Whether he likes it or not, Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin will pony up $25,000 to settle his account with NASCAR.
The No. 11 Toyota driver was slapped with a $25,000 fine for "actions detrimental to stock car racing" after he spoke to reporters following the race at the Phoenix International Raceway on March 3.
Although he refused to pay the fine and described it as disrespectful, NASCAR's rules allow it to take the cash out of his winnings.
Hamlin's transgression was criticizing NASCAR's new Generation 6 car, which he said the drivers couldn't race as well as the one it replaced.
"I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Gen-5 cars; this is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning," he said in the pitlane after the race in Phoenix two weeks ago.
"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. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 [laps] 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 introduced the new "Gen-6" car to much fanfare this year. The last new chassis to appear was the much-aligned "Car of Tomorrow" (CoT) that made its debut six years ago.
While the sport insisted it gives the drivers lots of leeway to voice their opinions, NASCAR fined Hamlin because it felt he criticized its "product," meaning the actual racing.
Frankly, NASCAR got it all wrong on this one. Anyone thinking otherwise needs to look at the reaction on social media sites, such as Twitter, blogs and comments areas on news stories.
Hamlin was actually conveying valuable information to fans, who were probably wondering why the drivers didn't seem to be going for it at the end of the Phoenix race. Yes, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did say that the new car didn't race as good as the old one, but the context was crystal clear.
He didn't just say the car was so terrible that fans would never see the racing improve; instead, he qualified it by explaining that the drivers and teams would likely go through an adjustment period before they get a good enough grip on the Gen-6 to make things happen on track. The drivers and teams experienced the same process after the introduction of the CoT.
Unfortunately, it seems that NASCAR was hugely hypersensitive in Hamlin's case because of the adverse fan and driver reaction to the CoT. And had they looked at the statistics they provide to the media, NASCAR would have seen that there were almost 450 fewer green flag passes in the Phoenix race this year compared to 2012 ― a drop of almost 27 per cent.
Anyone who watched Kasey Kahne sit on eventual winner Matt Kenseth's bumper for the final sprint to the finish in Las Vegas a week ago would know that catching the new Gen-6 car is one thing, while passing it is another.
With the tracks, weather and drivers staying consistent from last season in Phoenix and Vegas, it seems there's only one explanation: The Gen-6 car.
Nobody is saying NASCAR shouldn't discipline drivers who actually step over the line, but it certainly shouldn't penalize drivers who have the decency to tell their fans the truth, especially when they relay the message in a thoughtful and constructive way.
Imposing a penalty in that situation is simply disrespectful to fans.
Even worse is that an official NASCAR spokesperson implied that the series would have happily accepted Hamlin's opinion on the situation, provided he conveyed it to officials in private.
So, the message to fans is that NASCAR wants its drivers to be honest and forthright, as long as nobody outside the NASCAR hauler hears about it. It also follows that NASCAR expects drivers rose-colour their comments when talking to the people who ultimately pay the bills.
Ironically, NASCAR's fine to protect its brand seriously eroded its own credibility because many fans might assume from its explanation that the series is completely fine with drivers lying to fans.
Although NASCAR boss Brian France apparently now feels the may have series overreacted, the damage is done.
Making matters worse was that several Sprint Cup drivers ran and hid from their fellow driver when he needed their support. Hamlin went as far as to suggest many of his peers toe the party line and deceive fans when needed.
"Most of the guys here just try to stay on NASCAR's good side, and very few really give the honest truth," Hamlin told reporters in Bristol as the series prepared for Sunday's Food City 500.
In the end, the only one who's coming out looking good is Hamlin, who kept his head high through the ordeal and refused to change his story.
While he announced last week that he would not appeal his fine, he stuck to his guns and refused to write a cheque, forcing NASCAR to take the money from his winnings.
"The biggest thing is I think that we won in the judge of the people and their opinion," Hamlin said last week.
"I think some of the peers of mine ― at least the ones that have a backbone had the nerve to stick up for what they know is right and wrong ― agreed."
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