When Lesa France Kennedy entered the drivers meeting at last April's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix, it marked a personal reunion with the sport.
Wishes of "congratulations" and "welcome back" came from team owners Richard Childress and Jack Roush. Handshakes and hugs came from drivers Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon.
The week before, Kennedy had been promoted to CEO at the France family-run International Speedway Corp., the world's largest and most influential racetrack operator. But what the promotion really signified was Kennedy's re-engagement with the sport that her father and grandfather created and shaped for the past 61 years.
There was a sense throughout the garage at Phoenix that "she's back" and ready for a more public role as one of NASCAR's most powerful figures. It was two years ago that the deaths of her father, Bill France Jr., and her husband, Dr. Bruce Kennedy, both within a month's time, sent Lesa into seclusion from the sport. She called it a type of shock that took her months to shake, and she admitted the grieving process took longer than she expected.
"It's not something you put a timetable on," she said. "You can't just set a date that you're going to be back."
Bryan Sperber, the track president at Phoenix, was with Kennedy that April day, escorting her to some of the speedway's new features, the Bud Roll Bar and the Speed Cantina. The inquisitive and focused Kennedy, 48, asked lots of questions, as she always does.
"There was a real excitement that she was re-entering the sport in a more active way," Sperber said. "The loss of her father and husband were very public tragedies, and there's got to be a healing period from that. With Lesa back as CEO now, I think it helps turn the page."
It was 2005 when SportsBusiness Journal named Kennedy the most influential woman executive in sports. As president of ISC at the time, her fingerprints were all over a number of significant projects, including the acquisition of Chicagoland Speedway and the construction of Kansas Speedway.
In the mid-1990s, Kennedy took the lead on building Daytona USA, the showplace next to the speedway that has since become the Daytona 500 Experience.
"Lesa can be a bulldog," said Cliff Pennell, the former R.J. Reynolds marketing chief during the Winston title sponsorship in the 1990s and an ISC consultant for eight years. "She decides that 'We're going to do this, and it's not going to fail.' She has a tenacity that is very much like her father."