on the playoff grid, 27 points behind the cutoff and essentially in a must-win scenario.

“I think it will be interesting to see how things play out with how our mile-and-half packages have evolved just throughout the year,” Byron said in a press release. “Whether it continues that trend this weekend or whether it reverts back to how it was in the spring at Kansas. I’m just interested to see how that is since the cars have come a long way since that race. I’m also interested to see with it being an elimination race, I think it will open things up for different strategies. It’s a bit of an unknown at this point.”

NASCAR completes merger with International Speedway Corp.

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NASCAR announced Friday morning it had closed on its merger with International Speedway Corp.

Jim France will serve as the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. Lesa France Kennedy will be the executive vice chair. Steve Phelps has been appointed president and will oversee all operations of the company.

“The merger of NASCAR and ISC represents a historic moment for our sport,” France said in a statement. “There is much work ahead of us, but we’re pleased with the progress made to position our sport for success. Delivering for our race fans and partners is job number one and we look forward to doing that better than ever for years to come.”

As part of the new organization, the Board of Directors will consist of France, France Kennedy, Mike Helton and Gary Crotty, chief legal officerPhelps’ direct reports will include Ed Bennett, executive vice president & chief administrative officer; Jill Gregory, executive vice president & chief marketing and content officer; Craig Neeb, executive vice president & chief innovation officer; Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president & chief racing development officer; and Daryl Wolfe, executive vice president & chief operations and sales officer.

Helton and John Saunders will serve as senior advisors under the new leadership structure.

“With great racing across all of our series, an exciting 2020 schedule on tap, and the Next Gen race car in development, we are better positioned than ever before to lead the sport into a new era of growth,” said Phelps in a statement. “We have a strong, experienced leadership team in place with incredibly dedicated employees at every level throughout our organization. Our best days are ahead of us and our new organization is going to allow us to better deliver great racing to our fans everywhere.”

NASCAR’s Friday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The NASCAR playoff race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will each hold two practice sessions.

The wunderground.com forecast predicts a high of 74 degrees, partly sunny skies and a 10% chance of rain.

Here’s the day’s schedule.

(All times are Eastern)

Noon – 11 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m.  – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

5:05 – 5:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:05-7:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

 

Friday 5: Is this Kyle Busch’s time?

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Will this become the fall of Kyle Busch?

Not fall as in stumble but fall as in season — when he takes control of the Cup playoffs.

Busch, the regular-season champion, has been many things this postseason — moody, controversial and mistake-prone — but he’s not been a dominant figure on the track.

His average finish in the first half of these playoffs is 16.6 — marking the fourth time since 2015 he’s had an average finish of 14th or worse halfway through the postseason.

Busch, though, made it to the championship race each of those four years, winning the title in 2015.

But with Busch, there’s always something more.

Instead of a streak of Championship 4 appearances, it is his winless streak that draws more attention. Busch has failed to win in the past 17 races, his longest drought since going 36 races between Cup victories in 2016-17.

Since Busch last won at Pocono in early June — before Justin Haley’s improbable win at Daytona, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. losing his ride at Roush Fenway Racing and then signing with JTG Daugherty Racing and Bubba Wallace and Busch beating and banging at Watkins Glen — he’s seen Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones all win.

Miscues have hindered Busch’s playoffs. He hit the wall on Lap 3 of the opener at Las Vegas. Busch rallied from two laps down to be back on the lead lap before running into the rear of Garrett Smithley’s car. After the race, Busch called out Smithley and Joey Gase, questioning their credentials to be in the Cup Series.

Busch’s Dover run was hurt by a speeding penalty. He had a flat tire after contact with Kyle Larson on a restart at the Charlotte Roval and had to pit. A suspension issued later led to his day ending. Several laps down and with nothing to gain, Busch drove the car back to the garage during a red flag. His Talladega race was impacted by an accident, just like about every other driver. The only playoff driver not involved in an incident in the race was winner Ryan Blaney.

But things could be changing for Busch.

For all his struggles, he’s finished second three times during his winless drought and had six top-five results. Only Hamlin (10 top fives), Truex (eight) and Kevin Harvick (seven) have had more top fives than Busch in this stretch.

Provided Busch advances — he is 41 points Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot — he’ll likely be the points leader heading into the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Round of 8 begins at Martinsville Speedway. Busch finished third there in the spring. He’s not placed worse than eighth in any of the five short track races this season. He led 66 laps before finishing 10th at Texas and won at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, leading 177 of 312 laps.

Get Busch to Miami (again) and he could leave as a two-time champion.

2. Tough challenge for hopefuls 

The most likely way Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer or William Byron — the four drivers outside a playoff race — will advance to the next round will be to win Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Bowman trails Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer trails Logano by 24 points, and Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

The only time Byron and Bowyer outscored Logano in a race by as many points as they trail was at Dover in the playoffs when Logano spent the first 24 laps in the garage.

Bowman has outscored Logano by 18 points in three races this year: Dover playoff race, Talladega in April (Bowman was second) and Kansas in May (Bowman was second)

Elliott has had better results. He has outscored Logano by 22 or more points in a race five times this year: Martinsville in March (Elliott outscored Logano by 28 points), Talladega in April (22 points), Kansas in May (29 points), Watkins Glen (46 points) in August and the Bristol night race (25 points) in August. Elliott won at Talladega and Watkins Glen. He was second at Martinsville, fourth at Kansas and fifth at Bristol.

That’s the challenge those four drivers face this weekend trying to knock Logano out of the final playoff spot.

3. Looking to help 

Brad Keselowski expressed his concern about team members who will be or could be losing their jobs in the near future as the sport goes through change.

He recently sent this tweet:

So what can Keselowski do?

“I haven’t gotten an answer to it yet, but I’m looking at it, trying to think about what ideas there might be” Keselowski said. “I haven’t come up with a solution yet. I just wanted those people to know that are affected by it that I cared about it. I can’t employ the couple of hundred people that are probably going to get laid off in the next few weeks, but I’m sure I can do something for someone.”

4. Youth movement?

The last three races have been won by three of the five youngest drivers in the playoffs: Chase Elliott (Charlotte Roval), Kyle Larson (Dover) and Ryan Blaney (Talladega).

Elliott is 23, Larson is 27 and Blaney is 25. The playoffs also include William Byron (21 years old) and Alex Bowman (26). Erik Jones (23) was eliminated in the first round.

5. Drought busters

Five drivers have ended winless streaks of 30 or more races this season: Kyle Larson (75 races) Denny Hamlin (45), Erik Jones (42), Ryan Blaney (37) and Kurt Busch (30).

Among drivers with long winless droughts: Paul Menard (299 races), David Ragan (237), Chris Buescher (118), Ryan Newman (99), Jimmie Johnson (90), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (86), Austin Dillon (66), Clint Bowyer (52), Aric Almirola (36),

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