CUP: France Offers Views On State Of NASCAR

With 11 Sprint Cup races in the books, how does this season add up?

Chairman Brian France believes the first four months of 2012 have “gone very well” but there’s always room for improvement.

“I think it’s just fine,” France said. “Like anything else, there are things we’re always working on. We’re getting better at some things but it’s been a good season.”

France says storylines will “dictate” the success of this season. Off the top of his head, France mentioned Jeff Gordon’s struggles and the emphasis on winning as it relates to the championship. However, Danica Patrick, Darrell Wallace Jr., the 2013 Sprint Cup and changes to NASCAR’s Technical Center were also hot topics that will indeed change the sport’s landscape for years to come.

On Patrick’s bearing in NASCAR, France says, “She’s brought visibility to the sport which we knew she would,” but he’s also impressed with her “improvements” this season.

“She’s getting better and better and some of her runs reflect that,” France said. “That will be what determines her impact in the end – how well she competes – and no one knows that better than she does.”

Wallace made his Nationwide Series debut with Joe Gibbs Racing at Iowa Speedway on Sunday with a solid ninth-place finish. Wallace is the first African-American driver from the Drive for Diversity program to graduate to NASCAR’s second tier. France is not surprised that the journey has taken this long considering the level of talent combined with the limited number of seats at the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series levels.

“It’s big if he competes well,” France said. “He’s somebody with the most promising talent who is an African-American to come through our diversity program. He has been dominant in the K&N Series which is very competitive with a lot of talented sons of some of the best drivers here in the garage area that compete. He’s winning ... That’s a breakthrough if that materializes. If not him, then somebody will walk in the door and be a star that’s very good for us.”

France spoke of an overhaul with the Tech Center that involves shifting the focus from inspection and safety to include more research and development in the advent of the 2013 car and beyond. France referred to tandem racing as “being thrown a curve ball” and rather than waiting for the industry to solve the sport’s problems, the sanctioning body itself must take a more active role in finding solutions.

NASCAR vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell, who some say is being groomed for president Mike Helton’s job in the future, will be spending more time at the competition facility in Concord, N.C. France says the objective is to be “as good as we can be with the on-track quality of racing” and that means making a greater effort.

“Our goal is to always take moments with new cars and new opportunities to make the racing better,” France said. “That’s what we’re after. There was a small adjustment with the skirts (on the cars, starting with the race at Charlotte) trying to look at the aero impact. We’re really repurposing the R&D Center in a very good way. Steve O’Donnell has taken full charge of that responsibility so we can increase our focus on the things that can make the racing better.

“Obviously, we’re focused on safety. That’s a given. But we’re zeroing in on whether it’s an aero issue – that from time to time there’s going to be other issues that we’re going to get after faster – innovations. We think you’re going to see drying the track off in 20 percent of the time. We’re working with companies helping with that kind of technology, which would be a big breakthrough for the industry.

“You’re seeing the R&D center take a much more active role with everything from performance on the track to innovation, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Those are some of the highlights that NASCAR is addressing. Here are 10 more topics to keep an eye on in the coming weeks:

1. All-star letdown?

Surprised to hear complaints about NASCAR’s star-studded event. While the final 10 laps were anticlimactic once Jimmie Johnson pulled out and smoked the field, there was plenty of excitement in the Sprint Showdown and in the 80 laps leading up to the shootout. AJ Allmendinger’s comeback from last to second in the qualifying race was scintillating. Marcos Ambrose – not even considered a dark horse in his all-star debut – gave notice to his peers that he wasn’t going quietly. And NASCAR’s favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. dazzled the fans with his Showdown win and contended all evening. Could the entertainment level been elevated if teams had not insisted that the winners of the first three segments ride in the back conserving their equipment for the finish? We’ll never know. But it’s likely that when the event returns next May there will be revisions to discourage coasting and promote racing.

2. They’re back

No, J.J. and the No. 48 crew didn’t explode out of the gate this season in traditional fashion. However, in the last two weeks, the team has shown exceptional speed on the track and in the pits when points and prestige were on the line. With Johnson’s six Charlotte Motor Speedway wins, including three in the Coca-Cola 600, he’ll be a threat again on Sunday.

3. Hendrick Motorsports Speedweeks sweep?

Although Johnson earned Hendrick’s breakthrough win at Darlington Raceway, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne are still waiting for their first victory in 2012. Gordon and Kahne have eight wins between them at Charlotte. Earnhardt’s only win was in the Sprint All-Star Race, but he came close to winning the 600 last May before running out of gas. Earnhardt dominated Saturday’s Showdown and was best in class in the fourth segment of the all-star race. Could Sunday be the day?

4. Who’s next?

Now that the HMS drought has ended, it’s time for a Richard Childress Racing turnaround. Kevin Harvick is the defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600 but hasn’t won since the race at Richmond International Raceway last September. Harvick is currently eighth in points, but there were high hopes for the No. 29 team this season that have yet to be delivered. Paul Menard and Jeff Burton are 13th and 17th, respectively, in the standings – and between them, Burton is the only one with a top five. R.C. has never stood for mediocrity, so expect heads to start rolling if performance doesn’t turn around soon.

5. That new-car smell

Toyota will unveil its 2013 Sprint Cup car on Tuesday. Unlike Chevrolet, which simply released the name “SS” along with a photo from a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, Toyota will actually display its model. As for an update, all four manufacturers are well into their second revisions for the final package in an effort to achieve both parity and brand identity. Three of the four car companies have submitted that second revision. Ford is expected to deliver the ’13 Fusion to the NASCAR R&D Center in the next two weeks.

6. Wait until June

May is one of the busiest months in motorsports, but Roger Penske found time to make a trip to Roush Yates Engines last Tuesday. Sources say Penske spent a couple of hours reviewing the operation and the possibility of becoming a customer when Penske Racing switches from Dodge to Ford in 2013. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency on completing the deal, however, until RYE finds out whether Richard Petty Motorsports remains in the Ford camp or jumps to Dodge.

7. Speaking of Dodge

Expect clarity in Dodge’s plans once May is over as well. Although meetings are expected this week with potential suitors, teams that make the cut won’t likely be revealed until June. That includes Michael Andretti’s group, which has its hands full with five entries in the Indianapolis 500. Still, sources say that Andretti’s representatives have been to North Carolina scouting potential sites to base their operation. Stay tuned.

8. Seat time

Congratulations to Nationwide Series defending champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Sunday’s Iowa Speedway win – his third consecutive victory at that track. Would really like to see the 24-year-old run another Sprint Cup race or two this season. His 11th-place finish in his Cup debut in the 2011 600 was impressive.

9. Hall of Famer

On Wednesday, NASCAR will introduce its latest Hall of Fame inductees. Certainly, Leonard Wood will be on that list. Wood has been an integral part of the Wood Brothers success over the last six decades. He made tremendous contributions in the sport from the mechanical side to revolutionizing the modern-day pit stop. Wood is still relied on for his expertise by many and remains one of the most popular figures in the garage.

10. Racing extreme

Sunday is by far the best day in motorsports starting with the Grand Prix of Monaco followed by the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. If Sunday’s action doesn’t offer enough buzz to keep the message boards humming over the next few weeks, nothing will.