Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported that NASCAR had fined two of its “star drivers” for comments detrimental to the sport of stock car racing – so to speak. The fines, one of which was as much as $50,000, were not officially announced by NASCAR, but the sanctioning body later confirmed the reports. No driver was named while officials are being very hush, hush about the entire controversy.
These unannounced fines come at a time in which NASCAR has pushed the “Have at it, boys” philosophy and even promoted scary incidents which have resulted from that mentality. However, when a driver is critical of the sport while talking with the media, he is apparently now hit with a fine in secret and sent a clear message by the sport’s top brass in Daytona Beach.
Prior to the start of the 2010 season, NASCAR met with the drivers and teams to discuss their expectations for the upcoming season. This is where the “Have at it, boys” philosophy was born, but also where officials warned drivers if they spoke ill of the sport itself, they would be hit with a fine.
Six months later, turns out that step’s already been taken… we just didn’t know about it. Late Wednesday afternoon, ESPN’s David Newton reported that multiple sources close to the situation indicated the two drivers fined for their comments were Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman.
Talking with members of the media last weekend in Indianapolis, Hamlin was discussing his recent meeting with NASCAR and the changes that were discussed. When asked if he had any suggestions of his own, Hamlin responded with a smile on his face, saying, “I’ve got to be real careful what I say.” This was prior to news breaking of the fines; but when Hamlin was asked why he needed to be careful, he simply answered another question.
Many believe Hamlin could be one of the two drivers fined for their comments, with his post-race criticism following a win at Michigan coming to mind. In that race, Hamlin’s lead disappeared during the final laps due to a debris caution. Hamlin was able to score the win in spite of it, but later called into question NASCAR’s decision to throw the yellow.
“Well, I mean, it’s tough because I was literally thinking inside the car, I’m all for some of these cautions. You know, if I don’t win the race because maybe I get a bad restart or something, then probably I’m angry because I feel like NASCAR changed the outcome of the race,” Hamlin said. “But, you know, we did everything. It was still on me to do my job to win the race. I feel like I got a good restart, got clear of those guys. You know, I understand this is show business.”
“No, I didn’t see any debris, if that’s what you’re asking,” he added later. “I mean, we typically get (debris cautions) every single week. I’m not going to say it’s accepted, but what can you do?”
Hamlin’s comments after the Michigan race brought to light the issue many fans and some in the media often complain about – “phantom” debris cautions. By saying he did not see the debris, that late-race cautions were “accepted,” and that he understands NASCAR is “show business,” he called the sport’s credibility into question.
As far as what Newman said to rile up officials, it’s anyone’s guess. However, over the years, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of restrictor-plate races, especially when it comes to cars getting airborne. In 2009, Newman’s car was hit by Carl Edwards flying through the air. Later that year, he flipped multiple times, showing public disgust towards NASCAR for not keeping cars on the ground. Finally, following April’s race in Talladega – where he wrecked a third straight time – Newman let loose concerning how much he despised the plates.
“I was thinking about when I was out there, these shouldn’t be points races,” he said in frustration. “If they want to have these races for the fans, just let us come here and do this, but don’t let it affect our championship because it’s not racing. If this is NASCAR racing, we should be here for the Talladega Event Marketing or something like that. Something different besides racing.”
There is no telling if this comment was the one that got Newman in hot water with NASCAR; however, the tone of the comments seem to go along with what the sport is trying to keep a lid on.
This is not the first time drivers have called NASCAR into question. In 2007, Hamlin’s former and Newman’s current teammate and owner Tony Stewart compared the sport to professional wrestling, alleging it threw cautions simply for the purpose of entertainment. Stewart accused the sanctioning body of “playing God” and determining the outcome of races instead of letting the drivers settle it for themselves. Making the comments on his then-radio slot on SIRIUS NASCAR Radio, Stewart went on to say:
“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.’ 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 [the sport].”
That incident raised many eyebrows, but NASCAR did not penalize Stewart for his comments. However, in the three years since Stewart’s rant, things have changed.
In a blog entitled Working Together For The Good Of The Sport on NASCAR.com, Ramsey Poston, NASCAR’s Managing Director of Communications, explained why the sanctioning body felt it necessary to penalize their drivers for speaking out against the sport.
“No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business – nor can we,” he wrote. “It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport.”
Already competing with the stick-‘n’-ball crowd, NASCAR is fighting poor attendance, falling ratings and waning popularity amongst some of its most basic fans. With talks of more changes to the Chase and major schedule realignment most likely in the works for next year, this controversial decision simply gives them yet another reason to change the channel and turn away.
Tuesday evening, I spoke with some race fans in Gastonia, N.C. and discussed this particular issue. One gentleman believed no driver should be fined for speaking his mind, and that the issue had made NASCAR look bad. He had his suspicions as to which drivers were the guilty parties, but regardless felt the sport should be open and honest about the situation now and in the future. Another fan explained the incident was simply another reason she stopped going to the races and watching on television.
20 years ago, NASCAR was full of superstars that were also dominant personalities inside the garage. Guys like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and others were commanding figures that were able to voice concern… and NASCAR would listen. But since the passing of Earnhardt in 2001, there has been a lack of a single figurehead that commands the same respect from the drivers – or NASCAR.
Instead, the sport has been more concerned about television ratings, expanding their market and increasing their bottom line. While it is important for the powers that be to keep its business moving forward, it is also essential for them to remember they are a sport built on the likes and needs of the fanbase. Right now, it seems as if they’re clamoring to have someone step up and not be afraid to speak their mind.
So by worrying so much about what their drivers are saying, NASCAR is only hurting the sport by keeping all of this quiet. People like transparency these days. Our current President was elected thanks in part to promising to be transparent once in office. Just recently, some 90,000 documents were leaked about the war in Afghanistan.
Typically, when things are hidden away from those that want to know, those doing the hiding are the ones that suffer the most.