NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Wants Silence? No One Gives A Rip Anymore

“Silence! I ‘keel’ you.”

Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you don’t know the lovable little skeleton I’m referencing. He’s famous for “Jingle Bombs” and being slightly offensive but mind-blowing hilarious.

However, it appears another entity is attempting to utter a very similar phrase: NASCAR.

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Brad Keselowski, angry over what he claims is NASCAR “targeting” Penske Racing will likely receive a fine on Tuesday after openly criticizing the sanctioning body on national television.

No, they won’t be “keel”-ing anyone, but they seem to be trying their hardest to silence those with something negative to say about them. No one knows this witch-hunt better than Denny Hamlin, one of the sport’s more vocal drivers who was recently fined $25,000. Why? It was for a comment that couldn’t be pointed out, in a 350-page novel because it wasn’t even remotely controversial. It was a simple criticism, on the development of the Gen-6 race car made out of a strong opinion and a desire to improve the racing. Hamlin was only trying to be honest; so much for that.

Instead, with the punishment, severe by NASCAR’s standards its result was to silence the other drivers in the media center. The very next week, they were kissing NASCAR’s butt with such force you could practically see the indiscreet feces rolling down their face at Las Vegas.

I apologize for that mental image. Did I make my point?

Saturday night in Texas, though, proved that you can only silence a squeaky wheel for so long. Drivers have opinions, are passionate and, fines or no fines, won’t take any crap from NASCAR about it. If something needs to be said, there are a handful of drivers who will darn well say it if they feel the need arises.

Brad Keselowski, the sport’s reigning champ, is tops on the list, one top-tier wheelman all sides of the sport can look to for honesty. He, too, has run into trouble with NASCAR but it has never stopped him for very long (See: February’s USA Today article and subsequent fallout). Apparently, this weekend was one of those times, because Keselowski had a lot to say about NASCAR’s … erm … “integrity” once he exited his car on Saturday night.

Here’s his quotes:

“I have one good thing to say. That’s my team and effort they put in today in fighting back with the absolute bull that’s been the last seven days in this garage area. The things I’ve seen over the last seven days have me questioning everything that I believe in, and I’m not happy about it. I don’t have anything positive to say and I probably should just leave it at that.”

“There’s so much stuff going on … you have no f——— idea what’s going on. And that’s not your fault and that’s not a slam on you. I could tell you there’s nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we’ve been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful. I feel like we’ve been targeted over the last seven days more than I’ve ever seen a team targeted. But my guys kept their heads on straight and they showcased why they are a winning team and championship team. We’re not going to take it. We’re not going to be treated this way.”

“I’m very worried about losing my crew chief, Paul Wolfe. But I tell you I’ve got one of best owners [Roger Penske] in the garage and I’m going to be first one at his desk telling him if anything happens. We’ll both be in a meeting with anybody and everybody who’ll listen. There’s been so much stuff going on, I could make a list two pages long, but I’m out.”

Now, some context is in order here. Prior to the start of the race, Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano’s Fords were held in the garage after NASCAR discovered they had illegal rear end housing. Officials forced both teams to alter their vehicles before allowing them onto the grid, confiscating the parts they felt were “bad.” While Logano nearly missed the green flag, starting the race from the rear Keselowski was able to make it to the grid before the green ever flew. Everything seemed fine, in the end as Keselowski went on to finish ninth; his teammate, Logano actually pulled off a top-5 result.

However, Keselowski’s post-race meltdown was basically some pushback at NASCAR for apparent, behind-the-scenes nonsense connected to what happened that sent him over the edge. Criticism over the team being “targeted” also likely stems from Martinsville, a week earlier when the No. 2 car was called for a violation, pitting outside their box when cameras clearly showed the call was wrong. However, no specific details were mentioned in these rants; instead, they’re vague references to “things” and “concerns.”

That’s what makes it so hard to gauge the whole truth. Though I can’t quite make up my mind whether Keselowski is whining, or if what he’s saying needs to be taken seriously, the truth is that I was surprised by his candor. After all, hasn’t NASCAR made a recent statement that no negative press at all will be tolerated?

Yes, some of Keselowski’s outspokenness came from the fact that penalties are expected for the team on Tuesday, anyway. Perhaps he had nothing to lose. At the same time, based upon how the driver was phrasing his disgust, this rant was a long time coming. It was built up, over a period of weeks and months and this incident was the final straw. Keselowski was going to have this statement, no matter what, and the assumed penalty basically gave him the outlet necessary to vent.

In other words, he really doesn’t care.

That didn’t surprise me. Keselowski has and likely always will be the outspoken model we need in NASCAR. One person I didn’t expect to be so bold, though was Martin Truex, Jr. While he was well on his way to what looked his second career victory, NASCAR threw an ill-timed and questionable at best caution for debris that effectively screwed Truex over. On the final pit stop, he lost on pit road to Kyle Busch and was just never able to recover from it.

On pit road after the race, Truex was asked what he thought of the last caution and if he would have won the race without it. His response? “Shoulda, coulda, woulda — it happened to us a few times last year, too.”

Hmm … to me, it sounded like he answered the question by not answering the question. Truex also indirectly hinted that this decision is a routine thing. That’s not something we don’t already know, but for a driver to say it after NASCAR has essentially threatened them is somewhat surprising.

However, the biggest surprise came on Twitter later that night. They were two words that made me do a double take as I rushed to scroll back down my timeline to make sure I’d seen it right: “Debris huh????”

Um … yeah. NAPA Know How ain’t buyin’ it. And, unlike Keselowski, Truex does have something to lose. Though he’s not off to a great start this year — 18th in points and 100 off Jimmie Johnson’s pace – the last thing he needs is to lose any more ground for an angry response.

Will he get penalized for it? I doubt it, but at the same time I didn’t see a Hamlin penalty coming, either.

The truth is, this” honesty” isn’t altogether rare. Even when NASCAR gets their panties in a wad, it seems drivers are still willing to speak out. Stewart has been haggled by NASCAR several times for his comments and still will say the most controversial things. Hamlin, out recovering from an injury will stay quiet for now but inevitably go back to his outspoken ways at some point. And as for Kurt Busch … well, he’s Kurt “motherf—-ing” Busch.

That willingness to take the risk, regardless of consequences speaks to NASCAR’s credibility to drivers when it comes to their at times overbearing attitude. If you’re going to get fined for every sneeze that gets snot on NASCAR’s cufflinks, you might as well make it a good one. You may as well speak your mind when walking on glass! Bottom line, the penalty has become meaningless to them; instead, it’s all about reporting the “crime” and holding NASCAR accountable for their accusations.

We often make much of drivers not speaking their minds enough, but the truth is, the ones that do seem to be getting bolder. NASCAR’s mode of punishment, then is backfiring; they’re shooting themselves in the foot every time they fine a driver for an opinion they give. And the outspoken ones, from Hamlin to Keselowski are realizing that. The backlash, should a penalty come won’t be at the driver or the sponsor: it will be at NASCAR. If they’re fining a driver for speaking the absolute truth, that just makes it worse.

So I, for one, was thrilled to see Truex’s and Keselowski’s comments, along with other drivers who refuse to put up with the attempt to suppress any alternative opinions. Let’s hope NASCAR takes the hint and backs off.

For in all honesty, a squeaky wheel is just what this sport needs to stay relevant.

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