Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Denny Hamlin still feels in shock at the $25,000 fine NASCAR dumped on him last week for some rather innocuous comments about the new 2013s following a lackluster Phoenix 500.
A day after Hamlin and NASCAR came to terms to officially 'close' the case, as the brief NASCAR statement put it, Hamlin stood behind Joe Gibbs' hauler in the middle of the Bristol Motor Speedway garage to discuss the situation.
The setting for the Friday interview was not the best, filled at times with the thunderous echo of 40-some Nationwide cars practicing just yards away.
At first Hamlin appeared cowed a bit by the crush of media. But he quickly warmed to the game.
The biggest question now is will NASCAR officials continue to hold this thing over him and his team, in some way. Will this 'thing' keep Hamlin from competing for the championship? Will he have to worry about more nickel-and-dime penalties, perhaps with pit road speeding penalties?
After all, Hamlin's defiance was striking. He insisted he would not pay the fine, and he was upfront about that, and Friday he repeated that, that he would not pay the fine. He said he had been braced for possible suspension by NASCAR.
In perhaps a key point, Hamlin said -- while not offering exact wording -- he felt France had agreed that NASCAR had overreacted in leveling the fine.
Apparently when France last week decided to hit Hamlin with the fine, some officials tried to dissuade him, but in vain.
The overwhelming reaction on social media Twitter and Facebook was so strongly in favor of Hamlin and so angrily against the NASCAR penalty...a remarkable point perhaps in this sport's history.
Another striking point in all this -- Hamlin's fellow drivers all shied away from supporting him, in an equally stunning display.
"The biggest thing is we 'won' in the judgment of the people and their opinion," Hamlin said. "Some of the peers of mine -- at least the ones who had a backbone -- had the nerve to stick up for what they know is right or wrong."
Hamlin's two staunchest supporters in this have been former drivers Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who have both been extremely outspoken about the NASCAR penalty. Petty called is blatant "censorship." Jarrett said it damaged the "credibility" of the sport and of all the drivers, saying who could believe anything any driver now said, knowing that NASCAR executives could crack down hard.
Hamlin, after talking with France Thursday, said he decided to drop his plans to appeal.
"What was the point in going another week? We've got bigger fish to fry than to argue over what I said.
"Just for $25,000...
"It's best to move on, and let NASCAR get its credibility back, and they're going to do that. I'm going to move on and focus on the championship.
"Joe Gibbs supported whatever I wanted to do.
"I had some conversations with Brian France, and we had a lot of the same ideas -- in hindsight I really feel they overreacted, and I believe they think they overreacted, once they thought about it a little bit.
"But now we're at a point where we're good with each other and we're going to move on.
"What exactly we said (France and Hamlin) we've got to keep between us, for the sake of our relationship. But I definitely feel like we were on the same page when I left the (NASCAR) hauler.
"To keep it going on, and make an appeal, just to prove I'm right....I didn't need to prove it, I believe everyone knows we were right.
"And I can give you 100 interviews that were way worse than mine, that no one said anything about.
"They are just very, very sensitive about this (new) car. It's their baby.
"What I was most frustrated with is that (his Phoenix comments unfavorably comparing the 2013 with the old COT) is that not even the opinion I have. I like the car; I think the car is better. That's me giving 100 percent the honest truth.
"I was more frustrated with the tire we were on (at Phoenix) than anything."
Goodyear had a major test at Phoenix last August before building the 3,000 or so NASCAR tires for that event. However NASCAR changed the rules for the new car rather significantly after that test. And Goodyear concedes it was not all that pleased with the tire's performance. Another test at Phoenix planned before the fall race.
"It all put me on an island, feeling like I was bashing the race car, when that was definitely not how I felt."
The threat, or possibility, of suspension for refusing to pay the fine?
"I was prepared either way," Hamlin said. "Suspension would have been their last resort. But I was prepared to do it. I let my sponsors and everyone know that was a possibility. Everyone was behind me to do whatever I wanted to do.
"But after talking with NASCAR and Gibbs and thinking about it more, it just needed to end at some point.
"I didn't need to prove anyone wrong.
"It just needed to end.
"By me saying I was not going to give them a check, it was then in their court what they wanted to do."
Was Hamlin surprised at how scared his fellow drivers were to speak out? Was Hamlin disappointed in the noticeable lack of support?
"Everyone wants to stay on NASCAR's good side, and that plays a big part in it," Hamlin said, shrugging off the issue.
"Most of the guys here just try to stay on NASCAR's good side, and very few really give the honest truth."
Hamlin says he has learned a few things. "I definitely could have handled things differently. I probably should have gone in the hauler after the race (to cool down).
"But I really thought my comments were very casual, very, very small, in the grand scheme of things. No one really even knew about it until it got brought to light (by the NASCAR fine).
"From this point forward I will be voicing my opinions to (NASCAR officials) John (Darby) and Mike (Helton) on what we need to do to make it better.
"Ultimately, I knew they were sensitive...I just didn't know they were that sensitive."
However a major point here is that serious damage to this sport may have already been done, that cannot be easily undone.
Drivers may no longer be trusted by fans or journalists to offer honest opinions on anything. NASCAR's France has not yet addressed that issue.
Why should anyone believe what Hamlin or anyone else in this sport says now?
Hamlin pauses. "I don't know...I'll have to really, honestly think about that," Hamlin said.
"As long as I can give a 100 percent honest answer, and not get in trouble, I'll answer the question. If I know my answer could have repercussions, I'll just have a 'no comment.'"