Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
NASCAR's new 2013 model stocker hasn't performed that well in the season's first two events, at Daytona and Phoenix, but Daytona executives made clear again here Thursday they don't want to hear any criticism:
NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 for comments he made following the March 3 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix.
The sanctioning body said it was ruling that Hamlin "violated Section 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing) of the 2013 NASCAR Rule Book."
NASCAR issued a brief statement: "Following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon.
"While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."
NASCAR has made clear for months that it does not want any critical comments about the new 2013s, fearing criticism could lead to a stigma similar to the that logged the highly-disliked car-of-tomorrow for years after its 2007 debut.
The 2013s are the first new major redesign of the NASCAR stocker, but the project has been far behind schedule, in terms of testing. The one pre-Daytona 500 test in mid-January ended abruptly after a multi-car crash involved 12 cars. A Charlotte test the following week was "inconclusive" according to some drivers, pointing out the very cold weather (and some rain) didn't make for great testing weather.
Parts and pieces for the new car have been far behind schedule too, so teams have been worried about building enough cars for the opening weeks of the season.
The Daytona 500 was virtually all single-file, and SpeedWeeks was marked by five crashes by Carl Edwards alone and more than one crash by other top drivers. Drivers and crews had complained for several weeks about NASCAR 'tweaks' taking too much downforce off the rear of the cars, making them unstable.
Denny Hamlin finished third at Phoenix, but his Daytona 500 SpeedWeeks wasn't all that great. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What did Hamlin say at Phoenix that angered NASCAR executives?
Hamlin: "We just struggled. I know it's tough to say that after finishing third, but definitely have some work to do.
"We learned a lot (about the new car). I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars (the COTs). This is more like what the generation five 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. You could have placed me 20th with 30 to go, I would have stayed there, I wouldn't have moved up.
"It's just one of those things where track position is everything.
"We overachieved, that's for sure. Didn't have a third-place car. Every run I was hanging on and playing defense with the guys behind me.
"It's frustrating because you can catch a guy, you just can't pass him. Once you get in his wake, there's just no getting around him.
"That's just something that's a by-product of a new car that we really haven't developed all that much.
"(And) a very, very hard tire from Goodyear, especially on the left side; we've got to get that softer. Once we do that, you'll have some tire wear and overtaking like there's supposed to be."
NASCAR executives didn't like what Denny Hamlin had to say about the ill-handling 2013 stockers at Phoenix....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Perhaps some perspective here. This is what Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about racing at Talladega after last fall's big crash:
"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it; I will just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.
"That is what the package is doing. It's really not racing.
"It's a little disappointing how that all went down. That cost a lot of money right there.
"If this is how we are going to race, and that is how we are going to continue to race and nothing is going to change, I think NASCAR should build the cars. It would save us a lot of money.
"You just can't get away from each other that good.
"It's obvious. You saw the race, we tore up how many cars? (about 30)
"That is okay with everybody? That it is like that?
"It's not safe. Wrecking like that is ridiculous.
"It's blood-thirsty, if that is what people want. It's ridiculous.
"The way we are going ain't the right direction.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. He may be one of the few Sprint Cup drivers who can say what he feels without worrying about NASCAR slapping him with a penalty. Maybe Earnhardt needs to speak up about the 2013s.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"There are plenty of engineers out there; I'm just a driver,"Earnhardt went on. "There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where when one guy gets in trouble we don't have 30 cars tore up at the expense of it.
"I mean it's awesome in a word, and everybody can get on the chip about it and get excited about all that which just happened... but for the longevity of the sport that ain't healthy.
"I don't care what anybody says, for the good of the sport.... I mean it's good for the here and now, and it will get people talking today, but for the long run that is not going to help the sport the way that race ended and the way the racing is.
"It's not going to be productive for years to come.
"I don't even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain't got much choice."
Earnhardt was not penalized for those comments.
Earnhardt was later diagnosed with a concussion from his hits (recorded at a relatively mild 20Gs) in that crash. It turns out that Earnhardt's concussion was his second in less than two months, and doctors had to sideline him for two weeks, which took him out of the NASCAR championship chase during one of his best seasons ever.
NASCAR rules demand a driver start his car to receive any points, no substitutions allowed. That policy has long been criticized because it forces a driver to play while hurt.
Doctors say there is no good way to diagnose a concussion unless a driver reports it.
Carl Edwards (99) in one of his five Daytona 500 crashes. When a driver as talented at Edwards crashed five times like that, maybe it's time for NASCAR officials to study the situation more closely. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)