In a wide-ranging State of the Sport press conference, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France discussed everything from the new Chase format, the sanctioning body’s domestic violence policies, fights in the sport, and the drivers who may be crowned champion this weekend.
France started his State of the Sport remarks with his assessment of the new Chase format, which he deemed as “exceeding all expectations.”
“The Chase has accomplished all of our goals and probably exceeded them,” France said. “The balance between winning and consistency was achieved. Depending on what happens on Sunday, this has the potential to be one of the most successful seasons in NASCAR history.”
“It has our fans excited and the interest level of the sport heightened. That’s precisely what we wanted to achieve.”
France did acknowledge that fans, especially some of the most hard-core in the sport, still may be adjusting to the whole new Chase format.
“Even though the format is relatively simple, what we are all finding out is that the strategies associated with the new format are different,” France said. “They are unknown and they are unprecedented. That’s going to take a while for even the most hard-core fans to fully get accustomed to how the flow of the season goes, why the transfer races are so important and how consistency all plays out.”
Because of the Chase’s perceived success, France advised that he expected “very modest to zero” changes in the Chase format for next season.
“We reserve the right to make a modest adjustment but this is the season that I hoped for and it has done precisely what we hoped it would do,” France said. “It’s only year one but clearly we are on our way.”
France also dealt with several questions focused on driver Kurt Busch’s domestic violence charges, especially in light of California Congresswoman’s Jackie Speier’s letter to the sanctioning body calling the incident horrifying and asking for action to be taken.
“There is a heightened awareness of the issues of domestic abuse and violence. We expect our policies to reflect that,” France said. “We are watching that case carefully and it’s under review by law enforcement and others and they have not made a decision on that regarding Kurt.”
“It’s a very sensitive topic today. Rightfully so,” France continued. “And so it’s not surprising that some members of Congress and other leaders might have some strong views on what we should and shouldn’t do.”
“So, until they make some judgments on that investigation, it wouldn’t be right of us to just intervene before they’ve even gotten the investigation completed. So, that’s our position. We’ll respect their process. It’s in their hands.”
“We’ll stay the course, let the investigation be completed and then we’ll react.”
France also addressed another recent controversy in the sport, that of the fight between the teams of Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski after the Texas race.
“We don’t think what happened in Texas, crew members getting into a fist fight is a good thing for NASCAR, no,” France said. “We realize that emotions sometimes will get you there and we reacted very harshly if you look at the scope of those penalties, and we should have.”
“Anybody in our situation is always worried about escalation,” France continued. “The bottom line is we want the drivers to be able to express themselves. We don’t have dugouts or locker rooms per se. It’s not unusual for them to express themselves and have a heated conversation between them. We’re not going to change that. But when crew members and others who join in, that’s a different discussion and like I said, we dealt with that.”
“Even the great ones, they faced similar stresses from time to time as they started to have success on the track,” France said. “Some of the drivers had a little more contact than necessary at times. That’s what we’re about. We expect tight, tight racing and that sometimes we will have some contact. It’s in our DNA.”
“But, there is a line,” France continued. “Hard, tight racing is what we expect and what I’m sure we will see. If it’s over the line, that’s what we do. We look at those things from the control tower. Sometimes they even happen under caution.”
“There is a line out there in all of this and we hope the drivers don’t put us in that position,” France said. “I don’t anticipate that and I do anticipate some really hard, tight racing. We respect that. Sometimes drivers thinks one or the other goes too far. That’s NASCAR. That’s what we do. That’s the whole point of what we try to get up every morning and create.”
France also addressed the championship finale amongst Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, especially in light of one driver, Newman, being winless coming into the Homestead race.
“Short of us making it a prerequisite that you have to win a race to qualify, I think it’s great,” France said. “We have three drivers who have won. And I do think that whoever emerges as the champion on Sunday needs to think about winning the race. I would be surprised if one of those four drivers would get out of here with a championship without the win.”
“We’ve seen over the past years how those teams have elevated their games,” France continued. “We want to see drivers elevate their games. The reality is when you give drivers the opportunity to do something extraordinary, more times than not they do that.”
“It’s all about a balance,” France said. “You don’t want a system that ignores consistency. I don’t care how you do it frankly. So, if Ryan Newman and Richard Childress are able to pull it off, that would be an achievement for anybody.”
“The best team will win on Sunday.”