Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Yep, Danica's hot, and RC's guys are back in the game, and Team Ford now has red-hot Kasey Kahne...but the big NASCAR story as the Daytona 500 approaches......

  What does the boss have up his sleeve next? NASCAR's Brian France is making things happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  No, this really isn't DANICA BEACH, Fla., or DANICAR racing, though it might seem that way to some, given the hype-filled buildup to the new stock car racing season, opening now with SpeedWeeks.
   Yes there has been a heck of a pre-race marketing gaming going on the past month leading up to Sunday's Valentine's Day Daytona 500, with a lot of buzz and hoopla, around the mantras of 'change,' 'this is a contact sport' and 'we're all in this together,' as pushed by CEO Brian France.
    Yes, there were two photo-finishes in Thursday's 150s, and Chevy's Richard Childress and Team Ford both appear to be snapping out last year's slump, and Danica Patrick is looking, perhaps surprisingly, like the real deal.
   But the biggest NASCAR story, as the new season opens, looks to be France himself.
   He lit the match in early January with a round of face-to-face meetings with drivers and team owners, asking questions and listening.
   Never has he appeared more focused and forceful and dynamic. And this after a run where some of the sport's veterans have questioned his commitment. France is 47 and he's mentioned more than once that he doesn't plan to do this the rest of his life, that he eventually wants to move on.
    Certainly France has carried a different persona onto the playing field than his late father Bill Jr., whose folksy, sometimes gruff but still down-home approach to people in this work-a-day world was well-known and appreciated.
   The third-generation NASCAR France has been more business-like, more distant, more curt, more above-the-fray, sometimes seemingly aloof, and – unlike his father – seen only rarely at the weekend races.
    Now, however, something's changed here, something big. More than just spoilers and marketing gimmicks and words.
    A new dynamic is sensed....and there looks like a new burst of energy from the man charged with running this whole thing.
    Brian France 24/7? Well, so far drivers and teams seem to be taking positively to his various initiatives.

    Meanwhile back down here in the trenches....
    After January's face-to-faces, the answer they all came up with: Change. Put the sport more back into the drivers' hands....maybe put the sport back more into the crews' hands too.
    Certainly there is now more give-and-take, a more open attitude in the sport's Daytona headquarters, which for years was dogged by complaints from stock car worker-bees that unless the idea came from NASCAR itself, don't even bother raising the issue.
    So far it's been classic NASCAR Marketing 101, more so than in years – in-your-face (CBS's CSI, featuring Danica Patrick, for example), heavy-handed, wide-open.
    You'd think Dale Earnhardt Sr. were in charge of the NASCAR marketing department.
    Among the technical changes:
     -- Coming, a new 'old' flat-blade rear spoiler to replace the odd-looking wing used since 2007, with two rounds of mid-March testing with it (at Talladega and Charlotte);
     -- Here, various tweaks to the car-of-tomorrow for this 500, plus new Goodyears (more heat-resistant and more durable in the slip-slide of the draft, on a very bumpy, very abrasive track that hasn't been repaved since 1979) ;
    -- And here, a hands-off policy by officials on policing plate races like this one (let the drivers police themselves, as Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin were calling for after last fall's Talladega 500), and a larger restrictor plate (boosting speeds and closing rates).
   When France declared three weeks ago to the media that stock car racing is a contact sport and he expected to see some contact, drivers weren't quite sure just how to take it: "Putting things back in the drivers hands, they are going to mix it up a little bit differently, because we are going to loosen it up."
    And so far, well, a number of drivers have been forced to backup cars after wrecks, including Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. And they say the action is intense. But they haven't complained all that much.
    The action out on the track here at Daytona International Speedway has certainly been everything a promoter could ask for, especially those two photo-finishes in Thursday's 150s, Johnson over Kevin Harvick in the first, Kasey Kahne over Tony Stewart in the second, perfect for a diptych.

   Among the twists for this Daytona 500 -- Ford will have the pace car, a Mustang. Marketing give-and-take by long-time pacer Chevrolet? (Photo: Autostock)

   Throw in the amazing resurgence of the Childress operation – a victory by Harvick in the Shootout, and hard-battling by all three, Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton in Thursday's 150s – and the spark that Kahne has lit in the Ford camp...and of course the Danica Patrick story, and the stage has been set for the 52nd running of the biggest race the sport can offer, Sunday at 1 p.m.

   This may be the kicker: Just as a race isn't won on the first lap but can be lost on the first lap, so it is with the season, sometimes it seems.
   Last year's rain-marred, rain-shortened Daytona 500, didn't really open the season with a bang.
   And California, with its (don't use the word 'boring,' banned from the NASCAR lexicon) stretched out racing, doesn't usually provide fiery action.
   The 2009 season didn't really seem to get off to a flashy start, and that seems to be something this sport's powers are hoping to change this time around.
   And it looks like France isn't brooking any complaints. Shut up and race.
   So far here it almost sounds like everyone's been taking happy pills.
   The only downer so far here -- the cold, and Friday's rain. It's should be clear and dry Sunday afternoon, with an expected high of 57, but chilly early, with a freeze watch overnight for the northern part of the state.

  NASCAR's new Diversity Drivers. But has this program stagnated? Will any of these make it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    A big part of the NASCAR story as the new season opens may be missed by so many because it's right smack in front of us: Brian France himself.
   At times the past few years he's seemed missing too often, even disinterested; at other times he's been so formal and officious in his dealings with the media that it's been off-putting.
   Now France appears to be changing.
   And that may come at a crucial point for the sport, after two years of lackluster TV ratings and crowds, amid a really dismal U.S. economy.
   From 2001, with the new TV package, to 2004, this sport soared in popularity. But in the past few years things have stagnated.
   So France is trying to shake things up, to reverse the trend lines.
   The tell of the tale should soon be coming not necessarily with the Daytona 500 itself but surely in the following weeks, between now and the April 18th stop at Texas Motor Speedway.
   France naturally has high hopes for the season ahead, really for the months ahead – this weekend, against the Winter Olympics on NBC, and later this spring against the NCAA playoffs and Major League Baseball and the Masters, and whatever the competition is. And maybe having Robby Gordon, a long-time NASCAR veteran, running in this May's Indy 500 (against Patrick even), will likely be a plus on that front.
   So after a couple of years of pretty-much silence and inaction on the technical front with these new cars (introduced full-time in 2008), there is a sudden burst of renewed energy from the executive offices. There's even a strong push toward the 'green' issues, and diversity, despite economic drags there, are still being pushed.
    And it certainly bears noting here that if Olympic officials had just given a call to France or NASCAR president Mike Helton about potential safety issues on that luge track – has nobody in the Olympic community even noted the Safer barriers in NASCAR and other safety improvements over the past 10 years? – then Nodar Kumaritashvili would probably be alive today. The very idea of such exposed metal beams within scant feet of the luge course has shocked many in the NASCAR garage here, who have gone through waves of safety improvements over the past decade and who could have easily pointed to easily installed safety changes.

    "Sometimes you can do too much, and that's unsettling to people, that certainly can happen," France said, referring to the fallout a few years back from a flurry of changes, such as moving the Southern 500 from Darlington to Los Angeles, and angry reaction.
   "And then there's times when there are things right in front of you that everybody feels very strongly about, and in this case, the spoiler....
    "The team owners, everyone else (read fans and drivers), they want to go back to a more traditional-looking race car, and a traditional-handling race car. And that is a change we think that will be the right one at the right time."
    The first significant test of that move will come at Talladega in a one-day test mid-March and in a two-day test at Charlotte Motor Speedway the next week, both tests featuring all Sprint Cup teams.
    Bottom line: France says he wants to keep the fans' attention, and the media's attention, on the action out on the track and not get sidetracked with other issues, be it rear wings or Jeremy Mayfield: "As we go into 2010...get our media focused on what I know you really want to be focused on -- and that's what happens on the track."
    And so far, the action out on the track has been hot.
    Looks like a good start.

      [Note: You can use Twitter as an easy headline service for mikemulhern.net stories, with our instant Tweets to your mobile as soon as our newest NASCAR story is filed. And mikemulhern.net is mobile-friendly for viewing. You can also use the orange RSS feed button as a quickie headline service on your laptop or home computer for mikemulhern.net stories, by creating a Live Bookmark RSS feed on your web browser's toolbar. Or you can create a Google Alert for mikemulhernnet.]

  The man where the buck stops...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brian France has finally

Brian France has finally become involved in racing, instead of apparently wishing he was an NFL owner as evidenced by his arms length bone headed decisions of the last few seasons that have damaged TV ratings (NASCAR as a result shockingly lost network TV coverage for this fall) and attendance as the cookie cutter races became sleep inducing. NASCAR was Going IRL. Kudos to him for turning things around dramatically with new rules and a fresh new approach and in only a few weeks! France has done a really good job in 2010 now that his head is into NASCAR and I'm very impressed with his reboot of NASCAR.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com