Change loom­ing as NASCAR sea­son ar­rives with Day­tona 500

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By JENNA FRYER

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — The sky isn’t fall­ing — or at least it doesn’t feel that way — as NASCAR heads into the first of two sea­sons full of change.

In the three months since Kyle Busch won his sec­ond cham­pi­onship, NASCAR took its awards cer­e­mony to Nashville, Ten­nessee, and was ea­gerly em­braced. The Hall of Fame cer­e­mony last month fo­cused on Joe Gibbs and his elite or­ga­ni­za­tion, which won a record 19 of 36 races last sea­son as Busch earned Joe Gibbs Rac­ing its fifth Cup Se­ries ti­tle.

Driv­ers will re­turn to the track at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way on Saturday and the sea­son-open­ing Day­tona 500 is Feb. 16.

“We’re com­ing off of a very good year, I felt like last year, where we’re re­ally get­ting some mo­men­tum back,” NASCAR Chair­man Jim France said. “It’s ex­cit­ing now, go­ing into this com­ing year.”

Since re­plac­ing his nephew as head of the fam­ily busi­ness in Au­gust 2018, Jim France has been a steady guide for

a se­ries try­ing to stop a slide in ev­ery im­por­tant met­ric. At­ten­dance and tele­vi­sion rat­ings may have fi­nally bot­tomed out, but spon­sor­ship dol­lars are as hard to find as ever and cost-cut­ting is a ma­jor pri­or­ity across the en­tire in­dus­try.

So the last full sea­son for seven-time NASCAR cham­pion Jim­mie John­son is also the last year for the cur­rent race car. The “Next Gen” car is on sched­ule to race in 2021, and the pro­ject is ex­pected to trim mil­lions from team bud­gets be­cause its parts and pieces will re­quire a smaller work­force.

Even be­fore that, NASCAR for 2020 made long over­due tweaks to the sched­ule with a few seis­mic shifts: Phoenix will host the cham­pi­onship-de­cid­ing fi­nale in Novem­ber, Martinsvil­le Speed­way got both a night race and the penul­ti­mate play­off race, Day­tona gave up its tra­di­tional July Fourth week­end to In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way (and will now host the fi­nal reg­u­lar sea­son race) and Po­cono Race­way is go­ing to host two Cup Se­ries races in one week­end.

NASCAR was able to make those changes de­spite five-year con­tracts that had given track own­ers sta­bil­ity. But fans have com­plained about the stale sched­ule and 2020 was NASCAR’s first chance to make even small changes.

The con­tracts ex­pire this year, and NASCAR will es­sen­tially have the abil­ity to re­con­fig­ure the en­tire sched­ule for 2021. NASCAR, a pri­vate com­pany owned by the France fam­ily, last year swal­lowed In­ter­na­tional Speed­way Corp., giv­ing Jim and his niece, Lesa France Kennedy, the power to do just about any­thing they want.

“It makes a big dif­fer­ence,” Jim France said of the merger. “It gives us an op­por­tu­nity to re­spond quicker to the chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment out here with the econ­omy and all the things that are go­ing on that im­pact mo­tor­sports. It was a ma­jor big step that we needed to make prob­a­bly for quite a while.”

NASCAR this year will de­but a new spon­sor­ship model in which the elite Cup Se­ries will not have a sin­gle en­ti­tle­ment part­ner. The Win­ston Cup/Nex­tel Cup/ Sprint Cup/Mon­ster En­ergy Cup will be just the Cup Se­ries go­ing for­ward, with “premier part­ners” Busch Beer, Coca-Cola, GE­ICO and Xfin­ity tak­ing on large roles.

As Jim France and Lesa France have found their foot­ing, the stock car se­ries has shown flex­i­bil­ity, too: Af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing the rules pack­age was a bust at short tracks and road cour­ses, NASCAR did an about face and made changes for those spe­cific venues.

Adapt­ing to it all will be John­son, who said this year will be his last as a full-time NASCAR driver. His 19th sea­son will be his last at­tempt to win a record eighth Cup cham­pi­onship, but John­son said he has shaken off the pres­sure of chas­ing Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt and plans to en­joy his time in the No. 48 Chevro­let.

“I’ve been able to have some clar­ity and to re­ally un­der­stand it on a deeper level,” said John­son, now 44. “One thing that I’ve come to grips with and I’m en­joy­ing let­ting go of is: I feel like I’ve been a bit out of char­ac­ter and a bit fo­cused on a num­ber, a statis­tic — and I’ve never in my life been that way. I’ve never raced that way.”

“”I’m out there one fi­nal time,” he added. “This is just one fi­nal time, and it feels so good to be able to let go of that chas­ing part.”

The chase will be on for driv­ers hop­ing to fill John­son’s seat at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports. Alex Bow­man is also in a con­tract year driv­ing Rick Hen­drick’s No. 88, mean­ing two top seats at an elite team are in rare play.

Among the driv­ers in a crowded free agent pool are former se­ries cham­pion Brad Ke­selowski and team­mate Ryan Blaney, who were both in­volved in a ma­jor Team Penske off­sea­son shakeup. Look­ing for a spark af­ter fail­ing to get any of its cars into the cham­pi­onship-de­cid­ing fi­nale, Penske swapped the crew chiefs for all three of its driv­ers, two of whom are in con­tract years.

“I per­son­ally needed to be chal­lenged,” Ke­selowski said. “A lot of us were pretty com­fort­able and this cer­tainly re­moves any feel­ing of com­fort.”

Kyle Lar­son is con­sid­ered the top free agent in this year’s pool and he likely has three op­tions: He can stay with Chip Ganassi, who lets him race sprint cars; move to Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing and drive for Tony Ste­wart, who may be even more le­nient than Ganassi has been; or he can scale back the ex­tracur­ric­u­lar rac­ing and drive for Hen­drick.

Lar­son has won just six ca­reer Cup races, but is con­sid­ered to be the best of NASCAR’s next gen­er­a­tion and is only 27. His courtship and ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion will likely im­pact all other ma­jor driver ne­go­ti­a­tions.

It’s a full house at Joe Gibbs Rac­ing, which put three Toy­otas in the fi­nal four last sea­son and re­turns its en­tire lineup, with Christo­pher Bell fi­nally earn­ing his pro­mo­tion to the Cup Se­ries in a satel­lite ride for Leav­ine Fam­ily Rac­ing. It was the only place to put Lar­son’s sprint car-lov­ing buddy, who was ready for the big leagues but stuck in Gibbs’ crowded sys­tem.

Bell will be in a race for top Cup rookie along­side two-time Xfin­ity Se­ries cham­pion Tyler Red­dick and Cole Custer. The trio raced each other for the Xfin­ity ti­tle the last two sea­sons.

As­so­ci­ated Press

WATCH­ING — In this Feb. 9, 2019, file photo, Jim France, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of NASCAR, stands on pit road as he watches auto rac­ing at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, in Day­tona Beach, Florida. NASCAR’s sea­son of­fi­cially opens Feb. 16 with the Day­tona 500 at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way.

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