Monday, October 15, 2018

"Survive And Advance" Takes SHR To A New Level

SHR started up front...
Stewart-Haas Racing took teamwork to a new level Sunday, dominating the 1000Bulbs.com 500 from start to finish.

SHR drivers Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola swept the top four spots in qualifying Saturday, and only an ill-timed, late-race caution prevented them from finishing in the exact same order in Sunday’s race.

The Ford teammates implemented their organizational marching orders to perfection, slipping into single-file formation at the drop of the green flag and working together in a similar fashion on restarts to claim the top four finishing positions in the each of the race’s first two stages. Steadfastly refusing to budge off the advantageous inside line and resisting the urge to race each other for position, Busch, Bowyer, Harvick and Almirola were able to pull away from their less-organized competition, dominating the way few ever have in NASCAR’s notoriously tumultuous restrictor plate era.

Not since Hendrick Motorsports posted a 1-2-3 finish in the 1997 Daytona 500 with drivers Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven has an organization so dominated a race on one of NASCAR’s largest tracks.

...and finished up front at Talladega.
Stewart Haas was poised to sweep the first four finishing positions Sunday, holding a comfortable lead over the remainder of the field until Alex Bowman walloped the Turn 4 wall and brought out the caution flag with just three laps remaining, sending the race into overtime. Already pushing the envelope on fuel (as was virtually the entire pack), SHR’s master plan suddenly turned sour. All those laps at the front of the field left the Stewart Haas contingent shorter on fuel than the competition. Harvick was forced to pit road by fluctuating fuel pressure under caution, only to have Busch sputter dry while leading on the final lap. That handed the win to Almirola, with Bowyer finishing second; both of them virtually on fumes.  

“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing,” said a disappointed Harvick afterward. “(My car) sputtered on fuel pressure and dropped down in the red. (We) did the right thing coming in and pitting and not taking a chance. Sometimes it doesn’t all go as planned.”

SHR’s competition director Greg Zipadelli told reporters that he preached cooperation in the days leading up to the race, after disappointing results the previous week at Dover.

Almirola advances to the Round of 8.
“Last week, we didn’t do a great job of executing as a group,” admitted Zipadelli. “We could have had the same result. (This week), everybody said, ‘We need to help each other, work together and show everybody that we are teammates.’ I felt like our cars were strong enough that if we did that, we would have a very strong day.

“Honestly, we pay these guys every week to be selfish, take care of themselves, run as hard as they can, finish as high as they can (and) win as many races as they can,” he added. “But everybody gave and took today. We came in here with (Almirola and Bowyer) needing stage points and everybody executed perfectly. At the end of the race, (it was) ‘Let’s do everything we can to help each other.’

“Everybody knew the circumstances.”

Almirola’s second career MENCS victory locked him into the playoff Round of Eight with one race still remaining this weekend at Kansas Speedway. Harvick is virtually assured of advancing as well, hovering 63 points above the cutoff line. Kurt Busch is 30 points to the good, with Bowyer now 21 above the cutoff.

“We’re good to the next round points-wise,” said Harvick afterward. “That was really our goal coming into today; to try to do everything we could to put ourselves in a position to go to Kansas and just race. That’s great for the team, to give the guys a mental break in this part of the season (and) just go to Kansas and be able to race the car and not have to worry about points.

“We did a great job today and wound up in a good position for Kansas. It’s all about survive and advance at this point.”


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR's Glorious Lunatic


Barney Visser is an American success story.
Fresh out of High School in the late 1960s, the Colorado native volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, spending 21 months as a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. After being discharged, he briefly attended the University of Northern Colorado before losing his GI scholarship and going into business manufacturing pillows in the 1970s.
His “Pillow Kingdom” expanded to eight stores by 1977, giving birth to a “Big Sur Waterbeds” brand that expanded into an 85-store franchise by the mid-1980s. Waterbeds soon led to conventional mattresses and furniture, and Visser’s Furniture Row and Denver Mattress companies now operate more than 330 stores in 31 states.
Visser took a similarly nonconformist approach to motorsports, racing at Colorado National Speedway before forming a NASCAR team with local modified driver Jerry Robertson in 2005.

A self-funded, single-car team owner based far from NASCAR’s North Carolina epicenter, Visser was given little chance of success when he arrived on the scene. With Robertson at the wheel, Visser struggled to gain traction at the sport’s highest level, making just 11 combined starts in what are now the NASCAR Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup Series, with a best finish of 22nd.

Despite their competitive struggles, Visser continued to prop up the team with millions of dollars of his own money each season. Robertson, Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer and Joe Nemechek all spent time behind the wheel in FRR’s first three seasons, without a single Top-10 finish to their credit. Youngster Regan Smith experienced similar struggles in 2009 and 2010, before the team finally broke through with an upset victory in the legendary Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 2011.
Since then, Furniture Row has added 17 more MENCS victories – all by Truex – in addition to qualifying for the postseason playoffs five times, with Kurt Busch (2013) and Truex. They reached their peak last season, with a series-high eight wins and a championship-clinching win by Truex at Homestead Miami Speedway last November. Teammate Erik Jones claimed MENCS Rookie of the Year honors, capping a season Visser compared to “climbing Mount Everest.”
Unfortunately, while the view from the top of the world’s highest peak is unquestionably spectacular, very few climbers feel the need to risk their lives by ascending it twice.

A lack of sponsorship forced Visser to park Jones’ No. 77 Camry at the end of last season, taking FRR back to its roots as a single-car entity. And when 5-hour ENERGY informed the team last month that it will not return in 2019, it left Visser with a $10 million capital deficit to overcome, and only 60 days to do it. Coupled with a Joe Gibbs Racing technological alliance that was reportedly set to triple in price next season, the financial writing was on the wall.

Visser announced yesterday that his championship-winning team will not return in 2019, saying, “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. I’ve always felt that we could be a competitive team and run for a championship, even when it seemed like a pipe dream to many racing insiders. To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

Furniture Row Racing authored NASCAR’s ultimate Cinderella story last season, overcoming insurmountable odds to become champions on the sport’s grandest stage. But without regular infusions of life-saving capital, Cinderella’s coach must ultimately change back into a pumpkin.

A sport whose business model requires a sponsor to spend far more than perceived market value (or an owner willing to invest tens of millions of his own dollars annually) is ultimately doomed to failure. The cost of climbing NASCAR’s version of Mount Everest is approximately $30 million per year, and while the U.S. and world economies have each begun to show signs of a rebound in the last 12 months, not enough corporations consider the view from the top to be worth the price of the climb.

Two decades ago, most major NASCAR teams operated with a single, full-season sponsor. Today, very few teams enjoy that luxury, forced instead to secure multiple, smaller backers to underwrite their whopping, $30 million annual price tag.

“I had a wake-up call last year,” said Visser, who missed Truex’s 2017 championship celebration while recovering from heart bypass surgery. “And while I feel great, I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family.”

For Truex, Visser’s decision has an all-too-familiar feel. The New Jersey native joined Furniture Row in 2014 when NAPA Auto Parts departed Michael Waltrip Racing in the aftermath of a late-season cheating scandal, leaving him without a ride. FRR was Truex’s only option to continue as a MENCS driver, and he thanked Visser this week for saving him from the scrap heap, saying Furniture Row “…took me in while my career was in a bad place.”
The timing of yesterday’s announcement could not be worse. Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn must now find new homes for 2019 and beyond – likely at Joe Gibbs Racing – while simultaneously being embroiled in the heat of a late-season playoff chase.
“Make no mistake, this is not the immediate end,” said Truex yesterday. “We still have unfinished business to attend to, and that’s to give everything we have to successfully defend our championship.”
Visser deserves nothing less, and NASCAR owes it to him to learn from his example.
Very few owners are devoted (or crazy) enough to do what Visser has done over the years, funneling their personal fortunes into the pursuit of a checkered flag. Very few allow themselves to be guided by their hearts, rather than their heads.

And with the departure of Barney Visser at season’s end, there will be one fewer still.

One less glorious lunatic to pour his heart and soul into a sport that seems to give less and less in return.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

COMMENTARY: Furniture Row’s Withdrawal Warns of Larger Issues


Barney Visser is pulling the plug on Furniture Row Racing at the end of the 2018 campaign.

That decision will leave a reigning series champion (Martin Truex, Jr.) without a ride for the first time since Blue Max Racing closed its doors just a year after winning the 1989 premier series title with driver Rusty Wallace.

No matter how you slice it, that’s bad news for NASCAR.

The 69-year old Visser first fielded entries in what is now the Monster Energy and Xfinity Series with driver Jerry Robertson in 2005 and self-funded the effort until 2016, when backing from 5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro Shops allowed him to remove his Furniture Row and Denver Mattress brands from the quarter panels for the first time.

5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro have backed the team this season, with 5-hour contributing a reported $10M per year to the team’s coffers. The energy shot manufacturer announced in mid-July that it will not return in 2019, however, leaving FRR very little time to secure a replacement.

Visser" "The numbers just don't add up."
“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Visser, who underwent heart bypass heart surgery on Nov. 6 of last year and missed Truex’s championship coronation at Homestead Miami Speedway. “I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but haven’t had any success.”

So what happens now? What does the demise of Furniture Row Racing mean for its employees and for the sport itself?

Shed no tears for Martin Truex, Jr. In the last three seasons, the Mayetta, NJ native has established himself as one of NASCAR’s brightest and most competitive stars. With 17 victories and a Monster Energy Cup Series championship since joining FRR, Truex can virtually write his own ticket in the NASCAR garage. He enjoys an extremely close relationship with the powers-that-be at Toyota, and TRD USA president David Wilson said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the manufacturer has no intention of letting him go.

TRD USA's David Wilson
“I’m not doing my job if I’m not trying to protect our assets,” said Wilson. “I assure you that I am working to that end. Martin, (crewchief) Cole (Pearn) and some other folks are included in that equation. We don’t have anything to announce today, but hopefully in the near future, we will.”

As of now, the only remaining Toyota organization in 2019 will be Joe Gibbs Racing, and multiple sources say Truex, Pearn and the Bass Pro Shops sponsorship will move to JGR’s No. 19 Toyota next season, replacing youngster Daniel Suarez. Suarez and his full-season ARRIS backing will reportedly shuffle off to Leavine Family Racing, which assumes Furniture Row’s previous position as the number two Toyota organization, behind JGR.

Team owner Bob Leavine has done yeoman work since entering the NASCAR ranks in 2011, but has never been able to attract the type of top-tier talent and sponsorship that would allow him to contend for championships. Veteran Kasey Kahne – currently 27th in the championship standings – failed to provide a anticipated adrenaline boost this season, and announced last month that he will retire at season’s end. A coveted spot at the Toyota table; complete with a JGR technological partnership, a talented young driver like Suarez and a full-season sponsorship from Arris should be just what the doctor ordered.

LFR's Bob Leavine
While declining to discuss LFR specifically, Toyota’s Wilson confirmed that the automaker is interested in replacing Furniture Row, and that qualified teams have expressed an interest in joining the lineup in 2019.

“I would certainly like to think (that could happen).” he said. “But the key isn’t just adding a team; that is relatively easy to do. What’s critical is doing it in a manner so you have all the ingredients that put you in a position to win. That’s how we won the last two manufacturers championships with arguably the fewest number of teams and drivers. It has been an intentional strategy that puts quality over quantity.

“In a best case scenario, we would take on another partner… and add another seat to the table… if we could get all the stars to align. We are working day and night with our partners at Joe Gibbs Racing – and others – to add some additional seats and quality partners to the stable.”

While LFR looks to improve its standing, the biggest losers will be the employees of Furniture Row Racing; those mostly anonymous individuals who uprooted their lives and families from NASCAR’s hub in North Carolina and transplanted them to FRR’s home in Denver, Colorado. Visser spoke of those employees in his written statement saying, “I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year. I strongly believe that all of our people have enhanced their careers by working at Furniture Row Racing.”

Racing at the pinnacle of NASCAR is no longer financially viable for Visser, whose net worth is estimated at more than $200 million. If Barney Visser can no longer afford to play in NASCAR’s sandbox, there aren’t many people out there who can. With top-flight NASCAR sponsorships now in the $28-30 million range – with an equal amount required for marketing and activation – fewer corporations than ever have the financial wherewithal to take part.

Visser’s decision to step aside is a warning shot across the bow for NASCAR; the clearest indicator yet that the cost of competition has become more than the average multi-millionaire can muster. That needs to change, and soon.

It’s easy these days – and popular – to beat the “cost control” drum. In theory, the sanctioning body, its team owners, drivers and fans all share common ground, advocating budget cuts in the hope of creating a new, more affordable NASCAR. Unfortunately, that common ground turns to quicksand when it’s time to talk specifics.

Earlier this season, NASCAR attempted to cut cost by mandating new, standardized air guns as part of the sport’s pit road protocol. Midfield and backmarker teams hailed the move, saying the guns saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development costs. The front-running teams – who had already spent their R&D money and were reaping the fruits of that labor on Sunday afternoons – were vocal in their opposition to the change. They alleged that the so-called “spec guns” were flawed, accusing them of failing in the heat of competition and jeopardizing the safety of crewman and drivers alike.

In the end, it was revealed that the guns in question had been intentionally “hopped up” by the high-dollar teams, utilizing helium gas -- rather than the recommended nitrogen -- in an effort to increase RPM and improve pit road performance.

So much for pulling together to cut expenses.

Despite periodic pushback from its teams, NASCAR must continue to examine ways to cut the cost of competition. The Ilmor-produced NT1 “spec engine” has dramatically reduced the cost of racing for many teams in the Camping World Truck Series, as has the composite body now utilized in Xfinity Series competition. “Enhanced weekends” – where the customary three days of practice, qualifying and racing are condensed into just two – have been instituted at a number of venues this season; all in an attempt to trim the bottom line.

Those initiatives need to be expanded and other projects explored, if the sport is to regain its lost footing.

When it cost $4 million to field a competitive NASCAR Grand National or Winston Cup team, the sanctioning body routinely sent a dozen or more cars home after qualifying. Today, 40-car fields are the exception, rather than the rule, and the number of full-season sponsors can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

That’s not a coincidence.

When only millionaires can afford to play, the number of players drops substantially. And when millionaires get priced out and only the billionaires remain, the roster is shortened yet again.

Barney Visser is proof of that.





BREAKING NEWS: Furniture Row Racing To Cease Operations At Season's End


Furniture Row Racing has announced that due to a lack of funding, the organization will cease operations following the completion of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

“This is not good for anybody,” said team owner Barney Visser. “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. This was obviously a painful decision to arrive at knowing how it will affect a number of quality and talented people.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success. I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year. I strongly believe that all of our people have enhanced their careers by working at Furniture Row Racing.”

Martin Truex Jr., who joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 as the driver of the No. 78 car, said, “While I am saddened by today’s announcement, I totally understand the decision. Barney Visser, Joe Garone and the entire Furniture Row Racing team took me in while my career was in a bad place, and together we reached the pinnacle of the sport. I will forever be grateful to each and every one of them, and also to Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and the Visser family.

“But make no mistake this is not the immediate end. We still have unfinished business to attend to and that’s to give everything we have to successfully defend our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Right now that is foremost on my mind as it is with the entire team.”

Based in Denver, Colo. and the only NASCAR Cup Series team headquartered west of the Carolinas, Furniture Row Racing started its NASCAR program in 2005 -- first as a Xfinity team and later in the same year as a Cup team. 

While the team had its share of struggles in the early years, Visser refused to listen to the naysayers that a single-car team based in Denver, Colorado could not be competitive in NASCAR’s elite series.

But with the combination of Visser’s positive vision and team-building skills of President Joe Garone, Furniture Row Racing grew into a competitive team. It has qualified for the post-season playoffs in five of the last six years with the No. 78 car, including winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2017 with driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn.

A second full time car was fielded by Furniture Row Racing in 2017 – the No. 77 Toyota driven by Erik Jones, who won the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors.

Furniture Row's Barney Visser
After the first 25 races of the current season, Furniture Row Racing’s career NASCAR Cup Series statistics include 18 wins, 70 top fives, 126 top 10s, 15 poles and 6,142 laps led.

The team’s first victory was by driver Regan Smith in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Truex scored the other 17 Furniture Row Racing wins, all coming since the 2015 season.

Both Visser and Garone have made it crystal clear that the team will be provided with the best equipment as it competes for a repeat championship in the upcoming playoffs.

Visser, a 69-year-old Denver native and Vietnam veteran, is the owner of Furniture Row Companies, one of the largest family-owned specialty home furnishings and bedding retailers in the country.

As a race team owner Visser never wavered in his belief that Furniture Row Racing would develop into a championship contender.

“I’ve always felt that we could be a competitive team and run for a championship even when it seemed like a pipe dream to many racing insiders,” Visser noted. “But to be successful in any business you need to assemble the right people and make a strong commitment to succeed. We achieved what we set out to do and feel like we climbed Mount Everest. To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

Visser added, “I had a wake-up call last year (heart attack) and while I feel great I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family. My wife Carolyn and the entire Visser family have been supportive of our racing journey and it’s been one incredible ride for all of us.

“There are so many people I want to thank because without them winning a championship and being competitive would never have happened: Joe Gibbs Racing for our technical alliance, Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Bass Pro Shops, 5-hour ENERGY, Auto-Owners Insurance, Furniture Row and Denver Mattress.

 “A heartfelt thank you to Joe Garone, Martin Truex Jr, Cole Pearn and all of our team members for their talent, dedication and sacrifices they made along the way. To the Furniture Row and Denver Mattress employees I want to express a special thank you for always having my back from the early years of our race team to our championship run.

“I also want to thank the fans, the Denver community, NASCAR, International Speedway Corporation (ISC), Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) and independent track owners for providing and maintaining the venues that we compete at. A special tip of the hat to the media and to NASCAR’s broadcast partners – FOX, NBC, Motor Racing Network (MRN), Performance Racing Network (PRN) and SiriusXM Radio. We’ve always been treated fairly by members of the media and I appreciate their hard work in one of the most demanding schedules in major league sports.”

COMMENTARY: Educated Guesses On Silly Season 2018


Silly Season 2018 is off to an early start, with a number of prominent drivers in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series reportedly on the move. While conjecture is widespread and rumors outnumber facts by a wide margin, the crystal ball is becoming clearer with every passing week.

Truex: On the move?
Foremost on the list of Silly Season topics is defending MENCS champion Martin Truex, Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing organization. With sponsor 5-Hour Energy set to leave the sport at season’s end, multiple sources say FRR could close its doors after the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway. Team owner Barney Visser attempted to calm the speculative waters last month, saying that the No. 78 Toyota would absolutely compete next season, but he has also said that he has no interest in returning to the owner/sponsor role that he assumed prior to last season.

Talks took place recently between Furniture Row and the GMS Racing Xfinity/Truck Series team about a potential sale or partnership, but both sides say not enough time exists to forge a deal.

Visser’s willingness to discuss the sale of his championship-winning organization has thrust Truex to the very top of the Silly Season list. The Mayetta, NJ, native is widely believed to be talking to Joe Gibbs Racing about replacing youngster Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Toyota next year, with Suarez and sponsor Arris farmed-out to Leavine Family Racing to replace the retiring Kasey Kahne. Gibbs played it close to the vest when asked about that possibility last week, saying, “I think there's a lot right now that is up in the air. The big thing is what the 78 (team does). Right now, there's nothing to comment on. We do like (Suarez). There's so much out there, and most of it is not accurate."

Busch has Monster Energy in tow
Truex has also been linked with Stewart Haas Racing, as a replacement for Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford. Busch and sponsor Monster Energy have been openly courted by Chip Ganassi Racing to replace Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet, and Busch told reporters at Darlington that he has two contract offers on the table.

“I do have two offers that I’m looking at,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing as last year, where the team at Stewart-Haas put me into free agency. It gives me the opportunity to talk to others, and I do have the loyalty and the respect from Monster Energy. We’ll announce things when they get closer.”

At the moment, the most likely scenario is for Busch to land at CGR, with Truex moving to Gibbs and Suarez transplanting to Leavine Family Racing.

KBM to Cup? Don't bet on it.
Considerably less likely is an internet report that Kyle Busch will expand his Kyle Busch Motorsports Truck Series team to the Monster Energy Cup Series next season, fielding a pair of Toyota Camrys for himself and elder brother Kurt. KBM tested the waters in the Xfinity ranks a few years ago with limited success, and the “KBM to Cup” rumor has failed to gain much traction.

Plans for Roush Fenway Racing's No. 6 Ford are also uncertain at present. Wyndham Resorts recently signed a multiyear deal to back the team in a limited schedule of events next season, but former series champion Matt Kenseth is unsigned and Trevor Bayne is considered unlikely to return.

Kenseth focused on 2018
Kenseth commented on his status last weekend at Darlington, saying, “I'm honestly trying to concentrate on the rest of this season, trying to get this done. The season has been up-and-down. I wish our results were better than what they were, but on the other hand, I feel like we've made a lot of progress. It doesn't really show on the stat sheets or the box score all the time, but I feel like we've made a lot of progress. (I’m) really just trying to keep that going, keep moving forward and keep trying to get more competitive by the end of the season."

Bayne’s longtime sponsor, AdvoCare, recently underwent a change in upper management, throwing their continued involvement in the sport into question. Bayne told the Knoxville (TN) News, “I'm still not very happy about being out of the race car. We've tried to make the most of (breaks in the schedule) and not sit here in this place of anger and frustration."

Bayne "not very happy."
Bayne has been linked with the open No. 1 Xfinity Series Chevrolet at JR Motorsports next season, but more recently, Truck Series phenom Noah Gragson has emerged as the leading candidate to fill that seat. Gragson said last week that he would like to graduate to the NXS ranks next season, but declined to comment on possible talks with JRM.

Bubba Wallace is secure at Richard Petty Motorsports, after signing a one-year renewal last month. The team still needs sponsorship, with Smithfield completing its six-race “holdover” deal from previous driver Aric Almirola this season and considered unlikely to return.
And finally, AJ Allmendinger appears unlikely to return to JTG Daugherty Racing in 2019, moving instead to the IMSA Sports Car ranks with longtime friend and team owner Michael Shank. Look for Ryan Preece to replace Allmendinger in JTG’s No. 47 Chevrolet, with teammate Chris Buescher returning to the No. 37 entry.

Monday, August 06, 2018

COMMENTARY: France's Arrest Leaves NASCAR At A Crossroads


NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance Sunday evening in The Hamptons.

Police say France’s 2017 Lexus was stopped after he ran a stop sign in Sag Harbor, NY at approximately 7:30 PM ET. He failed a field sobriety test, and police also found five oxycodone pills in his possession. He was arrested and booked for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree. France spent the night in jail and was released on his own recognizance this morning, after arraignment in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court. 

NASCAR issued a written statement on Monday afternoon, saying, “We are aware of an incident that occurred last night and are in the process of gathering information. We take this as a serious matter and will issue a statement after we have all of the facts.”

Later in the day, France issued a statement of his own, saying, “I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night. Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France – uncle of Brian France -- has assumed the role of interim chairman and CEO.

There are at least two major problems with what went down Sunday night.

First, NASCAR’s CEO was in the wrong New York hamlet at the time. Sag Harbor, NY is approximately 350 miles from Watkins Glen, where NASCAR’s Monster Energy and Xfinity Series had convened for a pair of important, late-season races. As Chairman and CEO, France should have been there, overseeing a family business that is much in need of his attention.

Second – and most obviously – NASCAR’s CEO made the ill-advised choice to drink a substantial quantity of alcohol, then climb behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. New York State law defines “aggravated DUI” as cases where the accused’s Blood Alcohol Content is at least .18, meaning that France’s BAC was more than twice the legal limit of .08.

In layman’s terms, that is blind, stinking drunk; a sad state of affairs for a man who just days earlier had proclaimed himself "locked and loaded" when it came to guiding the sport. “Locked and loaded” quickly degenerated into “locked up and loaded,” and it remains to be seen whether France can overcome this personal and professional setback.

This is not France’s first alcohol-related brush with the law.

In December of 2006, a woman phoned police and reported a vehicle driving erratically on US Rte. 1 in France’s hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla. She said the male driver had driven over curbs, struck a parked car and then scraped a tree outside the guard house of what was later determined to be France’s condominium. Roughly 20 minutes after the call was received, police contacted and interviewed France, but were unable to charge him with DUI, since he was already inside his residence and not behind the wheel.

France admitted to officers that he had been drinking that evening, but emerged with nothing more serious than a temporary blow to his public image.

France’s tenure as CEO of NASCAR has its ups and down, to be sure. His advocacy of the ill-fated Car of Tomorrow was a major setback for the sport. He is frequently criticized for being an absentee owner, spending far too much time on his yachts and not enough in the NASCAR garage. There have been frequent instances of odd behavior, highlighted by last year’s nationally televised Championship Awards Ceremony when France walked past champion Martin Truex, Jr. and handed him the traditional champion’s ring on the fly before stalking offstage.

While France deserves criticism for some of his decisions at the helm of the sport – and certainly for his actions last weekend -- he also deserves kudos for spearheading a number of positive changes in the sport. NASCAR is far safer today than on his father’s and grandfather’s watch, with no deaths at the national series level since 2001, and very few serious injuries. He has been a staunch advocate for diversity, smashing glass ceilings and transforming NASCAR’s image as a male-only, Confederate flag waving sport. He was instrumental in the creation of the sport’s current television packages, jettisoning a hodgepodge collection of networks in favor of a unified television package that splits the season equally between just two broadcast partners.

That’s credit where credit is due.

Now, however, critical decisions must be made about whether France can continue to effectively lead the sport. His arrest has taken the luster off what should have been a high-octane week for NASCAR. With second-generation driver Chase Elliott claiming a wildly popular first Monster Energy Series win at Watkins Glen and Ford set to introduce its new MENCS Mustang on Thursday, the sport was on a high competitive roll. Now, however, NASCAR find itself eyebrow-deep in damage control, attempting to extinguish France’s personal dumpster fire.

The third-generation NASCAR boss faces fines of $1,000 to $2,500 on the aggravated DUI charge, along with a possible one-year jail term and the loss of his driver’s license for 12 months. On the possession charge, he faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail or three years’ probation, with a fine of up to $1,000. Legal entanglements notwithstanding, France now faces questions about his possible addiction to oxycodone.

Addiction is a problem that takes far more than a “focus on personal affairs” to rectify. And even if he does not suffer from the disease of addiction, France’s apparent inability to make sound decisions concerning his consumption of alcohol bring both his judgement and stability into serious doubt.

For now, at least, NASCAR is in good hands. Jim France is a highly respected member of NASCAR’s Board of Directors and a driving force behind many of the sport’s most successful recent initiatives. He commands a level of respect in the NASCAR garage that far surpasses that of his embattled nephew.

Brian France’s arrest – to say nothing of published reports of his “don’t you know who I am” posturing to officers at the scene – has damaged his reputation and negatively affected his ability to lead the sport. He does not hold an ownership stake in NASCAR. The sanctioning body is owned by Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy – Brian’s sister – and it is they who will ultimately decide whether Sunday night’s arrest is just another pothole in the road, or his personal Waterloo.

COMMENTARY: Bowman Gray Has Some Fixing To Do


North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium has always been a breed apart.

The Winston-Salem quarter-mile oval is known for intense, no-quarters racing, with pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs a regular part of the program. Track management has traditionally reacted to those outbreaks with a wink and a nudge, knowing full well that their particular brand of “extracurricular activity” plays a major role in filling the track’s 17,000 seats on a weekly basis.
Saturday night, however, the track known as “The Madhouse” finally went a step too far.
During the evening’s Stadium Stock feature, drivers Andy Spears and Blake Walker tangled, causing Walker to spin. All in all, it was a fairly nondescript incident; a regular part of the weekly landscape at virtually any short track across the country.
During the ensuing caution period, Walker drove his car into the back of Spears and turned him around in retaliation. Again, nothing remarkable for fans raised on a weekly diet of drama and conflict at Bowman Gray Stadium.
What happened next, however, went far beyond the pale.
As Walker was assisted from his car by track safety workers and several off-duty Winston-Salem police officers -- who routinely provide security at the speedway -- Spears slammed into it once again, causing the unmanned machine to strike Walker. He then spun his car in repeated circles around Walker’s damaged racer, placing Walker, the officers and safety workers directly in his path.
Officer C.K. Robertson then drew his gun and pointed it at Spears, who immediately stopped his car before being removed from the vehicle and escorted back to the pit area.
A statement from the Winston-Salem Police Department said Robertson perceived Spears’ actions as a direct threat to himself and others, saying he "drew his service weapon in an attempt to stop the deadly threat.”
Both the Winston-Salem Police and Bowman Gray Stadium say they are investigating the situation, with charges and sanctions against Spears possible. Officer Robertson is not under investigation. 
It is time for Bowman Gray Stadium to draw a line in the sand and rein-in the “Madhouse” mentality, before it finally goes too far. Conflict, drama and fisticuffs have characterized the speedway’s weekly racing program for decades, and while fines and suspensions are not unprecedented, competitors know that their weekly dustups will generally be overlooked by track management, all in the interest of selling tickets.
Saturday night, however, was a horse of a different color.
A little caution-flag rubbing is one thing. Officer-involved shootings are another.
Bowman Gray Stadium was hoisted on its own petard Saturday night, nearly paying in blood for decades of lackadaisical enforcement and the tacit approval of conduct that should have little (or nothing) to do with auto racing.
The fact that a racer can engage in conduct severe enough for a police officer to draw his weapon, then only be “escorted back to the pits” says everything that needs to be known about the atmosphere at Bowman Gray Stadium. The inmates are running the asylum, and one of them nearly paid for it with his life.
Whether Andy Spears is charged with a criminal offense or not, Bowman Gray Stadium has a responsibility to act. The track, its competitors, its fans and the sport of stock car racing deserve better than to be mischaracterized as some sort of loose-cannon, redneck mob by the actions of an unruly few.
What happened Saturday night was a black eye for our sport, and Bowman Gray has some fixing to do.