Friday 5: ‘Everything is in play’ as NASCAR looks ahead to new ideas

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This weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval could be a start of new ideas, new races and new ways of thinking in NASCAR.

Steve Phelps, who begins his role as NASCAR’s president Monday, acknowledged the possibility of doubleheader races, ending the season sooner and closer ties with grassroots racing, among many topics in an hourlong session with reporters this week.

“Everything is in play,” Phelps said.

For a sport that divided its races into stages in 2017, changed the tracks in its playoffs this year and is expected to soon announce rule changes intended to tighten the racing in 2019, Phelps’ attitude shows the efforts series officials will make to retain fans and reach new ones.

His comments come as NASCAR soon will enter a key period with its scheduling. The five-year commitments with tracks expire after the 2020 season and gives NASCAR more flexibility to change its schedule as soon as 2021.

NASCAR typically announces the Cup schedule at least nine months before the season opener. That timetable would give series officials about 20 months until the 2021 schedule is revealed.

With the call for more short tracks, can NASCAR accommodate fan interest? Speedway Motorsports Inc. has expressed an interest in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the 0.596-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee.

With the success of the Truck race at Eldora Speedway, would it make sense to run Cup there or on some other dirt track? Could Iowa Speedway land a Cup date? What about midweek races?

Another key question is what about tracks that have lost significant attendance? NASCAR’s charter system allows the sanctioning body to take a charter from a team that has ranked among the three lowest chartered teams in three consecutive years. Is it time to consider taking races away from tracks that have had a precipitous decline in attendance?

“We need to make sure that the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do,” Phelps said. “I do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important and we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that.

“We need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. What that looks like. That gets back to a collaboration effort, which we are going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. That is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what is going on in NASCAR.

“It’s part of our 2019 business plans. We’re working with the race tracks to have them understand that we need to make a change.”

International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, saw a 10.7 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, ISC tracks removed 172,000 seats at its tracks during that time. In July, ISC President John Saunders cited “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor in the company’s attendance decline recently saying, “hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is controlled by Bruton Smith and his family, saw a 25.1 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, SMI tracks removed 183,000 seats at its tracks during that time. 

The declines for both track companies have come in a period that has seen Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver, quit driving full-time.

Some in the sport also have raised concerns about the season’s length, suggesting NASCAR should not end in November and compete against the first 11 weeks of the NFL season.

“There’s a lot of discussion about that among the industry,” Phelps said. “There are a lot of things in play. We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”

2. Reset button

At the Kansas test this week, Kurt Busch was asked if NASCAR’s leadership issues — Chairman Brian France’s arrest, Jim France taking over as acting Chairman and Brent Dewar’s term as NASCAR president ending — since August have taken away from the playoffs. 

Busch said those events hadn’t but noted a change has taken place in the sport.

“What it has done, though, is behind the scenes, hit the reset button and it’s created a refreshment of communication lines between the drivers, the owners and the way that the sport works,” Busch said. “I’ve never seen so much involvement from Jim France, Mike Helton, Steve Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, the whole group. It seems like a weight was lifted off their shoulders through all of this and now everybody is communicating more easily.”

Jim France has been visible in the garage more often than Brian France had been before his indefinite leave.

“If you’ve been at a race track, you’ve seen Jim France there,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s incoming president. “From the moment he was announced as the Chairman, CEO of NASCAR, replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.”

3. Charlotte surprise?

Erik Jones enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs.

He is 21 points out of the final cutoff spot. As he looks to this weekend, he knows anything can happen and expects it will.

“I’ll bet you will see a surprise winner this weekend, somebody you wouldn’t expect just because it is going to be a little bit of an attrition race,” he said. “For us, we have to survive, we have to make it to the end of the race.

“We can’t wreck out and not put ourselves in a spot to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. We’ve got to hope for some trouble from some of the other playoff guys and hope we can be in position to capitalize on it. Obviously, winning would be the easiest way for us to guarantee it but that’s going to be tough to do.”

Others below the cutoff and in danger of being eliminated after Sunday’s race are Clint Bowyer (four points from the cutoff), Jimmie Johnson (six points from the cutoff) and Denny Hamlin (29 points from the cutoff). Ryan Blaney holds what would be the final transfer spot.

4. Special drivers meeting message?

Justin Allgaier, who has won the last two Xfinity races on road courses, is concerned about the start and restarts on the Roval.

NASCAR will not have drivers go through the frontstretch chicane when coming to take the green flag. If drivers had to go through that chicane, those at the front would be accelerating while some in the back would be braking to get through the chicane.

Instead, drivers will do restarts on the frontstretch and skip the chicane. That means they’ll be entering Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn — anywhere from 15-30 mph faster. So, as lead cars brake to make the turn, others behind them will be accelerating.

“It’s such a slow, lazy turn in and the speed that we’re going to be carrying, somebody that ducks to the left could potentially wreck a lot of cars,” Allgaier said. “I think we’re all going to have to really be mindful. It’s either going to go one way or the other. We’re either all going to wreck there or nobody is going to wreck there because we’re all very aware of it.

“I’m hopeful that Wayne (Auton, Xfinity Series managing director) will talk about that in the drivers meeting (and say) ‘Hey, let’s at least make it through Turn 1 at the start of the race.’

“We have generated a lot of hype and a lot of buzz around this race, there’s a lot of attention with coming here … the last thing we want to do is go out there and make a bunch of idiots of ourselves.”

5. Still searching 

Eight drivers who won races last year remain winless this season. They are: Kyle Larson (four wins 2017), Jimmie Johnson (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Matt Kenseth (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Ryan Newman (one) and Ryan Blaney (one).

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Jimmie Johnson feels ‘calmness’ about NASCAR leadership changes

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CONCORD, N.C. – Two major NASCAR leadership changes in two months might seem disconcerting on the surface, but they’ve brought a sense of peace to Jimmie Johnson.

“I actually have some calmness that comes with it, to be honest with you,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday morning during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR announced the promotion of chief operating officer Steve Phelps to president Thursday. Phelps replaced Brent Dewar, who stepped down after serving in the role since July 2017.

Johnson said he was called Wednesday night by International Speedway Corp. president Lesa France Kennedy about the change, which didn’t come as a shock.

“I think Brent Dewar has done an amazing job as well, but it didn’t surprise me,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s a great change since Brent’s leaving.’ ”

Phelps will report to acting NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France, who was moved into those interim roles when his nephew, Brian, took a leave of absence in August after a DWI arrest.

Asked whether he was unsettled by NASCAR’s executive management being in flux, Johnson said, “I haven’t had it change my perspective. We’ve been in flux, and I don’t think it’s added any more to it. It hasn’t added any more to it, and I think Steve’s going to be a great leader.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has become friendly with Jim France (whose daughter was a neighbor of Johnson’s; her husband got Johnson into road cycling) and Phelps, who joined NASCAR in 2005 the year before Johnson’s first title.

“Yeah, I’ve been very close to Steve over the years, and even Brent Dewar and that whole staff,” Johnson said. “I think Steve is a really strong guy and can take that role. I think he’s seen the sport and been a part of it for so many years. I like his approach. I like his style. He’s buttoned up. Professional. I just think he’s a great replacement for that role.”

 

Steve Phelps named NASCAR President, Brent Dewar taking advisory role

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Steve Phelps has been named NASCAR President, replacing Brent Dewar, NASCAR announced Thursday.

Phelps will assume his new role on Oct. 1 and will report to Jim France, NASCAR’s acting CEO and Chairman. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer. As president, Phelps will have responsibility over all competition and business operations for the sanctioning body.

Dewar, who joined NASCAR in 2013, will step down from the position and remain with the company through the end of the 2018 season. He will transition to a senior consulting and advisory role next year.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Steve Phelps as our leader,” France said in a press release. “His passion for NASCAR and proven ability to work with our partners has been unparalleled over the years. We thank Brent for his service and leadership to our sport. His energy and vision have been of tremendous benefit to our employees and our industry.”

Phelps has been with NASCAR since 2005 and has played a part in forging agreements with Coca-Cola, Monster Energy, Comcast and Camping World and the acquisition of NASCAR’s digital and social rights.

“As a life-long fan of NASCAR, the opportunity to provide league-wide leadership is something I am looking forward to,” Phelps said in the press release. “I am confident that the strong team of leaders here at NASCAR and across the industry will accelerate the necessary changes to grow the sport and engage our passionate fans.”

Dewar joined NASCAR as Chief Operating Officer before becoming president.

“It has been a privilege to serve this sport these past five years,” said Dewar in the press release. “NASCAR is a close-knit family and I have been blessed to be part of a great team and industry, working collaboratively to deliver great racing for our fans. I look forward to continuing to work with the industry and the France family.”

Report: Brian France pleads not guilty

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Brian France, on indefinite leave from his role as NASCAR Chairman and CEO, pleaded not guilty to charges Friday in Sag Harbor (N.Y.) Village Court, according to TMZ.

France was arrested Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal  possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Sag Habor Police stated that France was observed operating a 2017 Lexus when he failed to stop at a posted stop sign. Newsday, citing court documents, reported that France registered a blood-alcohol level of .18 percent and that he was in possession of five yellow pills later determined to be oxycodone.

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicle website lists the penalties for alcohol and drug-related violations. It states that aggravated driving while intoxicated is where an individual has a Blood Alcohol Content of .18 or higher. In New York, a person is considered driving while intoxicated if they have a Blood Alcohol Content of .08 or higher or exhibit other evidence of intoxication.

France’s next scheduled court date is Oct. 5, according to TMZ.

Sag Harbor Village is on Long Island, New York, and located about 100 miles east of New York City.

NASCAR Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France has assumed the role of interim chairman and chief executive officer in place of Brian France.

Jim France, 73, is the son of NASCAR founder William H.G. France. He was vice chairman/executive vice president of NASCAR and is chairman of the board at International Speedway Corp. Jim France founded Grand-Am Road Racing in 1999 and played a role in the merger of that series and the American Le Mans Series in 2012 into what is now known as the International Motor Sports Association.

Long: Enjoy a trip back in time tonight, but the future beckons

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — For a few hours Sunday night, NASCAR transforms itself into the image many fans have from when they started following the sport.

For longtime fans, Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 reminds them of the car Ned Jarrett drove to his dominating 1965 Southern 500 win.  For others with less gray hair, William Byron’s No. 24 brings back memories of Jeff Gordon in a rainbow-colored car, and Austin Dillon’s ride recalls the time Dale Earnhardt shocked fans by driving a silver No. 3 in the 1995 All-Star Race. For new fans, there’s Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78, which harkens back to March when he won at Auto Club Speedway, as crew chief Cole Pearn explained in a tongue-in-cheek tweet.

On a weekend that celebrates NASCAR’s past, it is the future that carries the discussion in and around the garage.

Many are guessing what is in the future for Truex, the reigning series champion, and Furniture Row Racing after 5-hour Energy announced in July it would not remain in NASCAR beyond this season. Some are convinced the team won’t race next year, others are convinced the team will be competing. Some just don’t know.

Truex said little about his future after qualifying third for tonight’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“I’ve got no news,” Truex said.

What happens with the team and Truex likely will create a domino effect.

While many in the garage wait to see what happens, Kurt Busch says he’s got two offers for next season.

Those could be just the tip of a bevy of driver movements, with most of those happening with mid-tier teams or lower.

But those aren’t the only questions.

Jim France is again at the track this weekend. He’s the interim CEO and Chairman of NASCAR, but questions remain as to what NASCAR will do with its leadership and will it include Brian France.

NASCAR announced Aug. 6 that Brian France was taking a leave of absence after he was arrested by the Sag Harbor Village (New York) police and cited for aggravated driving while intoxicating and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree. 

There also are questions about what next year will be like on the track. Rule discussions continue. NASCAR gave teams an outline of 2019 rules a month ago to ponder. There still seems to be an interest toward a package similar to what was run with at the All-Star Race but giving drivers greater throttle control.

Deals also are taking place in the garage as teams look to next year. Plans are being arranged for charters to switch teams after this season. Will anybody be left out in the movement or will somebody new move up to Cup and take a charter?

What will Toyota’s team lineup be next year? Yes, it will have Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Cup teams but who else? Will Leavine Family Racing join the fold as many expect? And, of course, there’s the status of Furniture Row Racing. A lot leads back to what car owner Barney Visser decides.

So enjoy tonight, the trip back to memory lane with the special paint schemes, crew uniforms and other stylish touches. The future – and answers to many of these questions – will be here soon enough.

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