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France steadies NASCAR during credibility crisis

Saturday - 9/21/2013, 7:20pm  ET

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, SEPT. 21-22 - In this photo taken Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France listens to questions during a news conference at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. France didn't expect to spend his 10-year anniversary as chairman of NASCAR sorting through the biggest credibility crisis in the sport's history. And when he faced the competitors in a stern address about integrity and character, at least one longtime participant thought he sounded a lot like his old man. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Brian France didn't expect to spend his 10-year anniversary as chairman of NASCAR sorting through the biggest credibility crisis in the sport's history.

As he waded through the intricate layers of race teams manipulating the outcome of a pivotal event, France was forced to make unprecedented rulings. He spent the actual anniversary of the day he succeeded his late father, Bill France Jr., using his authority as head of the family business to expand the 12-driver field for NASCAR's version of the playoffs to accommodate wronged driver Jeff Gordon.

The next day, on the eve of last Sunday's opening race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, France angrily faced the competitors. France told the drivers the scandal had reached NBC Nightly News, which had called NASCAR fixed in its piece. The $8.2 billion television package NASCAR announced in July that begins in 2015 includes NBC.

Integrity must be restored immediately, France demanded.

At least one longtime participant thought France's leadership last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway was not that different from his old man.

"I think Brian France did a great job, he stepped up and he said 'I made the decision and this is the way it's going to be,'" said Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup championships. "It sounded like Bill -- 'I'm going to make sure this doesn't happen, and this is the way we are going to race from here on.'"

It's been a messy two weeks for NASCAR, which heads Sunday into Round 2 of the Chase, one of France's very first creations after taking over the post his father held for 31 years.

What began as an attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to manipulate the outcome of the Sept. 9 race at Richmond to get one of its drivers into the Chase field blew wildly out of control even after NASCAR issued one of the largest penalties in history against Waltrip's team. At least one other instance of race manipulation was uncovered and France, who doesn't always take a hands-on role at the race track, had a front and center presence in two days' worth of damage control at Chicago.

But as NASCAR's credibility was called into question, and France ordered drivers to give 100 percent in new rules prohibiting the artificial altering of events, the damage continues. NAPA Auto Parts on Thursday said it was ending its multimillion dollar 12-year partnership with Waltrip, and MWR is now fighting for its survival.

Waltrip declined Friday to second-guess NASCAR's handling of the scandal, but indicated France's meeting with competitors last week has closed any loopholes in the rule book. MWR was fined $300,000, its general manager has been suspended indefinitely and driver Martin Truex Jr. was kicked out of the Chase. Meanwhile, Penske Racing and Front Row Motor Sports received probation despite evidence showing the teams may have bargained to get Penske's Joey Logano into the Chase, and France used his power to expand the field to give Hendrick's Gordon a spot in the Chase.

"We now clearly understand what is and isn't acceptable behavior," Waltrip said. "As long as we know the rules and everyone plays with them and we're all governed the same and that's the case going forward, then we'll say that we've learned a lot from this situation and we'll be better prepared to race forward. Other folks didn't get as big a penalty for some things they did. We have to accept what we were given. We can't worry about what other people were given."

The third generation France to lead the racing series formed in 1948 by his grandfather, the late Bill France Sr., Brian France has a more open-door policy than his father ever did during his three decades leading NASCAR, particularly since the disastrous debut of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.

France views that car as one of the biggest mistakes of his reign, and since has tried to rely on more input from team owners, drivers and manufacturers on important decisions.

"I think Brian's done a good job. I work with him. Sometimes he listens. He doesn't listen all the time. We debate issues sometimes. I'm proud to say sometimes I win. I'd like to win all the time," said Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the late Bill France Jr.'s biggest adversary. "But I don't. We'll continue to go down the road with him."

In this case, Waltrip said MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman had a dialogue with France, but it didn't make a difference. "They were pretty well set on their decision, and we elected to accept the penalties and try to move forward," Waltrip said.

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