Hamlin fumes over $25,000 fine
8 March 2013
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was furious on Thursday after being handed a $25,000 fine for comments he made that were deemed to be critical of the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Generation 6 model stock car.
"This is the most upset and angry I've been in a long, long time about anything that relates to NASCAR," said a visibly fuming Hamlin on Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, saying that people were always going to have strong opinions and should be allowed to voice them.
"A lot of people hold their tongue, and some people don't, like Brad," he said, referring to candid comments Brad Keselowski has recently made to USA Today which had earned the reigning cup champion an invitation to the NASCAR hauler for a chat, but no fine. "But the truth is what the truth is, and I don't believe in this. Never going to believe in it.
“It's an opinion. It's not even a bad one,” Hamlin added. “I don't want to make things worse than they already are, and this is something that was absolutely nothing that got blown into something, and it's just going to be worse for them, so just let them deal with it."
But he ended on a defiant note: "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to pay the fine," he stated. "If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don't care at this point."
NASCAR levied the fine citing a violation of section 12-1 of the 2013 NASCAR Rule Book relating to actions detrimental to stock car racing. Under NASCAR rules, Hamlin can appeal the fine, but if he refuses to pay then NASCAR can simply deduct it from any prize money he is paid from upcoming races.
“Following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon," said NASCAR in the official statement announcing the fine. "While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."
After finishing in third place last Sunday, Hamlin credited his JGR pit crew for the positions he'd made up during the race, explaining that there was little he could do about overtaking on track.
"I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars," he said after the race, referring to the much-disliked Car of Tomorrow models. "This is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning."
However, he had gone on to say it was down to the teams to get over the teething problems with the new car. "The teams hadn't figured out how to get the aero balance right - right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you," he had said. "You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 to go, I would have stayed there, I wouldn't have moved up. It's just one of those things where track position is everything."
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said such talk went beyond the limits of what drivers are permitted to say in criticism of the series.
"You can voice your opinion about a lot of things about this sport, and we feel like we give our competitors a great deal of leeway when it comes to that, [but] denigrating the racing is an area we're going to have a reaction to," he told reporters.
"The main area of focus here we take exception to is the product, the racing," he added. "That's our brand, that's the drivers' brand, that's the sport's brand and that's an area we feel very strongly about."
“We give them quite a bit of latitude, but you can't slam the racing,” echoed NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. “You can't slam the product. That's where it crosses a line.
“You're making a mistake if you comment on the worst or the greatest racing ever," Pemberton had added, pointing out that it was still very early days for the new Generation 6 car. "The first part of the season, we run on so many different racetracks, and we're so busy. ... Positive or negative, you cannot read too much into any of this stuff."
But the concern is that the fine imposed on Hamlin this week may have a chilling effect on what drivers will and won't say to the media at events in future, as Hamlin himself was quick to point out.
“I'm not going to say anything for the rest of the year, as long as it relates to competition,” he said. “I mean, you can ask me how my daughter is, talk to me after wins about what have you, but as long as it relates to competition, I'm out from here on out.
"The down part is I feel like I've been a pretty good spokesman for them," he added. "Being positive when things aren't always positive. They just lost one small spokesman today, that's all."
Hamlin later issued a short formal statement about the situation.
"The short of the long of it is I believe I was severely disrespected by NASCAR by getting fined. I believe that the simple fact of us not even having a conversation about this issue before I was hit with a fine has something to say about our relationship," he said.
"Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give a assessment of the question asked," he continued. "In the end there are no winners. I said today I would not pay the fine. I stand by that and will go through the process of appealing. Trust me, this is not about the money. It's much deeper. I will now shift my focus on giving FedEx and my team what they deserve this weekend, a win."
Other drivers were being careful not to get caught up in the row, although Richard Childress Racing star Jeff Burton commented that "NASCAR has got to be careful not to be too strict on drivers" and suggested that the fine was "a little bit of an overreaction on NASCAR's part."
After topping the Thursday practice times in Las Vegas, Greg Biffle found a more arch way of communicating his view on the Hamlin fine when asked for his view on the Generation 6 car's handling earlier in the day.
"It's good. Car is good. Everything is very, very good," he said. "Can I leave now? I'm going to go be happy and good."
Those outside the immediate NASCAR sphere of influence could afford to be more outspoken about the situation.
"Just because it's NASCAR's ball and their ballpark and they make the rules doesn't necessarily mean that there can be censorship, and there appears to be a lot of censorship in this fine," said Kyle Petty, the former Cup driver and now analyst for the SPEED cable channel. "NASCAR wants drivers to have personalities and character and to express themselves but only if they say positive and not negative things. I don't know anyone who can do that.
"It's hard to believe that this sport has come to this where we fine drivers for comments," he added. "Whatever happened to fining drivers for big motors and illegal bodies and cheating on the track? Now it appears they don't have a right to have an opinion off the race track.
"I could not survive in this sport as a driver at this time," Petty admitted. "I'd be paying a fine every week. I'd be broke."
After winning the Phoenix race, Carl Edwards had also expressed frustration with the current state of the cars, but framed his comments in a way that was apparently more constructive than Hamlin had in NASCAR's eyes.
"After the Vegas race you are going to have all of the opinions you want on that subject because that's gonna be the first race where we see huge speeds, huge reliance on downforce, and I think that we're really gonna know where we stand after that," the Phoenix race winner had said in a teleconference on Wednesday.
"Whenever this subject has come up with NASCAR, with the media, with my team, I am 100 percent for taking all of the downforce away from the race cars and just racing mechanical grip and if you have maybe a couple of stagger options for the tires to help gauge your balance, and that would be something Goodyear would have to produce, that's been my take forever just because I really enjoy the mechanical grip aspect of the racing," he had explained.
"At all of this testing NASCAR has run cars with tons of downforce then a little bit of downforce and this is the package they came up with, so what our job to do as drivers and teams is to go out and tune these cars the best we can and see how they work," he continued. "NASCAR told us after Vegas and a couple of these fast races early in the season, we would kind of take a look at where we stand and there still might be more changes coming, so I think it's a moving target and it will really be up to all of us to decide what we want."