Despite the horrible economy and the attendant difficulties confronting the sports marketplace, NASCAR remains one of the most potent forces in the sports world.
With 36 official race weekends and tens of millions of devoted fans, NASCAR generates billions of dollars in revenue for its stakeholders -- the sanctioning body itself, the dozens of full-time teams, and tracks, among others. Having signed an eight-year, $4.5 billion TV contract in 2005, NASCAR is consistently the second-highest rated sport on TV, trailing only the NFL and dwarfing those of Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the PGA (Take that, Tiger Woods!).
Though NASCAR inexplicably remains something of an anomaly to many in America, it is unquestionably a cultural and economic phenomenon. Here, then, a look at some of NASCAR's most important Power Players.
No. 1: Brian France
What: Chairman and CEO, NASCAR
The Lowdown: The grandson of Big Bill, the son of Bill, and the man who gave you the Chase For the Championship and the Car of Tomorrow. A lightning rod and the recipient of endless scrutiny and fairly harsh criticism, the fact remains, what he says goes.
No. 2: David Hill
What: Chairman, FOX Sports
The Lowdown: Hill, indirectly responsible for the scourge that is Digger, is often the focal point for the weekly TV runs NASCAR complaints. You want an example of power? In the aftermath of Daytona, it was surmised that NASCAR called the race as quickly as it did in no small part to preserve FOX’s prime time lineup.
No. 3: Dale Earnhardt Sr.
What: Former driver, No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet
The Lowdown: Not quite the force he was when he was alive, but still, he and his memory lurk like a spectral presence; though no one actually wears a bracelet that says What Would Dale Do?, the question is never far from anyone’s mind.
No. 4: Jim France
What: Vice Chairman of NASCAR and Chairman/CEO of International Speedway Corporation
The Lowdown: Brother to Bill France Jr. and uncle to Brian, Jim France runs ISC, the publicly-traded, but France-family-controlled corporation that operates NASCAR’s 13 tracks. If Bill France was the Godfather of NASCAR when he was in charge, Jim was his consigliere; he occupies the same position of quiet power with Brian.
No. 5: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What: Driver, No. 88 Amp Chevrolet
The Lowdown: How can a guy who has won once in his last 64 races be No. 5 on this list? Three words: Dale. Earnhardt. Senior. Regardless, Jr. has earned his position by being what the fans want (no, not just Sr.'s kid): real, a direct connection in name and attitude to the sport's much-missed bygone era.
No. 6: Jimmie Johnson
What: Driver, No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
The Lowdown: Having won 40 races in seven full seasons and three straight championships, the ridiculously talented Johnson would be even higher if he actually assumed an active leadership role. It ain’t like he lacks for street cred …
No. 7: Chad Knaus
What: Crew chief, No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
The Lowdown: The Dark Knight, the guy known to push the envelope in search of an edge (witness his four-race suspension to start the 2006 season or perhaps the six-race suspension he served in 2007). Though no crew chief actually wears a bracelet that asks What Is Chad Doing?, you can be damn sure the question is never far from their minds.
No. 8: Rick Hendrick
What: Owner, Hendrick Motorsports
The Lowdown: Read it and weep: Jimmie Johnson: 40 wins, three straight championships; Jeff Gordon: 81 wins, four championships; Mark Martin: 35 wins, most respected driver in the garage; Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No. 9: Mike Helton
What: President of NASCAR
The Lowdown: The Big Man, the keeper of the peace and the one who makes sure each and every race weekend proceeds without so much as a hiccup. If Helton summons you to the hauler for a chat, you go.
No. 10: Lisa France Kennedy
What: Vice chairwoman and executive VP of NASCAR; President of ISC
The Lowdown: Brian’s sister is the highest-ranking woman at NASCAR, routinely named one of the most influential women in sports and considered by many to be the smartest of the third-generation Frances. There are many who wonder what the sport might look like had she been named to take over instead of Brian.
No. 11: Tony Stewart
What: Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet, co-owner, Stewart-Haas Racing
The Lowdown: The two-time champion is the kind of guy that can make NASCAR a bit nervous: He’s good – damn good – he’s smart – damn smart – and he speaks his mind. You can bet that when Tony tees off on Goodyear, he’s heard back in Akron. Surprisingly, the success of his Stewart-Haas team in the early going has surprised some in NASCAR.
No. 12: Jack Roush
What: Co-owner, Roush Fenway Racing
The Lowdown: Known for his trademark hat, the team launched by The Cat in the Hat fields five cars in Sprint Cup, including those of 2003 champion Matt Kenseth’s and this year’s poster boy, Carl Edwards. Roush has been at the forefront of the sport's move toward multi-car teams and his engine program, run in partnership with Doug Yates, supplies engines to a number of Sprint Cup teams.
No. 13: ESPN.com
What: The leading sports Website
The Lowdown: That giant sucking sound you hear is the sports world being devoured by ESPN. And the company has brought the same take no prisoners approach to its top-ranked Website, assembling a high-powered editorial team to blanket the sport, led by fan favorite Marty Smith and Ed Hinton, the dean of NASCAR writers.
No. 14: Bruton Smith
What: Owner, Speedway Motor Sports
The Lowdown: Smith's company, SMS, owns and operates seven tracks on the circuit and is ISC’s primary rival for NASCAR track supremacy. The octogenarian billionaire has been a thorn in the France family’s side for the better part of fifty years … and loved every minute of it.
No. 15: Jeff Gordon
What: Driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet
The Lowdown: Gordon may be a favorite target of many fans, but the four-time champion is incredibly well respected in the garage. And, unlike so many of his peers who seem afraid of their own shadow, Gordon is never shy about speaking his mind. And make no mistake, if he has something to say, NASCAR listens.
No. 16: NASCAR.com
What: Top-ranked NASCAR-only site on the Internet
The Lowdown: Thanks to a partnership with Yahoo, NASCAR.com can lay claim to being one of the most-trafficked sites on the Internet. And even without that affiliation, NASCAR.com is among the top 20 and a solid third among team or league sites. Though sometimes derided as the ruling body’s house organ, the site has almost-unrivalled power to preach to the NASCAR masses.
No. 17: Richard Childress
What: Owner, Richard Childress Racing
The Lowdown: In addition to fielding four cars in the Sprint Cup series, Childress was the man who supplied the cars that Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove to six of his seven titles – and Sr.’s close friend. Need we say more?
No. 18: Richard Petty
What: The King
The Lowdown: The winner of seven titles and 200 races, modern NASCAR doesn’t exist if not for the foundation the King built decades ago. He remains the sport’s single greatest ambassador.
No. 19: Kyle Busch
What: Driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota
The Lowdown: Love him or loathe him, the kid is the most electrifying young talent to enter the sport in decades. If he plays his cards right – and he seems to be – he becomes the 21st century’s answer to the Intimidator … and don’t you know NASCAR is hoping like hell he does.
No. 20: Stu Grant
What: General Manager, global race tires, Goodyear Tire & Rubber
The Lowdown: Grant is the liaison between the company and NASCAR, the at-track guy and the man in control of what tires appear at the track every weekend. Or, put another way, he is the focus of much Tony Stewart anger.
No. 21: Marcus Smith
What: President, Lowe's Motor Speedway
The Lowdown: Last summer, the 35-year-old son of a Bruton was named to replace Humpy Wheeler as President and CEO of Lowe's Motor Speedway. The SMS-owned track is, effectively, NASCAR's home track, and host to two Sprint Cup races and the annual All-Star race, giving it and SMS great leverage within the sport. Thanks, Dad!
No. 22: Jayski.com
What: Among the earliest Websites dedicated solely to the sport
The Lowdown: NASCAR’s very own version of the Drudge Report, a news and rumor aggregator founded by NASCAR fan Jay Adamczyk in 1996, Jayski is both boon and bane of the sport. Bought by ESPN in 2007, right, wrong, or indifferent, Jayski's is among the first sites anyone involved with the sport checks on a daily basis.
No. 23: Joey Logano
What: Driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota
The Lowdown: The kid is talented and he’s won everywhere he’s been up to this point. He is, however, on this list not by virtue of that ability, but because NASCAR has pinned many hopes on his slight shoulders and put its considerable promotional might behind him.
No. 24: Nicole Manske
What: Host of ESPN's NASCAR Now
The Lowdown: Yes, she’s smoldering (is it just me or do those dark eyes fairly scream Sophia Loren?), but her role at the helm of one of the most-watched shows devoted exclusively to the sport gives her undeniable pull … or maybe it's just 'cause she's hot .
No. 25: Delana Harvick
What: Owner, Kevin Harvick Inc/Key Motorsports, wife of Kevin
The Lowdown: Yes, she looks damn good in a tracksuit ... er, firesuit, but Mrs. Kevin Harvick makes this list because she is instrumental in the day-to-day operations of Kevin Harvick Incorporated, a team that fields cars Nationwide and trucks in the Camping World cars. And really, if Kevin isn’t happy …