Denny Hamlin found out last week it’s hard to know when comments go over the line, as NASCAR doesn’t define what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Hamlin was fined $25,000 for comparing the new Generation 6 race car with the older Car of Tomorrow. NASCAR quickly responded, saying nobody has the freedom to criticize “the core product.”
Unlike rules for engines and body styles that are precise to the hundredth of an inch, NASCAR hasn’t always been consistent when drivers offer opinions about the sport.
For example, Tony Stewart was fined $10,000 in 2007 when he said NASCAR affected outcomes with late cautions for debris.
“I guess NASCAR thinks, ‘Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it’s going to work in racing, too,’” he said at the time. “I can’t understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they’re stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR. I don’t know if they’ve run a fair race all year.”
At the same time, Kyle Busch wasn’t fined later in 2007 when he openly criticized the Car of Tomorrow. Despite winning at Bristol Motor Speedway in the COT’s debut, Busch stunned everyone in Victory Lane by saying, “I’m still not a very big fan of these things. I can’t stand to drive them. They (stink).”
In 2011, Brad Keselowski was fined $25,000 for saying NASCAR’s switch from carburetors to fuel injection systems was done to appease environmentalists while adding costs to race teams.
“My dislike list is very long,” Keselowski said. “I’m not a big fan of it at all. They’ve been pressured into switching it through green initiatives. In reality it’s no more efficient than what we have, and it costs a lot more.”
But earlier this year, Keselowski wasn’t fined for his critical remarks of NASCAR’s business model.
“We’re a house divided and we’re making bad decisions that are affecting how to generate revenue for the sport,” he said.
Hamlin’s fine created a stir inside the garage area, especially since most felt it wasn’t overly-critical. He said it was very difficult to pass with the Gen-6 car after the race at Phoenix International Raceway.
He apparently crossed the line by saying after two races the new car didn’t drive as well as the COT.
There are no specific rules outlawing comments, but NASCAR generally falls back on its traditional failsafe: “Actions detrimental to stock car racing.”
Hamlin said he will appeal the fine. But no matter how that works out, he promised never to give NASCAR the money.
NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton said his organization won’t allow anyone to challenge their integrity.
“But it’s more of a matter of fact that you can’t criticize your core product, what you’re trying to do,” he said. “Constructive criticism is one thing, but there’s different statements that people made that are damaging. That’s where we won’t tolerate those types of things.
“I think it’s fair to say any type of negative comment doesn’t do you any good.”
It’s also fair to say most don’t understand when, and where, NASCAR plans to draw the line.
“I think we’re all watching and learning as things unfold and we do know that NASCAR is sensitive to some things and that line is becoming more defined right now as to where that is and what type of criticism is allowed and what is not,” Jimmie Johnson said.
“I think we’re all learning and we’ve all been encouraged to have an opinion and speak our minds about each other as drivers and on certain topics. The old phrase ‘actions detrimental to stock car racing,’ that’s something that I am going to try to keep top of mind and as my opinions come about if it’s something that’s going to hurt our sport and I think about it and it enters my mind then I probably need to keep my mouth shut and head over to the (NASCAR) truck and talk it out in there rather than through microphones.”