This past Sunday, Chase Elliottbecame NASCAR’s newest first-time winner in front of a sold-out Watkins Glen crowd. Outlasting Martin Truex Jr. in a thriller, the sport’s likely Most Popular Driver was pushed to Victory Lane by teammate and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. NASCAR Hall of Fame father Bill was waiting in Victory Lane, the final piece of a perfect puzzle to give the sport much-needed momentum.
It took just hours for NASCAR CEO Brian France to kill it.
France’s arrest for driving under the influence, seemingly half a world away in the Hamptons left NASCAR, once again, on the defensive. Instead of accentuating the positive, a PR nightmare ensued as the entire country had France’s mugshot plastered across their local newscast. A sport centered on driving had its leader caught red-handed driving drunk.
France immediately took a leave of absence, replaced by 73-year-old Uncle Jim on an interim basis heading into this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. There’s no timetable on how long he’ll be out or if he’ll even return. Along with his absence, washed away was Elliott’s stirring victory and the buzz surrounding this week’s debut of the 2019 Ford Mustang.
By all accounts, Brian France was no longer handling day-to-day operations within the sport (and hasn’t been for some time). Let’s just say that’s not exactly ideal when the position serves as the main face of your organization, both at the racetrack and in the boardroom.
“I just hope that whoever is in that position takes it serious and does a good job with it,” said Kyle Larson Friday from Michigan. “There are so many people in this industry that want to see it succeed. I hope this is a good step to have a good change for us and get some good momentum back for our series.”
For now, Jim France serves as stability, not revolutionary change. He’s unlikely to reinvent the wheel other than attend more races, attempting to be a calming force for owners and drivers alike as the sport faces major headwinds.
But long-term, Jim France is not the answer. The sport and its millions in corporate sponsorship must sit patiently and wait for future direction in the form of Brian’s return, a new leader altogether or perhaps an unprecedented sale of the biggest racing series in America.
So much is hanging in the balance, such a far cry from where we were at Watkins Glen Sunday afternoon. Chase Elliott’s first win can’t be replicated; the clouds that followed stole an opportunity.
There have been too many moments like that in recent years. But, like Larson said, there are so many in the sport who want to ensure that’s the final misstep in a series of them over the last decade in NASCAR.
Let’s see if they can find the right person to lead the way back to success.
Consumers Energy 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Elliott’s win was the 250th for perhaps the most successful organization in NASCAR history. But it also ended an unprecedented slump for HMS. Their last win came in July 2017 at Indianapolis with Kasey Kahne. No Chevrolet, in fact, had won since February’s Daytona 500. Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman are clinging to the final two playoff spots while rookie William Byron has taken his lumps in the No. 24 car.
But suddenly, HMS is showing signs of life. Elliott has won three stages the past few weeks and now a race itself. Bowman has six top-15 finishes in the last seven weeks, cementing his lead over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the postseason bubble. Johnson hasn’t been getting the finishes consistently but the No. 48 has far more overall speed. Can Chevy’s top hope for a title still turn it around before November?
Who’s at the Back: Ford
Watkins Glen was perhaps this manufacturer’s worst performance of the season. No Fusion wound up higher than ninth; they failed to lead a single lap. While Kevin Harvick continues to run at a championship level, some of the other teams, most notably Team Penske, have stalled out a bit.
That trio of Ford stars keeps running into rough luck. Joey Logano suffered through an early mishap at the Glen and wound up dead last. Brad Keselowski has three finishes outside the top 30 in the last five races. And Ryan Blaney was a disappointing 12th at Pocono, a racetrack he won at last year.
Brian France. Brian France. Brian France. France did apologize Monday for his transgressions in a brief statement. "I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night,” he said. “Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs."
The official public statement announcing his leave was just as simple: “Brian France has taken an indefinite leave of absence from NASCAR as chairman and chief executive officer. Effective immediately, NASCAR Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France has assumed the role of interim chairman and chief executive officer.” For now, that’s all we know about his future in the sport.
Ford introduced its 2019 Mustang they’ll use to compete at the sport’s top level next year. It’s been used at the XFINITY Series level since 2011 but earned a promotion to replace the Fusion beginning with February’s Daytona 500. It’ll have lofty expectations to live up to; Ford has won nine times in 22 races, giving Toyota a run for its money in the manufacturer’s race.
Kurt Busch is rumored to be replacing Jamie McMurray in Chip Ganassi’s No. 1 car next season. Busch, who just a few weeks ago appeared to be sticking with Stewart-Haas Racing, would bring sponsor Monster Energy with him. Other driver changes rumored this week include JTG-Daugherty Racing where both A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher have struggled.
Jeffrey Earnhardt has a full-time ride in NASCAR once again. Earnhardt will drive for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 13 of the final 14 races this season bringing sponsorship from Xtreme Concepts. The grandson of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr. earned a best career finish of 11th at Daytona last month.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career runner-up finishes for Chase Elliott before earning his first career Cup Series victory.
Straight top-10 finishes for William Byron for the first time in his Cup Series career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
This race was dominated by Stewart-Haas Racing in June. Can they overcome a recent slump? Kevin Harvick has a whopping six runner-up finishes in his last 11 starts here and is due to break through to Victory Lane.
Weirdness surrounds Martin Truex Jr., whose team owner, Barney Visser, felt compelled to issue a statement this week that Furniture Row will still be competing in 2019. (They’re losing one of their primary sponsors, 5-hour ENERGY, at the end of the season). But Truex, winless at Michigan should have won this race last summer and seems to have recaptured the speed he was missing in June. He’s a good consolation prize if you can’t get Harvick on your roster.
Erik Jones has never finished outside the top 15 at Michigan in three career starts. Since winning Daytona in July, this second-year driver has seen a clear uptick in performance, earning a 6.8 average finish in his last five races. Ride the momentum.
Looking for a longshot bid? William Byron has those back-to-back top-10 finishes, giving the rookie momentum heading to Michigan. He was 13th here in June, lost an XFINITY Series race here by inches last year and seems to excel on intermediate style tracks. His rookie status also means you’ll get him at a discount price.
Kasey Kahne, negotiation to extend his contract at Leavine Family Racing has run well in recent weeks. The uptick in performance by the Chevrolet Camaro should move him up the rankings a bit; he was also a reasonable 23rd at Michigan in June. A former success story on intermediates, Kahne is more than capable of driving this single-car No. 95 team up into the top 15 on Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
Expect this section to read the same for weeks to come. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. top the odds list. They’re anywhere from 11/4 to 13/4 odds. Kyle Larson, at 7/1 odds, leads the best of the rest.
What I Think
After Chase Elliott’s win I suspect a return to the Big Three dominance this week. I’ll go with Kevin Harvick to take the checkered flag and put Ford right back on track.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.