Jim France

Jimmie Johnson announces that 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season

9 Comments

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, considered one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, announced Wednesday that the 2020 season will be his final full-time Cup season.

“I know what this team is capable of, and I hope that 2020 is the best yet,” the future NASCAR Hall of Famer said in a video on Twitter.

Johnson’s contract expires after the 2020 season. Sponsor Ally extended its sponsorship of the No. 48 car in October through 2023. That led to questions of if Johnson would continue beyond next season. Johnson’s announcement comes three days after the Cup season ended. 

Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series titles. Some would argue that Johnson is NASCAR’s greatest driver, noting his record five consecutive championships (2006-10) and success in what is viewed as the sport’s most competitive era. Johnson’s titles also came with different types of cars and with various playoff systems.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France issued a statement praising Johnson’s career:

“NASCAR history will always hold Jimmie Johnson in the highest regard, for his hard-charging success on the racetrack and the way he conducted himself as a champion off the track,” France stated. “This remarkable seven-time champion – through his competitive spirit, immense talent and sportsmanship – has made NASCAR a better sport. On behalf of my family and the entire NASCAR community, I thank Jimmie for his dedication to NASCAR and, along with his legions of fans, wish him all the best in his final season. I look forward to watching him race for wins and an eighth NASCAR Cup Championship in 2020.”

Johnson has 83 career Cup wins, which is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time victory list, but has not won since Dover in June 2017. Johnson will enter the 2020 season with a 95-race winless streak. The 2020 season will be his 19th full-time campaign in Cup.

The 2019 season marked Johnson’s first without crew chief Chad Knaus. Kevin Meendering started the year as Johnson’s crew chief but was replaced by engineer Cliff Daniels in July before the race at Watkins Glen as the team struggled to make the playoffs.

Even with the move, Johnson failed to make the playoffs. It marked the first time since NASCAR’s postseason format debuted in 2004 that he was not a part of it. In his 15 races with Daniels this season, Johnson had four top-10 finishes with a best of eighth in the Dover playoff race.

Johnson has two Daytona 500 wins, four Brickyard 400 victories, four Coca-Cola 600 triumphs and two Southern 500 wins.

Career timeline: Jimmie Johnson through the years

Johnson will meet with the media Thursday afternoon to explain his decision.

While Johnson will not race a full schedule after 2020, he has said repeatedly that he plans to continue to race. He has expressed an interest in road racing and competing in an IndyCar race on a road course.

The timing of the announcement allows Johnson to celebrate one final season in Cup and gives Hendrick Motorsports time to find his successor with a move that could lead to significant changes in driver lineups for multiple teams for the 2021 season.

Johnson’s announcement sent shock waves through the sport.

Roger Penske to purchase IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

11 Comments

Roger Penske will soon own IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The development was revealed Monday morning by the track. The Board of Directors of Hulman & Company will announce later this morning the sale of the company and certain subsidiaries, including IndyCar, the historic speedway and IMS Productions to the Penske Entertainment Corp., a subsidiary of Penske Corporation.

The transaction will close following receipt of applicable government approvals and other standard conditions.

Roger Penske is the owner of Team Penske, which fields teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA.

Penske is the winningest owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 18 victories, including this year with Simon Pagenaud. He won the 2018 Brickyard 400 with Brad Keselowski.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of three tracks the Cup Series competes on that is owned independently from NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. The others are Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

“We recently approached Roger Penske and Penske Corporation about this opportunity and began working to put an agreement in place,” said Tony George, Chairman of Hulman & Company, in a press release. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the centerpiece and the cathedral of motorsports since 1909 and the Hulman-George family has proudly served as the steward of this great institution for more than 70 years. Now, we are honored to pass the torch to Roger Penske and Penske Corporation, as they become just the fourth owner of the iconic Speedway. There is no one more capable and qualified than Roger and his organization to lead the sport of IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the future.”

Said Penske: “My passion for racing began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1951 when I attended the Indianapolis 500 with my father. We have so much respect and appreciation for the history and tradition of the Speedway and the sport of IndyCar racing. I want to thank Hulman & Company for the opportunity to build on this legacy and it will be an honor for Penske Corporation to help lead these great institutions forward into a new era.”

Said Mark Miles, President and CEO of Hulman & Company: “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and the NTT IndyCar Series have enjoyed considerable growth over the past decade, with significant increases in television, digital and social media audiences combined with record attendance at many of our race venues. With their track record of business success, their venue, operation and event experience and their passion for motorsports, Roger Penske and Penske Corporation will help us take the IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of our properties to new heights. Everyone on our team looks forward to working with them to capitalize on the momentum that the Series and the Speedway have achieved.”

NASCAR released the following statement from Chairman and CEO Jim France.

“The Hulman-George family has been instrumental in the growth of motorsports through their passion for racing, elevating Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series to a global scale, and we thank them for their leadership and significant contributions to NASCAR. Roger Penske is incredibly accomplished across both motorsports and business and we look forward to the successful operation of these properties under his experienced leadership.”

NASCAR completes merger with International Speedway Corp.

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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 officer Phelps’ 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 champion Mike Stefanik killed in plane crash

1 Comment

Nine-time NASCAR champion Mike Stefanik was killed in a plane crash Sunday, NASCAR confirmed. Stefanik was 61.

Stefanik, a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, won seven modified titles and two K&N Pro Series East crowns. In 2003, he was named one of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour’s 10 greatest drivers.

NASCAR issued a statement on behalf of Chairman Jim France:

“Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport. His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the respect and admiration of fans and competitors alike.

“His career stretched more than 30 years, bridging the generations between Jerry Cook and Richie Evans to our current drivers. He recorded achievements in this sport that are likely untouchable, and his legacy as a champion will endure. We will keep his wife Julie and his family and friends in our prayers.”

RaceDayCT.com reported that according to multiple news reports, Stefanik crashed while piloting a single-engine, single-seat Aero Ultra-Light plane. The crash took place took place in Sterling, Connecticut near the Rhode Island border.

Stefanik is the winningest driver in Whelen Modified Tour history with 74 wins. His nine championships ties him with Richie Evans for most national touring championships in NASCAR history.

In 1997-98, Stefanik won back-to-back championships in the modified and K&N East Series. Stefanik was the rookie of the year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1999.

Stefanik was first nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. He told RaceDayCt.com that the nomination  “humbled” him. “I’m not in, but it’s quite an honor,” Stefanik told RaceDayCt.com. “I never really thought much about it. I didn’t get into racing to get into a Hall of Fame. But it’s humbling for sure.”

The Hall of Fame released a statement from its director, Winston Kelley:

“First and foremost, on behalf of everyone at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, we offer our most sincere condolences to Julie, Nichole, Christie and the entire Stefanik family on the loss of Mike.

We are all very saddened to learn of the passing of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and nine-time NASCAR Champion Mike Stefanik. His record-tying nine championships just tells part of the story of his incredible legacy. He was intensely competitive, dedicated and tenacious and equally humble, versatile and respected. His seven NASCAR Whelen modified championships are second only to NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans. His tenacity and dedication are exemplified in the facts that his first and seventh championships came 17 years apart and his first and 74th wins came an incredible 27 years apart, the final win coming at age 55 at the very tough Bristol Motor Speedway. His versatility can be seen in winning back-to-back titles in both the Whelen Modified Tour and KN Pro Series East in 1997 and 1998 and winning the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series rookie of the year the following year, 1999. Despite his success and frequent dominance, perhaps what Mike will most be remembered for is his humility and the respect he had from his fellow competitors.

Mike’s legacy and commitment to NASCAR will be forever remembered, celebrated and cherished here at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and in our hearts and minds.”

New Hampshire Motor Speedway released a statement from David McGrath, the track’s executive vice president and general manager.

“Yesterday, the short track community lost one of the greatest modified drivers in history. Mike Stefanik was a true champion on and off the racetrack making a long-lasting mark on short track racing, specifically in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. With 10 career victories, Mike is one of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s top winning drivers. I know that I can speak for everyone here, as well as our entire Speedway Motorsports, Inc. family, when I say that Mike will be truly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and the entire NASCAR community during this very difficult time.”

Ryan: NASCAR listening to Cup drivers more without council?

1 Comment

LONG POND, Pa. – With the de-facto dissolution of its Drivers Council this year, NASCAR might have taken a step forward by adhering to an axiom well known in Corporate America.

Scheduling fewer meetings often can result in more effective and productive communication.

Last week underscored several examples of NASCAR implementing concepts, competitive elements and rule modifications after its stars petitioned for changes in a looser and less structured environment than the past four years.

–For the second consecutive race, drivers were heavily consulted on the application and placement of PJ1 traction compound (which made its debut at Pocono Raceway and at least offered an option of outside passes).

–Vice president of competition Scott Miller said it was a “prominent” driver who originally championed the idea of inverting the field to start the second half of a Pocono twin bill in 2020.

–The tweaking of what constitutes an uncontrolled tire (which seemed to have an impact on at least one Kyle Busch pit stop Sunday) after lobbying from Denny Hamlin and others.

–On Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway, defending series champion Joey Logano met with series officials to discuss restart gamesmanship – which NASCAR then addressed in drivers meetings the next two days (and penalized Daniel Suarez for laying back Sunday).

Logano believes the cause-effect relationship suggests the demise of the Drivers Council was timely.

“The council is maybe not as existent, but the old-school way of going into the trailer and talking to leadership of the sport seems to be effective,” Logano said. “It used to not be. That’s why we needed a council.

“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships, and we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers. Now they might not always do what the drivers want, because sometimes what the drivers want is wrong for the sport. But there’s certain times it really is the right thing that only a driver would know that’s inside the car.”

In that vein, NASCAR still is holding formal meetings with drivers a few times this year, but the invite list won’t be limited to the 10 or so drivers who were selected annually via a regimented election process that ensured equal representation for experience and manufacturers.

Spearheaded by Hamlin, the council was formed in 2015 to great fanfare, but it often seemed to be bogged down in minutiae and paralyzed from a lack of consensus. By a year ago, it had become so superfluous that Kevin Harvick openly admitted he was skipping meetings in part because of frustration with the panel’s efficacy.

Over the offseason, the council quietly lapsed as other channels of communication have grown. Since replacing Brian France (who attended roughly a dozen races annually), NASCAR CEO Jim France has become an omnipresent presence at the track along with his executive team (president Steve Phelps and vice chairman Mike Helton were at his side last weekend at Pocono).

A few dozen Cup drivers are on a text chain with NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell, who provides updates and explanations on hot-button issues (such as why NASCAR elected to call the Daytona race early).

“I would say I have more communication and more talks with NASCAR now” than in the Driver Council era, Hamlin said. “I’m constantly in contact with the testing team on applying the PJ1 at all these racetracks.”

Said Harvick: “Denny has kind of spearheaded a lot of the PJ1 evolution from the driver’s side. It becomes easier when there are one or two guys, and he’s really the guy that is communicating to get things moving forward. You can just throw out your two cents in the group chat, and he can compile all the information because everybody looks at it differently.”

The discourse also has improved likely just because there is no topic that touches a third rail in NASCAR as much as when the 2019 rules still were in flux last year.

Now it’s settled law. Though some still harbor reservations about the lower horsepower, high-downforce combination, it’s pointless to have contentious debates about an overhauled package that Phelps recently called “the path forward” in Cup.

The resistance to more full-throttle racing from some big names might have brought more compromise in other areas from NASCAR, which has been welcoming feedback the past decade after largely iron-fisted rule through its first 60 years.

“They deserve a lot of credit in the last 10 years for listening more than they ever have in the history of the sport,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I think we’ve overreacted on both sides where we had to have committees and so many people on committees.”

Johnson said a problem was that the structure invariably included some drivers who would “drop a grenade and walk away” during meetings vs. those who were “very diligent to help drive the sport forward.

“I think we’ve narrowed it down now to a core group of guys who really do care and are willing to see it through,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, another former council member, likes that the information is free-flowing even for those who are less engaged. Various text chains also allow “always having open discussions on ideas.

“Whether they apply that or not, they’re always asking for our feedback,” he said. “From NASCAR, the tracks, the drivers, teams, I think we work pretty well together. Sometimes you’d like to see things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day it’s their call.”


Pocono’s Cup races on consecutive days next season was well vetted among drivers, who gave it mostly rave reviews as a showcase during a 2020 schedule already hailed for its revamping.

“I like mixing things up,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’ll be one of the events as a driver and fan that you’ll circle and say, ‘I can’t wait to see how this works out and what it looks like.’ I think it’s a bit of the spice of life having a few changes in the NASCAR season for us.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It’s time to shake a lot of things up in this sport. You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and over; you have to reinvent yourself every single time for a fan. That goes for any event. Whether it’s a country music festival, a football game or a race. We’re all up against having to reinvent ourselves over and over and over to stay appealing and relevant to a fan that’s looking for something new. They expect to see something different or something they didn’t see the last time.

“How do you entice them in and bring them year after year? I’m a big advocate of you better fill their day up with content. These are race fans, they want cars on the track and people putting on a show, and certainly they’re going to have that with that schedule.”

There are a few lingering questions, namely how the inversion of the starting lineup for the second race might encourage sandbagging in the final 50 miles of Race 1.

Why not aim for the end of the lead lap for a better starting spot — and a stage points grab — in Race II? (Blaney suggests having the winner of the first race draw a pill in victory lane to determine how many cars are inverted.)

There also are many details to be nailed down, namely the length of Saturday’s Cup race, which is tentatively 350 miles. The issue is a rigid six-hour TV window, which needs to incorporate the Cup race preceded by a 200-mile truck race (which would be the series’ longest yet at Pocono; the track would prefer to keep that distance but could consider shortening).

And let’s not even consider what might happen if it rains (which tends to happen now and then in the Pennsylvania mountains). If there’s a spate of inclement weather Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling four races across three series on a Monday seems nigh impossible.

But if the Pocono experiment is deemed successful, it almost certainly would be considered elsewhere.

“Certainly, there are some tracks that would be great candidates for it,” Hamlin said. ‘Off the top of my head, Dover and tracks that are one-off and really, really different. If it’s a possibility, I’d vote for it. Our season is very very long and very very saturated. If you can condense but still give the same amount of races, I think it’s a good thing.”

One idea absolutely to consider, whether by Pocono or a NASCAR sponsor: Paying a bounty for a sweep of the races, as suggested by Kyle Busch (particularly if he’s willing to accommodate a bargain rate for his services).


There wasn’t total consensus on Pocono’s revamped 2020 format.

“Eh,” Bubba Wallace said when asked about the makeover at the track where he made his Cup debut in 2017 and escaped serious injury in a vicious crash last year. “I’d like to see no races here honestly. What do we do around here? Nothing. We sit here and do absolutely nothing all weekend. … I don’t know if it puts on the best show.”

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes Indianapolis Motor Speedway is less deserving of a date on the schedule than Pocono but also believes the latter’s rural locale is a detriment.

“We’re 45 minutes from any city,” he said. “There ain’t nothing to do.

“I’m looking at it for the fans, and if fans aren’t in the seats … I haven’t paid attention to the crowd here, but it’s way too big of a track for us. I feel like the racing isn’t that great.”

Wallace concedes his dream schedule “would piss off everybody. Probably a ton of short tracks and no road courses.”

And no Pocono (a point reinforced by his Tuesday tweet evaluating Sunday’s race).


Despite higher downforce, a thick swath of “sticky stuff” for extra adhesion and cars that are “easier” to drive, there were seven backup cars in the past two races because of practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said.

There are a few theories, but it essentially boils down to the cars being “edgier” as drivers and teams try to find the limits of their setups.

“You’d think they make a lot of downforce and a lot of grip, and they’d be easier to drive, but with that downforce and grip and load on the car, the tire had to get harder, so the tires become a little difficult to chase in certain situations,” said Alex Bowman, who wrecked at New Hampshire. “And the (traction compound) is like a layer of slime once you get out of the groove. It’s just like a lot of circumstances are playing into it.

“Everybody talks about how this package isn’t hard to drive. Well, it’s really hard to drive right now. For whatever reason. You make a 6-inch mistake, and you’re backward in the fence before you can even catch it.”

GoFas Racing’s Corey LaJoie said even with lower downforce, last year’s cars were more forgiving.

“You were more out of control generally, but when you had a moment, it was like a long lazy moment, and you’d (recover),” LaJoie said. “Now as soon as you slip a tire, you lose all of it. The cars are evil when they get out of shape now. You’re still going to see guys get out of shape because they’re going to figure out how to make the car less stuck to the racetrack. The less stuck, the faster it goes.”


NASCAR has critical meetings with its Cup manufacturers over the next month about the course of its Gen 7 rollout amid concerns the car might not hit an aggressive 2021 target date.

There remains much to hammer out on the parameters of the car, and a prototype probably needs to ready by early fall for a legitimate shot at a 2021 debut (that at least one team owner has said is mandatory). Testing began earlier for the Car of Tomorrow (which was on track more than 18 months ahead of its staggered rollout in 2007) and the Gen 6 (which underwent three years of planning and R&D before its 2013 debut).

Multiple sources (who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly) told NBCSports.com that switching over fleets to the Gen 7 would incur a one-time cost that averaged about $4-5 million, according to independent studies commissioned by Cup teams.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told reporters earlier this month that “the majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that ’22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what that’s going to be, and that’s what we’re working on.

“Everyone has their own ideas, and it gets to self-interest pretty quickly, about the timing of different things and how they’d like these things happening. We’ll continue to work with our teams and OEMs to make sure everyone is aligned on what is the correct date to do that. The positive thing is we’re not just going to plow forward with a decision without getting everyone on board.”


Matt DiBenedetto has yet to be guaranteed a 2020 return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Here’s the full context of what he said Saturday when asked if he needed to begin looking around to protect himself for having a ride next year.

“I’ve had to fight and claw so hard, now that I’m in a good, quality ride with a great team that I love, I’m just 100% focused on performing,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s the awesome part. These top fives, top 10s. I know that anyone, not to sound arrogant, but they’d have to have their heads examined if they get rid of me. Because nobody will do a better job in my car than myself.”

Closing with a lighthearted chuckle, he also spoke firmly and with no animosity, which is why DiBenedetto shouldn’t have felt the need to backpedal Monday. Yes, the words might come across strongly when read in the absence of inflection, but they aren’t out of context. He bluntly expressed faith in his ability to drive in Cup and detailed the mental toughness that earned him the ride.

No apology necessary from DiBenedetto, who also said he had “not a single conversation at all” about whether LFR would pick up his option for 2020.

Team owner Bob Leavine also confirmed DiBenedetto’s uncertain status Monday. With LFR as the only current Toyota option for potentially resolving Joe Gibbs Racing’s dilemma of fielding Cup rides for Erik Jones and Christopher Bell next year, DiBenedetto’s fate likely will depend on the actions of others and not necessarily on where he finishes – though results probably should be the determining factor.

There was nothing wrong with sharply pointing that out.