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.”

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.