Denny Hamlin spoke about his previously undisclosed fine Friday afternoon at Pocono Raceway. Here’s the main highlights from that group hauler session with the media….
On the fine
“I understand why. I know why they did it. Whether you agree with it or not, it happened. They’re in control. It’s just… I’ve always been raised to speak my mind and may be too over opinionated at times, because like I’ve told those guys, look, you know, I hope to be there in 15, 20 years, and if that’s the case I’d like to have a healthy sport going on, to have a long career. We’re all in it together and I understand that. So I definitely understand it.”
“I don’t really know what it was… more than likely, it was the Twitter comments that kind of got me in trouble with them. I guess, Chicago weekend, talking about some of the Nationwide stuff, but most of those conversations were all direct messages to one person. It wasn’t really sent out to all the followers. So I understand it, but whether you agree with it or not, we’ve all got to work together and make the sport better.”
How does this change your approach to how you deal with this type of thing in the future?
“Well, I think there is a better way to do it. Up until two weeks ago, I didn’t have Mike Helton’s phone number, Steve O’Donnell’s phone number, nobody’s phone number. So how was I going to voice my opinion if I didn’t know how to get in touch with them. I’m sure I could have, but on the other hand, Jim Hunter said, hey, voice your opinion through the media and it’ll get to us, it’s always worked. But they said don’t do that. So it’s kind of a contradictory thing.”
“But I understand, there is a better way to do it now. But still, it’s tough for me, because I do feel like I want to make things better and I never really wanted to criticize anyone. I just wanted to voice my opinion and where I think we should go with this sport right now.”
How do you compare this to other sports you know and follow?
“Well, the aspect of it is, it seems like we’re trying to model ourselves somewhat after those. But this is such a unique sport, this isn’t a head-to-head competition like it is in other sports, it’s a… a lot of it has to do with luck, and all that stuff comes into play. That’s why we have a 36-week schedule, not a 10 or a five, because it takes a long time to determine who’s the real champion over the course of the year. So even though we at times model ourselves after other sports, we have a unique enough sport that we’ve stood on our own for along time. And I think we could in the future as well. Everyone, that entire France family has done a good job of getting us to this point right now.”
But you have friends that are in the NFL and NBA. How do you compare it to them, speaking their mind?
“It’s no different. And that’s the thing… I’d say NASCAR’s really the last ones to fine people based off of what they say, and whether it shows a negative outlook. So I mean, you can’t really say ‘Where is this coming from?’ because it is in other sports. But I think that a lot of times, it’s kind of how we got some of the changes that we wanted in years past. So, I’m different in the aspect of I came from the late model series, and watching races, to the Cup Series in one year. Faster than most of these guys that have been here for 20 years. So I was just a race fan on the other side of the fence five years ago, six years ago. So I feel like I have a pretty good heartbeat of what the fans like to see, what they don’t like to see, things like that. I’d like to tell NASCAR those things, but it never seems like before a month ago, we never got together to figure out what that is. Now, I really do believe they have listened, with the whole Talladega thing last year, they’ve listened… so they really are working to make it better. And I was probably just jumping the gun a little bit. Because a lot of team people had met with NASCAR a month before us and I thought we were going to have our chance to voice our opinion. And that’s where I got frustrated, just kind of vented.”
Why do you think NASCAR chose not to let us know about this?
“That, I don’t know. Without getting into word-for-word, what I asked was, ‘What was the point of fining me if you’re not going to tell anyone?’ And they said, ‘Well, hopefully it’ll keep anyone from badmouthing us.’ Well, no one knows! For the young guys maybe coming up, if you say, ‘Hey, you fined Denny Hamlin x amount of dollars for saying this,’ I think you’ll have people in the future say, ‘Alright, I need to steer away from those comments.’ So I think in the future, all this coming out is a positive thing. It really is, it’s going to turn into a good thing. Even though they may not have wanted everyone to know, now that they do, it happened for a reason. It’s going to make our sport better.”
What can’t you say? What are you not allowed to say? Where’s the line?
“I don’t know. They did give me a pretty good logbook of all the negative things I’ve had to say over the last couple of months, so they were just for sure. I mean, anybody that follows me on Twitter knows I’m opinionated, and that’s what people follow me for, is just for the quotes here or there.”
How much was the fine?
“I can’t say that.”
Can you say it’s more than a recent fine to a driver for wrecking somebody?
“I think both of ours were… wasn’t it? I mean, there’s been illegal parts in the garage that haven’t gotten hit as bad as I did.”
“I better play the lotto…”
How private was it? Did Joe and JD know about it?
“JD knew, then Joe knew. Of course, they don’t agree with it. They’re going to stick up for their driver and whatnot. The good thing is, within a few days of telling me what was going to happen, we were all sitting down in one room together talking about what we can do to make the sport better, and I definitely think that they’ve done so much research over the last couple of years to get an idea of where they’re going to take this sport. It’s going to be interesting in the future to see whether all those things come out to be what they want or not.”
Are we going to lose the outspoken Denny Hamlin?
“Ummm… it’s tough to say. I don’t want to lose anymore money, but I just want to be myself. That’s all I can say, and that’s what I’ve told them over and over. And I’ve said, ‘What if I don’t agree with something? What do you want me to say? Do you want me to lie, and tell something that I don’t really, truly believe in, because I’ve never been brought up to do that?’ And they said no, but there’s different ways to do it… And we got to talking about that, and in the end I did see that.”
“I think you will still see it, just in a little more toned-down fashion.”
We’ve seen, the last two years, the increased fan involvement in NASCAR answering to what the fans want. And now, with this being secret… in talking to them this week, they were upset it was secret, they felt NASCAR was keeping things from them. How do you fix that? Do you think they lost something there by trying to keep it secret? Should they have just come right out and said, ‘This is who we fined, this is how much we fined them, and this is what we fined them for.’”
“In my opinion, I’m not bashing anyone, but I would have for sure said, ‘This person’s getting penalized’ to keep it from happening again. If nobody knows, nobody’s going to learn from the mistakes of others. That’s one thing this sport is all about is learning from someone else’s mistake. So for sure, in my opinion I feel like it should have been let out. But this garage is a very small family, and it’ll get around anyway. So I think people were going to find out one way or another.”
In the meetings you guys had in the preseason, did you leave that with the understanding you could get fined? Or was it a surprise?
“Well, I’ve always said there were other people before me – not to name names, Tony Stewart, – has said way worse than I have. Wayyy worse. Direct hits at somebody and got away with it. But the difference is this year, they said in January, ‘Listen, it’s really taken its toll on people’s outlook on the sport when you say something like that.’ And they showed us numbers, when they heard something negative, their interest level drops. So they said, we’re going to be more aggressive when you say something that’s negative. So of course, that’s been six months. My memory’s really short, so I was just gladly awoken last week.”
Well back in the old days, Bill Sr. or Bill Jr. would have taken you back in the hauler and just knocked your head a little bit. Instead of resorting to a fine like that…
“It made my last week long, I can tell you that. Indy was the longest race trying to get a Lucky Dog I never did get… they know how to make you pay one way or another.”
“I just think you got to do it in a different way. I think you can be opinionated, and they want you to be opinionated, but you can’t question whether it’s a fixed sport or not. Because the bottom line is it’s not fixed. There’s too much out there to chance for it to be fixed.”
Denny, the Twitter thing… I know it’s new territory for everybody. How do you feel about that, them looking at your Twitter feed? Do you feel like that’s your personal space, even though you’re a public figure?
“I never said… when I started this whole Twitter thing a long time ago, I said, ‘I was never going to sell out.’ I was going to always say what I wanted to say, this, that and the other thing… but the more followers you get, the more people – especially up in that tower that start following you and seeing what you’re saying. It goes out to a lot of people and a lot of race fans. Out of 35,000 or so that followed me, 30 of them are true race fans that watch the sport week in and week out. So they are the heartbeat of our sport, and I guess they don’t need me influencing them and saying that we need to work on a lot of things.”
Is it important for them to have a venue that you’re yourself no matter what?
“I think that’s one of the places that you can be. But this is a place – I’m in a position where I’m always, no matter what I say, on or off the record, it’s always on the record. So you’ve got to continue to be a role model for the sport, be positive, because honestly it does affect everyone out there.”
In other sports, when a player goes off on the officiating, they know they’re going to get fined and the fine doesn’t seem to be that much of a deterrent. Was your fine big enough to be a deterrent that, no matter how frustrated you are, you’re going to say things a certain way?
“I mean, it was big enough that for sure, if I’m in the heat of the moment I will for sure pull the reins back. Because it costs a lot of money to be a race car driver, whether people know it or not. We do get paid well, but it’s an expensive sport to be a part of. Everyone knows that… but I’m happy my money’s going to charity to be honest with you. That’s money that’s going to go to the NASCAR Foundation, that’s going to go to several different children’s charities that I support through my Foundation. So, one way or the other it was going to go there anyways. So I’m not too upset about that. But it does. It’s a wakeup call to me that we’ve all got to be in this together.”
Is that a tax deductible fine?
“I don’t think so.”
Do you think it ends here? Do you think the fine’s done, they’re going to treat you just like any other driver out on the track?
“I hope so. Honestly, I need them on my side as much as they need me. That’s one of the things, we’re getting ready to come up some very important tracks, this one being one of them, and we don’t need anything happening bad to us, getting penalized on the racetrack. So we gotta be smart and get ready for the Chase.”
What do you think is off limits going forward?
“I think questioning the integrity is off limits. Saying the race are fixed, saying they’re throwing phantom cautions for no reason but for show’s sake. Those things we don’t need in our sport. So I think those are the things they … it’s not saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think the new Chase format what’s we need,’ It’s more the direct questioning of officiating.”
You had said at Talladega before you wanted to be one of these guys that was the voice of NASCAR. You wanted to be respected, taken seriously… you thought your comments mattered. Is it just a matter of tempering opinion as opposed to something that’s disparaging?
“I think I have a bigger voice, probably, than what I give myself credit for. I just voice it in probably the wrong way sometimes. They really do listen. They listened more in the last year than I’ve ever seen them listen to drivers and teams. So I can’t fault them on that side. The communication’s there, it’s just how we do it, and the timing is sometimes off.”