Jimmie Johnson understood what Bill France Jr. meant to the sport of NASCAR.
When NASCAR inducts its first Hall of Fame class in 2010, five names will be on the list. Among them surely will be Bill France Sr. and most likely Bill France Jr. And if Jr. isn't a first ballot Hall of Famer, he's certainly a second.
These are the shoes Brian France has had to fill.
The newest France at the helm of America's most popular motorsports series has come under a barrage of fire, mostly over his style of running the sport – he's not as present at the track as his father and grandfather were – his willingness for change – he ushered in the Chase format and the Car of Tomorrow – and most recently for a comment he made regarding his tenure as NASCAR's CEO.
In December, he stated that he doesn't plan on running the sport for "30 years," which, for some, supported the belief that Brian France doesn't share the same passion for racing that his father and grandfather did.
Thursday, France spoke for the first time about the latest salvo to cross his bow.
"It simply means that my father was 32 years the CEO and the president of NASCAR and ran the company," he said. "And all I said is that that's not in the cards for me, and I don't think it's a smart thing for the sport. That doesn't mean I won't have a long run; I hope I do. I hope I'm doing what I'm doing. I really like what I'm doing and I like working with the industry and the great group of people.
"But I am 46 now, so I don't think I'll be 76 and still talking to you."
Bill France Sr. and Jr. were on the job as NASCAR CEOs for the better part of 50 years. Senior built the Cup series from the ground up. Junior took the baton from his father, helped legitimize stock car racing by ushering it into a modern era, then passed things off to his son in a time when NASCAR was seemingly coming into its own.
Together, Bill Sr. and Jr. provided a foundation that helped NASCAR not only catch up to but supplant open-wheel racing as America's premier motorsports series.
But it took time.
Brian France has only been on the job as NASCAR's CEO for five years. So at this point to say he hasn't filled their shoes would be unfair.
He deserves more time, and in the interim keep this in mind: The job lying in front of Brian France is more difficult than the one the two Bills faced. This isn't to diminish the job they did, but rather to highlight a sea change in the way sports has become an integral part of the American consciousness.
Neither Bill Sr. nor Bill Jr. faced the competition for fans' attention that exists today. Back in the '50s, '60s, '70s and much of the '80s, there were no league networks, no conference networks, no 24-hour sports networks. There were NBC, ABC and CBS, and they only aired a few hours of sports programming each week.
Sports wasn't the business it is today, and the leagues, outside of Major League Baseball, weren't all that powerful. Remember, portions of the NBA playoffs were still being tape delayed in the mid-1980s.
And so while NASCAR was fighting for relevancy, so was much of the rest of the sporting world.
Whether ESPN is responsible for the glut of sports programming we see today isn't relevant here. It happened, and the result was a coming of age through the '80s and '90s, not just of the NFL or the NBA, but of sports as a whole.
For example, in 1982 the NBA's deal with CBS was four years, $91.9 million, according to published reports. In 1990, NBC paid $601 million for its own four-year NBA deal.
Sure, NASCAR's reach developed a little slower (and is still a work in progress), but the point is that NASCAR's part in the sports boom was going to happen regardless. Because when sports TV moved into a bigger house, it needed more furniture to fill the space, and NASCAR was there for the taking – and it came on the cheap to boot.
With more exposure came more sponsors willing to spend from far deeper pockets. With that, the job of running NASCAR had to change.
Bill France Sr. and Jr. are legendary, in part, for their presence at the track, talking to owners, drivers, making sure everyone was happy and, if they weren't, reminding them where their paychecks came from.
That's not how it works anymore. It no longer can work like that.
Brian France has to deal with issues like super teams, billion-dollar TV deals and global warming. Seriously, in a press conference Thursday he talked about a meeting he had with Al Gore.
"[Brian] gives us our guidance, our direction, but he also depends on us," NASCAR president Mike Helton said Thursday. "His father did, too, but his father didn't have as many people to do that with, and fortunately the way NASCAR has grown – and I'm not talking just about the company, I'm talking about the sport – as it's grown, it takes more people to share that responsibility.
"And that's what you see today. Today is a 2009 version of NASCAR, not a 1948 version, not a 1979 version. It's a 2009 version, and I think it's the right version for today."
The expression, be careful what you wish for, well, NASCAR's got it. It's got the popularity. It's got the exposure. But it's also got the baggage that comes with both. That means appeasing sponsors who are spending big money, making sure television ratings grow, all while pacifying an eclectic fan base, both new and old.
Brian France may never garner the admiration that his father and grandfather did. He may never be inducted into any class of NASCAR's Hall of Fame. But it's a fair question to ask, would Bill Sr. and Jr. be as popular today if they were in Brian's shoes?