Scott Fowler

Replace Brian France as NASCAR CEO and fix sport? Yes, here’s how

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now retired from racing, but there has never been a more charismatic figure in the sport.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now retired from racing, but there has never been a more charismatic figure in the sport. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

NASCAR CEO Brian France was doing a one-on-one interview with me several years ago when he started bemoaning how the sport’s coverage wasn’t as positive as he would like it to be.

“If there were a simple lever I would pull to change the headlines or how someone covers the sport, I would certainly do it,” France said.

I am now in possession of that lever. Here’s how to pull it.

France — who has taken an indefinite leave of absence after his embarrassing arrest Sunday in New York — needs to make that leave a permanent one. Even in the best of times, France has been an awkward and ineffective leader who has overseen the sport’s downward spiral. It’s time for the embattled CEO to go, and his family members need to gently usher him out the door.

But here’s the twist: His replacement can’t come from inside the France family.

The new CEO of NASCAR should be Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I don’t know if Dale Jr. would do it, but there’s no doubt the headlines of the sport would change.

Dale Jr. is the lever.

No one has a better appreciation of the sport’s history. No one is more popular or more naturally charismatic. No one knows more about what makes NASCAR fans tick than the man who was the sport’s “Most Popular Driver” for 15 years in a row before he retired.

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Yes, it’s an unconventional choice. Earnhardt didn’t go to college. He pretends sometimes that he isn’t that smart, although he’s actually as sharp as a new razor. He would need to be surrounded by financial guys and attorneys and the like.

But what does a CEO do anyway?

Or, to put it another way: Can someone tell me what Brian France actually did?

What a NASCAR CEO should do is be an effective cheerleader for the sport, which France usually is not.

Yes, I appreciate the playoff format that came in under his watch. Give him credit for that. But in public appearances, France usually looked like he would prefer to be somewhere else. His decisions were unusual in both his professional and personal life. This is a man who married and divorced the same woman twice.

And of course there was Sunday night in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in which France failed to stop at a stop sign and was pulled over. According to the police report, he was slurring his words, had a blood alcohol content above .18 and had some oxycodone pills in his possession.

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Earnhardt is not going to embarrass the sport he loves.

France did.

A CEO should make people happy while buying his or her product. A CEO should light up a room. A CEO should sound genuine.

Earnhardt can do all of that. France could not.

I have no idea whether Earnhardt would take the job. He’s busy with his TV career, his wife and their new baby girl.

Even if the France family would finally loosen the reins of the family-owned business and allow it — and of course that is an extreme long shot — maybe Dale Jr. would say no.

In that case, though, I have a backup plan for the new NASCAR CEO:

Jeff Gordon.

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