Brian France (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
France also conceded the championship chase the last three or four years hasn't been very strong (perhaps one reason Disney moved the chase from ABC network to ESPN).
But France insisted he was satisfied with the product ESPN was putting out. And he said he liked ESPN's generally younger demographics, an area where this sport has been hard hit (losing some 30 percent of its 18-34 male viewers). France indicated he had no plans to ask Disney to move the chase back to network TV.
"ESPN is our partner, and they have been an enormously good partner," France said.
"But we are going to look -- with everybody at ESPN -- to make sure we have the right (starting) times, the right promotion, the right everything, that puts the sport in the best possible position to have had the biggest audience.
"By the way, I think the (ESPN) broadcast has been as good as I've seen in a long time. The energy level, the calling of the action, the on-air talent, is top-notch. They have been working at that for a few years to get all of the things just right, and I think they have."
France, naturally, played cheerleader for Sunday's season finale: "What's really clear to me is when you put drivers in a position where there's a lot on the line, and they just can't have a 'good' run, they actually have to go out and win, or lead laps, or compete high, they do it.
"You're seeing that the last several weeks. And I bet that's the case Sunday."
So what does that tell France about 2011? He has talked about tweaking the championship chase next season, to try to create 'more dramatic moments.'
Couldn't get much better than this weekend's three-man battle for the title.
Still, France continued hinting at making tweaks: "That tells us that the more we can do to have incentives, that puts it all on the line more often, that's what we need to be thinking about."
"What I like is a 'winner-take-all,' if you will. Watching someone not just having to run well but having to beat other people. That's exactly what we want.
"It's working out that way this year...Year Seven of the chase."
Yet France doesn't appear to be backing away from any tweaking.
"Almost every sports league, including the NCAA tournament last year, is looking around at what they need to do to change their formats -- a little or a lot, to make sure their playoffs or championship runs are what they want them to be," .
"And we are no different.
"We are going to have a championship that puts a lot on the line, that's credible, and that rewards the drivers that have the biggest performances throughout the season.
"But we are not going to look ahead to 2011 till this weekend is concluded... because this could be a very, very memorable Sunday."
Indeed it could well be.
And in an 'about the-season-in-review,' France says his 'Boys, have at it' game plan has worked, out on the track at least.
However he concedes the lower TV ratings has prompted a lot of talk, though he tried not to dwell on that: "Obviously we would like our TV ratings on an upswing, and when they are not....
"We are working on all kinds of things, to see what is a better formula for us.
"I don't expect you turn light switches on and move the needle that way (quickly). All kinds of things are going to happen, over time, to drive ratings and interest level. Our job is to make sure the environment to do that is just right."
The first thing France mentioned was a broad hint to change next year's starting times. For this season he pushed most races to uniformly start at 1 p.m. ET or 3 p.m. ET for Western races, because fan surveys pointed to that as something they wanted, and because he and the TV networks felt more uniform times would boost ratings, which last season were off from 2008. "We knew that had some risk of ratings erosion," France said.
Indeed TV ratings have continued to slump.
"We took ourselves out of some more homes by doing that...also by switching networks from ABC to ESPN," France said of the chase.
ESPN is carrying all but three of the races during the Walt Disney second half of the tour, July to November. ABC carried the 10-race championship chase last season, but Disney announced in January the chase would be on ESPN this season instead. The production crew and on-air talent is the same for both ABC and ESPN, but the ratings draw appears significantly different.
"On the ratings: we did a lot of things, for a while. Notably we rolled out a car (the car of tomorrow) that was, in the short run, not very popular with anyone," France said. "And we took a long time to figure out how to get past that."
France said he expected this year's hot action on the track and the very tight championship race to translate into better TV numbers next season.
"The quality of racing -- going back to the beginning of the season, with the different rules packages, primarily the (old) spoiler (replacing the wing) -- has worked well.
"If this isn't the best racing we've seen in a long, long time...I would be very surprised to hear anybody say that it wasn't."
Still, all is not as healthy as it could be here. Races are no longer routine sellouts, and some tracks have cut seating capacity to reflect that.
But France points to NASCAR's "very strong fan base," and insists that "if we keep the racing as good as it's been the last half of the season, and we do our jobs right, I'm not worried about a thing about the popularity of this sport."
One hot-button issue for NASCAR is the Saturday Nationwide series. France says he wants it to have a distinct personality, not just be seen as 'Cup Lite,' a series dominated by Sunday Sprint Cup stars, as it has been for several years.
How to get that, France concedes, may be tricky. First, he points out that the Nationwide tour is the second-most watched racing series on TV, with much higher ratings than Indy-car and Formula One.
France says he'll announce any changes in January: "We want the Nationwide series to have its own identity --- very similar to what college football does for the NFL. That's a great analogy for us.
"We don't want to see Sunday and Saturday homogenized, just completely homogenized.
"We also want to make sure the Nationwide series is helping us find stars who stay there for a little while, earn their stripes and then move up.
"It's delicate, how to do that. But we have been at this for a number of months, studying.
"We have to be careful we don't want to throw out too many things that are working properly."
The man in charge of that is Steve O'Donnell, who has become France's Go-To man for big issues, such as the shape of tour schedules.
Bottom line, to the chase format question: France says he's still made no decisions on all this: "I don't know what we are going to do, if anything.
"I wouldn't assume that we are just going to make some changes because we are talking about looking at things.
"If we can make it simpler to understand, that's a good thing for us to do.
"If we can have incredible big moments, where the best teams have to elevate their performance...that's what excites us, that's what excites our fan base, and it excites casual sports fans who are going to look to this sport one day and enjoy as much as we do.
"If there's a plan for us to accomplish that, we will consider it over the winter.
"Right now we are obviously thrilled with where we are at and looking forward to Sunday."
And France repeated one of his main themes for this season: "This is a contact sport. You're going to get shoved around a little, if somebody is trying to get by, and you're trying to win – and a championship is on the line."
Of course there is more here to consider than just the three title contenders on the warpath -- each man has several teammates, and those teammates can be useful for not only blocking and generally aggravating rivals but also filling enough positions ahead of those rivals to help determine the champion. And how all those players interact could create some controversy.
Nevertheless France indicated he was going to leave it up the three men to determine their own fate, without any NASCAR action: "Despite how much is on the line, they have got to settle it on the track."
And then, while there have been questions about this Miami market and how NASCAR plays, or doesn't play, here, France says in the big picture the finale at Homestead works: "This is a great championship market. This is a great market for our fans, to come down and spend a few days. There's lots to do."
In fact two of Richard Childress' teams are doing some deep-sea fishing here, for example.
France also pointed out the track itself "is a competitive place" now that the new progressive banking has given drivers and crews a wide variety of lines to run.
"So we are pretty comfortable with this market," France said. Then he added – perhaps with a indirect nod at promoter Bruton Smith's bid to move this season-ending weekend to Smith's Las Vegas track – "We'll obviously look at it as we go down the road."
Keeps leverage over local politicians, and keeps area power brokers from getting too complacent.