By MIKE HARRIS

AP Motorsports Writer

Brian France is pleased with the way things are going for NASCAR, even if two of its biggest stars – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon – are in danger of not qualifying for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

In a wide-ranging teleconference Tuesday, NASCAR’s chairman touched on the Chase, drug testing, NASCAR’s TV negotiations and Danica Patrick.

The Chase format began in 2004, France’s first full year as head of the stock car sport. It winnows down the competitors through the first 26 Cup races of the year to the top 10 and any other drivers within 400 points of the leader. Their points are then reset and only those drivers are eligible to race for the championship over the final 10 races.

Only 10 drivers made it last year. Going into Saturday night’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona, generally considered the halfway point in the Nextel Cup season, 13 drivers are within 400 points of Cup leader Greg Biffle.

Earnhardt, the most popular driver in the sport, has had a miserable season and is 18th in the standings, 543 points behind Biffle. Gordon, a four-time series champion, has struggled over the past six races, with five finishes of 30th or worse. He has fallen to 14th, but is only 414 points behind.

France said he expects Gordon to get back in it, but noted it would be a shame if the two stars or any of NASCAR’s other big names failed to make the Chase.

“Well, this is a performance-based sport and you’ve got to perform,” he said. “Obviously, they have big fan bases and there will be some disappointment in that, but I like no matter what happens, I love the mix of drivers that’s shaping up.”

He pointed to fifth-place Mark Martin and sixth-place Rusty Wallace, both in their final full year in the Cup series.

“Rusty Wallace is making his run,” France said. “He may have a shot at the championship for the first time in a while for him down the stretch. Mark Martin is having another good year on his final year, so he may have a shot.

“But, in the end, you’ve got to perform. You’ve got to get in, you’ve got to earn your way in, and that’s what we always said. The events before the Chase didn’t mean less importance; it means more importance, and I think you’re seeing that now.”

In the wake of Busch Series driver Shane Hmiel’s recent suspension at least through the 2006 season for violating NASCAR’s substance-abuse policy for a second time, France said he is confident NASCAR is doing a good job of policing the sport.

“No. 1, we do more testing than most people would realize,” France said. “We just reviewed (the policy) again, and we’ll probably review it from time to time. Can we accomplish a zero-tolerance philosophy with the current policy, and do we have a policy that gets tough when we have to get tough? I don’t think you can dispute (that) if you look at recent suspensions for second violations.

“We have a sport that the drivers and crew members, there’s a lot of moving parts, at 200 miles an hour,” he added. “We’re going to have a very, very tough policy, and we have a broad policy to be able to administer anything that we think we need to with whomever we need to. We’ll keep reviewing it, but we’re pretty comfortable.”

The current $2.6 billion television contract with Fox and NBC runs through 2006, but negotiations for a renewal have been ongoing.

“As it stands now, there’s not any time urgency. Negotiations or discussions that we’re having are all ahead of schedule,” he said. “We’re having those kind of conversations you want to have with good partners about figuring things out.”

Asked about Patrick, the 23-year-old woman who has become a star in the Indy Racing league, France was very positive.

“I think it should it should be a big plus as diversity in general kicks in and more talented drivers are found, either being female, Hispanic, African-American; that is a hugely positive thing for the whole industry,” France said. “And the fact that Danica Patrick is leading the way and performing well, not just getting a lot of hype, but she’s really performing well, does open doors in all forms of racing.

“Matter of fact, Allison Duncan has already won a (NASCAR Weekly Series) race at Stockton out in California. She’s competing hard herself and working her way up through the ranks, the NASCAR ranks, so we wish her well.”

AP-ES-06-28-05 1739EDT


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