Even before Bill France Jr. passed away last year, there clearly had already been a transition of power at the very top of NASCAR's hierarchy.
Brian France, his son, has by title at least been the sport's top officer since 2003. But as long as Bill Jr. -- the man who had run the sport since taking over from his father in 1972 -- was around, he was bound to be a repository of influence.
As Bill France Jr.'s health declined, however, things took an unexpected turn. Instead of Brian France emerging with the clear, ultimate power that his father and grandfather had enjoyed, it seemed Brian's power was at the very least shared with other members of his family -- his sister, Lesa Kennedy, and his uncle, Jim France.
Then, in an antitrust lawsuit, the owners of Kentucky Speedway said Brian France, in fact, holds no ownership stock in NASCAR and the plaintiffs suspect that Kennedy and Jim France are either the majority owners or sole owners of NASCAR.
Whatever the reality is, the fact is Brian France is nowhere near as visible at the track and around the sport as his father and grandfather were. While that certainly does not mean he isn't running the sport, it is clear that, while the France family is still the root of power in stock-car racing, the three of them -- Brian, Jim and Lesa -- cannot be easily separated.
So they stand together at the top of That's Racin's annual list of the most powerful people in the sport.
(NASCAR chairman and CEO, International Speedway Corporation board member); Jim France (NASCAR executive vice president and CEO), and Lesa Kennedy (ISC president and NASCAR board of directors member).
LAST YEAR: Brian France was No. 1, Jim France No. 3 and Lesa Kennedy No. 5.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (driver of the No. 88 Chevrolets)
LAST YEAR: Earnhardt Jr. was No. 2 along with his sister, Kelley Elledge.
COMMENT: Before this season, Brian France said the sport could have better television ratings if Earnhardt Jr. had a successful season after moving to Hendrick Motorsports. Last year, Motorsports Authentics, the sport's top merchandising and apparel company, lost millions of dollars, but it turned a profit in the first quarter this year thanks in no small part to sales related to Earnhardt Jr.'s change of teams. And after being involved in a late-race wreck with Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond, Kyle Busch will be booed lustily by crowds laden with Earnhardt Jr. fans everywhere the Sprint Cup Series goes. Earnhardt Jr. moves the needle in a sport that needs that. If he were not still locked in a two-year long drought without a win, he might very well be first on this year's list.
David Hill (Fox Sports chairman and chief executive), Ed Goren (Fox Sports president and executive producer) and Artie Kempner (lead director for NASCAR on Fox).
LAST YEAR: Hill and Goren were No. 3. Kempner was not ranked.
COMMENT: Fox's coverage of NASCAR in 2007 won the Emmy as the outstanding live sports series, the second time in three years Fox has won that award and the third straight time NASCAR coverage has been honored. NBC/TNT won it in 2006. Hill is a "big idea" guy. Not all of his ideas are great -- he's the biggest cheerleader for "Digger," the annoying cartoon gopher being used this year -- but he is not afraid to shake things up. That spirit carries down through Goren to Kempner, who also is Fox's lead NFL director, and they've become the template by which all other NASCAR broadcasts are measured.
Mike Helton (NASCAR president)
LAST YEAR: Helton was No. 6.
COMMENT: The less you see of Brian France at the track, the more it means Helton has functional control of the competition part of NASCAR business. It's the France family's sport, but it's Helton's garage.
Bruton Smith (chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc.)
LAST YEAR: Smith was No. 5.
COMMENT: Smith's company bought New Hampshire International Speedway, winning out over ISC and several other interested parties, and it added Kentucky Speedway this week. That gives him at least two more Cup dates and a commensurate bump in leverage as well.
Rick Hendrick (owner of Hendrick Motorsports)
LAST YEAR: Hendrick was No. 9.
COMMENT: He already had four-time champion Jeff Gordon and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson on a team that won 18 races last year. Adding Dale Earnhardt Jr. to that group consolidated Hendrick Motorsports' position as a juggernaut in the business side of racing, even if the competitive side hasn't been as successful this year.
Paul Brooks (NASCAR senior vice president)
LAST YEAR: Brooks was 10th.
COMMENT: Brooks continues to move up the NASCAR charts. He's now in charge of the company's growing operations in Charlotte, including the consolidation of the broadcasting and new media operations into the NASCAR Media Group.
Steve Gaffney (Sprint director of sports marketing)
LAST YEAR: Not ranked.
COMMENT: The title sponsor of the sport's top series has consolidated its NASCAR efforts under Gaffney, who oversees all of the company's sports marketing.
Jim O'Connell (NASCAR vice president of corporate marketing) and Steve Phelps (NASCAR chief marketing officer)
LAST YEAR: O'Connell and Phelps shared the No. 8 spot.
COMMENT: These two teams lead NASCAR's office in New York and spearhead its important marketing efforts there.
David Levy (Turner Sports president)
LAST YEAR: Levy was 14th.
COMMENT: TNT produces a stretch of early-summer Cup races, and Turner owns NASCAR.com. As newspapers cut coverage, the Internet becomes a bigger factor.
|11. Robin Pemberton (NASCAR vice president of competition) and John Darby (Nextel Cup Series director).|
LAST YEAR: Pemberton and Darby were No. 13.
LAST YEAR: Bodenheimer was No. 7. Feinberg was not ranked.
LAST YEAR: Roush and Henry were No. 21.
LAST YEAR: Not ranked.
LAST YEAR: Dyer was No. 11 while working in a job with NASCAR.