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.”

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR further penalize Johnny Sauter?

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If you were NASCAR, would you give Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill any additional penalties for their incidents at Iowa Speedway? 

Nate Ryan: A points penalty for Sauter that would be on par with what Jeff Gordon received for wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in November 2012 (because that seems the most analogous situation to this, other than the crash happening under yellow rather than green).

Dustin Long: My initial reaction was to suspend Sauter, but then I went the opposite way and thought no further penalties should be issued because Sauter already had been penalized by being parked and finishing 27th in the 32-truck field. I finally decided upon points and a fine, which is outlined in the rulebook. While NASCAR lists intentionally wrecking someone as an infraction that could result in the loss of 25-50 points and a fine of $12,5000 to $25,000, I’d dock Sauter 40 points and fine him $20,000 because his retaliation happened under caution. Some might suggest NASCAR suspend Sauter but still allow him to compete in the playoffs (even though a prerequisite is attempting to start each regular-season event). That sounds like a waiver and that is not the intent of the waiver. While NASCAR can do whatever it wants, suspending a driver and then altering its rules so the suspension doesn’t prohibit a driver from competing in the playoffs would not be a good look. The requirement on playoff eligibility should be updated. 

Daniel McFadin: Sauter should be suspended for a race; he used his truck as a weapon on a defenseless truck under caution. But the suspension shouldn’t count against his playoff eligibility. He’s already made the playoffs. I support a provision that prevents taking that spot away. That should only be done if a winning vehicle fails inspection in the same race you clinched the playoff spot. If Hill receives any penalties it should just be a fine at the most. NASCAR will use their run-in for marketing for years to come, so no need to overdo it.

Jerry Bonkowski: There is precedent here: Sauter’s ramming Hill is a virtual carbon copy of Kyle Busch slamming into Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas back in 2011. The penalty Busch received should be what Sauter receives: a $50,000 fine, probation until the end of the year, and if Sauter is involved in any other incidents this season, he should be suspended and become ineligible for the playoffs.

It’s Tuesday and there is still some question as to who won Sunday’s Truck race with Ross Chastain’s team appealing the NASCAR decision to take the win away after Chastain’s truck failed inspection. The issue is expected to be resolved by this week. Is this still the best way for NASCAR to address such issues with inspection after a race? 

Nate Ryan: Yes. There is no confusion: Brett Moffitt’s team was awarded the win, and Ross Chastain’s team has an opportunity to challenge it. Similar to the courts system, a ruling already has been made. Prior to NASCAR’s change in philosophy this year, the ruling on a win’s validity (even if it wasn’t stripped) was withheld for a few days. This is a better system.

Dustin Long: This is still way better than the old system where you might not know there was a different winner because of an infraction until Tuesday. At least this way everyone knew on Sunday. Got to let the appeal process take its course but at least everything will be resolved this week instead weeks later as could happen previously.

Daniel McFadin: Yes, it is the best way. No one wants a winner disqualification to first be announced mid-week. This accelerates the appeals process to where a final judgement can be settled upon before the race weekend begins. The fact that this is the first winner disqualification or disqualification in general through five months means the new system is having some sort of impact. This might not be something that happens often.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR may have painted itself into a corner with taking the win away from Chastain. The reason is simple: how did his Truck pass pre-race inspection, yet failed post-race inspection? Did something break on his truck, which caused its ride height in the front end to fall below standards? Did it happen because of contact in the race? Is that Chastain’s fault? And what happens if Chastain wins his appeal? Then what? Unless NASCAR has iron-clad evidence that Chastain’s team cheated, if officials jumped the gun, Chastain’s win should be reinstated and policies and procedures should be reviewed and changed.

They ran both the Truck and Xfinity race on the same day at Iowa Speedway after the Truck race was postponed to Sunday because of rain Saturday night. Atlanta already hosts a Truck/Xfinity doubleheader. Should there be more of these doubleheaders with these two series or keep them limited so they remain unique?

Nate Ryan: It’s an idea worthy of merit; the quantity won’t affect their appeal. It mostly should depend on whether it makes sense for NASCAR, the tracks and the TV networks.

Dustin Long: Originally Iowa was to be a one-day show for the Trucks and they got held over because of rain and spent two days at Iowa. I think there are some cases for one-day shows for Trucks to save costs. Doubleheaders are fine but should be done when it makes sense not only for fans but for teams.

Daniel McFadin: Bring on more doubleheaders. It shortens the weekend and gives more bang for a fan’s buck with one full day of racing. Also, the Truck Series primarily competes on Friday nights, when most people are not staying in to watch TV. Putting them on a Saturday before or after an Xfinity race or on a Sunday before a Cup race (like at Martinsville in 2018 after a rain and snow delay) provides a better opportunity for fans at the track and at home to see the Truck Series. We’ll get to see a version of this next year with the Cup Series doubleheader weekend at Pocono. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, yes, yes. This is the perfect example of why NASCAR should add more doubleheaders to its schedule. Not only do fans get more bang for their buck, the Truck and Xfinity Series will get more appreciation from race fans of one series who typically may not pay attention to the other series. The excitement we saw in both races is definitely a precursor of even more to come if NASCAR elects to add more twinbills.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, just north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.

The Xfinity Series enjoys this weekend off before it returns at Chicagoland Speedway on June 29.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s Cup and Truck races:

Cup – Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

There are 38 cars entered for the race around the twisting road course in Napa Valley’s wine country.

JJ Yeley will make his second Cup start of the season, driving the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford.

Cody Ware will be back in the No. 52 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start, piloting the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will make his seventh start of the Cup season in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

 

Trucks – Gateway 200 (10 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

A total of 31 trucks are entered in this race.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Camden Murphy makes his second start of the season, driving the No. 8 Nemco Motorsports Chevrolet.

Daniel Sasnett makes his second start of the season, piloting the No. 32 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Bryant Barnhill makes his first start of the season and second of his Truck career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Kyle Benjamin makes his third start of the season, driving the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Following his Truck Series debut at Iowa, Chandler Smith will drive the No. 46 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Christian Eckes makes his second Truck start of the season, piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Five Cup or Xfinity drivers to compete in Saturday’s K&N West race at Sonoma

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Drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will have some extra company in Saturday’s Procore 200 race (4:30 p.m. ET) at Sonoma Raceway.

Five drivers from either the Cup or Xfinity series will take part in the event:

* Driving for road course powerhouse Jefferson Pitts Racing, Austin Dillon will make his 20th career K&N Pro Series start, his third at Sonoma (first since 2015). In prior races at the road course, he’s finished 22nd and sixth.

* Also driving for JPR will be current Cup rookie Ryan Preece, who will be making his first career K&N West start and first race start at Sonoma.

* Daniel Hemric will make his first K&N West start and fourth overall series start (first since 2015 at Watkins Glen). He has also never raced at Sonoma.

* Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer will be making third series start at Sonoma (previous finishes were ninth and 12th).

* Lastly, Noah Gragson will be teammates with Dillon and Preece at JPR and will be making his third appearance at Sonoma, finishing second in 2016 and seventh in 2015.

The K&N Series has long had a history of having Cup or Xfinity drivers take part at Sonoma. Over the last five seasons, that has included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

Appeal hearing for Niece Motorsports set for Wednesday morning

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NASCAR announced that the appeal for Niece Motorsports will be heard at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series team took the checkered flag first with driver Ross Chastain on Sunday at Iowa Speedway only to have the victory taken away when the truck failed inspection after the race.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series said after the race: “We have a procedures and rules in place, trucks are restricted on their ride heights at the front and rear of the vehicles. Unfortunately, the 44 (Chastain’s truck) was low on the front, extremely low.

“We have a process of what happens at that point. They do get an opportunity to roll around. They put fuel in the vehicle, they air the tires. Give them at least five to 10 minutes. Check them a second time. Unfortunately, the 44 did not rise on the front at all.”

The team stated it would appeal and blamed “minor damage during the event” for the truck being too low.

When NASCAR announced before this season that winning vehicles that didn’t pass inspection would have the win taken away, series officials also announced an expedited appeals process.

That will allow the appeal to be completed this week before the Truck Series races this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Unlike other appeals, where a team or individual can appeal a penalty and then appeal again if they lose the first appeal, there is just one appeal hearing in an expedited matter.