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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

2018 Top NASCAR Storylines: Have We Moved On From Brian France? Or Not?

Aug. 5, 2018 at Watkins Glen International should have been a watershed moment for NASCAR and CEO Brian France. 22-year-old Chase Elliott, running his third full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, finally got over the hump.

The soon-to-be Most Popular Driver earned his first career victory on the road course, delighting a sold-out crowd with cheers and putting entire NFL stadiums to shame. The all-too-rare moment in NASCAR these days was punctuated by seven-time MENCS champion Jimmie Johnson, pushing an out-of-gas Elliott on the cool-down lap right down to Victory Lane.

You couldn’t have written a better changing-of-the-guard script if you tried.

And for a sport looking to connect to its old-time fans, there’s no better way to do so than with Elliott. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott comes from small-town Dawsonville, Ga., a multi-layered connection to NASCAR’s roots.

Any sport’s CEO would immediately look to capitalize on the opportunity, one of the few times all season the sport had a positive national story.

There’s just one problem. Brian France was nowhere to be found.

A mere 36 hours later, the world knew exactly where the sport’s CEO chose to spend his time: partying up in the Hamptons. France, who hadn’t been at the racetrack, was arrested for a DWI and criminal possession of a controlled substance that Sunday night. Officers found oxycodone pills and reported France posted a BAC higher than 0.18. For comparison’s sake, most state laws make it illegal for you to drive with a BAC greater than 0.08.

France hasn’t been seen atop the NASCAR hierarchy since, taking an indefinite leave of absence. His uncle, Jim France, is running the sport in his place, acting CEO at age 74. With that, a rocky and controversial stay atop the NASCAR ladder came to an end for this third-generation leader of the France family.

Or did it?

One of the biggest question marks from 2018, as we reach the halfway point of this offseason is who, exactly, will be leading the sport in 2019.

Shortly after France’s incident, NASCAR President Brett Dewar stepped down, replaced by Chief Operating Officer Steve Phelps. Phelps, not Jim France, was put in front of the media for the annual State of the Sport presser in November and did an admirable job.

Unlike the contentiousness the sport has seen from the usual CEO, he faced the music on a slew of questions about the sport’s decline and answered as honestly as possible. It was a thankless job, but one where he never lost composure.

Phelps appears to be going full steam ahead, spearheading the sport’s offseason push toward a new sponsorship model debuting in 2020. (There’s just one year remaining on NASCAR’s current title sponsorship with Monster Energy).

He’s also in charge of a schedule revamp that’s coming, rumors that include midweek races on the schedule and a return to more short tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds. The initial read from sources I get within NASCAR is that he’s competent, a good listener and willing to tackle – not ignore – the problems at hand.

Along those same lines, all shapes and sizes of NASCAR people I’ve talked to have positive things to say about Jim France. Attendance for Brian at races was clearly an issue; Jim made it a point to be seen by stakeholders at the track. That’s an important point; if you have a problem, you want a face-to-face with the boss, not chatting with a mythical figure like the Wizard of Oz. For the first time in several years, it felt like the sport’s leadership was available. 

Phelps made it clear in November Jim and Brian’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy, appear ready to revamp the sport over the long haul. Lesa’s son, Ben, has been mentioned repeatedly as a future candidate for CEO.

“The message that is being sent from Lesa and Jim France,” Phelps said then, “Is that we are going to double down on this sport because we believe in it. The best days are ahead of it. It’s going to grow.”

But the problem with interim leadership is you only have so much power until “interim” is stripped from the title.

Will Phelps, Jim France, Vice President Steve O’Donnell and others have a chance to restructure the sport? Or will Brian France, whose family has been the only owner in the sport’s 70-year history, quietly re-assume his role atop the totem pole this February?

No one, it seems, really knows. For all the goodwill gestures Phelps has made over the past few months, the most notable part of his tenure has been a slew of no comments. No comment on whether Brian will ever return. Mouth shut on a surprise announcement in November NASCAR is merging with its track arm, International Speedway Corporation.

No comment on whether NASCAR will then turn around and try a merger with Speedway Motorsports, Inc., whose tracks take up a third of the NASCAR schedule. And crickets on a potential sale of the sport, the biggest news whose rumors refuse to die down. The latest was a December report Boston Red Sox owner John Henry might be interested in purchasing a stake.

The end result is the sport doesn’t just have an elephant in the room. He’s squeezed into the corner with lions, tigers and bears also taking up space. Phelps, in all honesty, may not even have this job a few months down the road even with an A+ performance. A new company could come in, put their own people in charge and push old leaders out.

NASCAR, for its part, could clarify some of the issues by putting out some public statements. Phelps is not Jim France; while the acting CEO has been averse to the press, there’s nothing stopping the guy from talking. But there’s also a simple explanation to what appears to be continuing silence on a number of topics. Why speak when you don’t know what the answers are?

Where this uncertainty hurts the sport the most is in its continuing search for new stakeholders. It’s not just top-tier sponsors the sport is seeking. Several of its main owners are age 69 or older, a group that owns roughly 50 percent of the starting grid. Its 2017 championship team just closed its doors to a lack of sponsorship; no manufacturer has been added since Toyota entered the fold in 2007.

But if I’m any of these entities, from a Fortune 500 company to ownership interested in joining NASCAR, how do I know what the structure is? What is the plan for where the sport might be in three, five or 10 years?

Sure, the acting leadership can give me an answer that works for them. But if there’s negotiations on selling the sport happening 30 minutes later, how do I know that vision is realistic? Considering full-time car sponsorships are upwards of $20 million for top-tier teams, no wonder there’s hesitation. The economy is good but people won’t spend money if they don’t know where the ship is heading, let alone if it’s sinking.

NASCAR, for its part, has always prided itself on getting corporate sponsorship that far outshines the cars on the grid. But there’s been limited offseason announcements there other than a few notable departures. Click ‘n’ Close is gone as the official mortgage company of the sport after just one year. Fanatics ended their trackside merchandise deal, breaking a contract that was scheduled to run through 2024.

On the track, murmurs continue about car count for their lagging K&N Series in advance of a looming merger with ARCA in 2020. After Toyota hedged on backing NASCAR Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt, they allowed the driver to walk while Moffitt’s championship team brought in a driver with funding.

The Xfinity Series grid was reduced from 40 to 38 for 2019, largely because there aren’t enough sponsored cars. The sport’s charter system in MENCS is producing medallion sale values of less than $10 million, lagging far behind the $2 billion franchise value of NFL and NBA teams.

All of these issues need to be addressed by consistent, capable leadership assured to be there for the foreseeable future. Instead? We have a bunch of competent people filling the gaps with no real sense of permanence.  The shadow of a CEO on a “leave of absence” looms over it all.

Is Brian in or out? As the sport enters 2019, the worst possible answer it keeps giving to stagnate its growth is Choice C, “no comment.”

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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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7 comments

  1. Brian is a total disgrace to NASCAR the same as the person on Pennsylvania Avenue is to the country.

  2. Racing in Mississauga

    Two predictions for NASCAR in 2019:
    1) Liberty Media Corporation (majority owners of F1, the Atlanta Braves, Sirius XM) will acquire NASCAR
    2) Carl Edwards will return to full time NASCAR racing as a driver (maybe even for the start of the season)

  3. You get the distinct impression that the pits likes having Jim France and Steve Phelps at the helm. There was zero mention of ole’ BF at the banquet. The problem is they can’t just start over. What they’ve inherited is a more than a decade of mis management to try to correct. Ben Kennedy’s ‘speaking part’ at the banquet was impressive. There is potential here, but the path back will take awhile. I like the sport: I wish them the best.

  4. So, with the 12 tracks Cup ISC already owns, a potential merger with SM would put NASCAR in control of 20 of the Cup tracks. The idiocy of Brian France aside for the moment, who thinks that NASCAR having a virtual lock on track ownership is in any way a good idea, given the general level of incompetence the France family, (along with Mike Helton, Brett Dewar, et al), has displayed over the years, (& well before Brian came on the scene, for those of us in the know), & how clueless they’ve been with the reasons for the decline in the sport? This group of feral cannibals would feat on the sport with even more unmitigated greed, until the carcass had nothing left to offer. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. The only way to save the sport is to get it out from under the aegis of the Frances & their minions.

  5. Brian France needs to be out of the sport. Totally out. If he had a good overall track record and the sport was succeeding and growing (or even just holding it’s own), I could see that out-weighing his transgression. But, by just about any measure his leadership has sucked and his tenure was (or should have been, if his last name wasn’t France) questionable before the Watkins Glen weekend incident. I don’t see how NASCAR can put him back at the helm and act like it’s business as usual but, with this group, nothing would surprise me.

    • 100% agreement with what Bill B. said. Brian France has done enough damage.

    • Putting Brian back in charge is exactly to be expected. Anything else would indicate the coming of the Apocalypse, even though the political picture is giving them a run for the money (literally).