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France finally steps out of father's shadow

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Brian France walked through the FanZone at Daytona International Speedway without handlers or security. The NASCAR chairman seemed like just another face in the crowd.

Few recognized the sport's most influential man, who was back at the track after a month away following the June 4 death of his father, former chairman Bill France Jr.

France hardly eased into his return. He charged back, spending much of last week making it very clear this is his sport now.

He defended NASCAR's strong new stance against cheating. He voiced his disapproval of suspended crew chiefs coming to the track during their punishment.

His top competition officials - the ones who told crew chiefs they could be on the grounds as long as they weren't in the garage - were sent scrambling to close the loophole.

'We went to the proper people and asked them what the rules were and what they wanted us to do,' said Tony Eury Jr., who attended five of six races during his suspension.

'I just don't think he knew, to be honest. Brian didn't know what they were doing.'

There's always been a perception that France spent his first three years as chairman ruling from afar, thus creating a disconnect from the day-to-day decisions of the family business. That he was ostensibly unaware of what was going on may have proved that has sometimes been the case, but once France saw the crew chiefs flaunting their at-track presence, he quickly corrected his oversight by cracking down.

Then he worked the garage at Saturday night's Pepsi 400, first joining Sprint chairman Tim Kelly at a news conference to announce a name change to NASCAR's top series, then introducing Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani to the industry.

France was firmly out front, finally free from the shadow of his late father.

France Jr. was tough to please, and every decision his son made was most certainly scrutinized. It made for awkward moments - from his seat in the crowd, Bill grabbed a microphone to interrupt Brian's presentation during a 2003 news conference - and probably hindered Brian's transition into the top job.

Now able to rule without restraint, France is clear to continue his quest to make NASCAR more corporate than country. Simply put, he wants the sport on the same playing field with the other major league sports.

This makeover requires France to trample on tradition, and that comes with the risk of alienating NASCAR's longtime fans. But in taking off the restrictor plate and shaking things up, France has the opportunity to raise his status and put himself in the same league as some of the top leaders in professional sports.

After all, his emphasis on cleaning up the sport by stomping out its culture of cheating is no different from what's going on in every other professional league.

David Stern put his stamp on the NBA by trying to clean up its thug image through a dress code and rules aimed at curbing fighting. Bud Selig is cracking down on cheating in baseball with a stringent steroid policy, and Roger Goodell has clamped down on the NFL with a discipline edict that has made character nearly as important as talent.

France wants the same for NASCAR, and at a time when sponsors are hard to come by, he's trying to create the perfect corporate model. Ridding the sport of cheating, a previously accepted and celebrated part of NASCAR, could do it.

But this zero-tolerance policy is harsh - eight teams have faced heavy sanctions this season, and nine people have been suspended for cheating - and not everyone likes it.

Bobby Allison, who won 85 races from 1966 to 1988, thinks it's excessive.

'I know NASCAR is really trying to make an impression that nobody can cheat on anything ... but that's not the racing that Bill France Sr. started with and Bill France Jr. continued with and that NASCAR competitors, old and new, have any kind of feel for,' he said.

That's OK with France, who has the power to make this a very new NASCAR. He credits his grandfather and father for building the sport, but knows its scope is so much bigger and the stakes are so much higher.

It's why he pushed to move races from traditional Southern markets and into California, Phoenix, Kansas City and Chicago. And he pulled the trigger on the Chase for the Championship, the manufactured 10-race title hunt. When the first three years of the Chase didn't satisfy him, he didn't hesitate to tinker with the format and expand the field.

He brought on a new series sponsor and a new fuel provider and is willing to sever ties with longtime regional partners. France has also been at the helm during the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, which is designed to cut costs, improve safety and foster better racing.

Some of his ideas are radical, and some fans have soured on this new NASCAR. But what France has done is on the same plane as when Selig introduced the wild card and interleague play to baseball. The moves were decried at the time, but few would argue baseball isn't better for them.

Time will tell if France can do the same.

France has plenty of time to leave his stamp on NASCAR, and his work shouldn't be limited to this focus on cheating. He wants to explore alternative fuels and the possibility of a race in China. He must find a way to stabilize sinking TV ratings and make sure the COT succeeds. And he should look into establishing a retired driver fund to help NASCAR's earliest stars.

This is France's time now, a chance to show this isn't his Daddy's NASCAR anymore. But in doing so, it just might become clear the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.