LAS VEGAS -- Comments made by Denny Hamlin last weekend about the performance of the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car brought a reaction from NASCAR on Thursday, and one the driver felt right in the wallet.
NASCAR fined Hamlin $25,000 on Thursday for remarks he made following last Sunday's event at Phoenix International Raceway. The sanctioning body determined that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver violated Section 12-1 of the NASCAR rule book, which forbids actions detrimental to stock-car racing.
"While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport," NASCAR said in a statement accompanying the penalty release, "the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."
Hamlin spoke to reporters in the garage area at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the lunch break in Thursday's test session at the track, and was clearly upset with the penalty.
"This is the most upset and angry I've been in a really, really long time about anything. Anything that relates to NASCAR," he said. "You have strong opinions about a lot of things ... and a lot of people hold their tongue, and some people don't, like Brad (Keselowski). But the truth is what the truth is, and I don't believe in this. Never going to believe in it. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to pay the fine. If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don't care at this point."
The NASCAR rule book stipulates that fines must be paid promptly, and that the sanctioning body has the power to garnish purse winnings. But "we're not in any of those windows yet where it seems to be a problem," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. Pemberton added that Hamlin can appeal -- which Hamlin said he intended to do in a post on his personal Twitter account later Thursday -- and the process would be the same as for a technical violation.
He also reinforced that critical remarks have their limits. "We give (drivers) quite a bit of latitude, but you can't slam your racing, you can't slam your product," Pemberton said. "That's where it crosses a line."
Asked which comment upset NASCAR, Hamlin said it was remarks he made comparing the redesigned, more brand-identifiable Generation-6 car to its more polarizing predecessor. The new vehicles are intended to reinforce the connection between the showroom and the race track, though teams continue to fine-tune performance -- one reason for Thursday's test at Las Vegas.
At Phoenix, Hamlin was frustrated that he found it difficult to pass on the narrow 1-mile oval. Sunday's race at Las Vegas will mark the debut of the Generation-6 car on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, like those that comprise much of the Sprint Cup schedule. Although the NASCAR release did not specify which comment the sanctioning body took exception to, Hamlin's strongest remarks came on pit road immediately following the race.
"I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation-5 cars," Hamlin said. "This is more like what the Generation-5 was at the beginning. 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."
NASCAR's fifth-generation vehicle -- better known as the Car of Tomorrow -- struggled to gain acceptance among fans and drivers for reasons related to performance as well as aesthetics. To NASCAR, Hamlin's comments about the racing crossed a line.
"We communicated to teams about three years ago, I think it was in 2010 in January, that you can voice your opinion about a lot of things in this sport," said NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. "And we feel like we give our competitors a great deal of leeway when it comes to that. However, denigrating the racing is an area that we're going to have a reaction to."
Tharp added that Hamlin and JGR had both been notified of the penalty. Hamlin was on the track testing Thursday morning and not immediately available for comment.
In 2010, Hamlin was among a few drivers who received unpublicized fines from NASCAR for criticizing the sport. The sanctioning body has since ended that practice. And while NASCAR wants its drivers to remain outspoken, Tharp said there are still limits.
"I do believe we give our drivers a lot of flexibility when it comes to that, whether it be about officiating, whether it be about how a race is called, a lot of different areas that go on in this sport," he said. "I think the main area of focus here that we take exception to is the product. The racing. That's our brand, that's the drivers' brand, that's the sport's brand. That's an area we feel very strongly about."
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