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Have too many controversies broken Denny Hamlin?

  Denny Hamlin: broken by that secret NASCAR penalty? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Denny Hamlin has been unusually quiet this spring, and it's become much too obvious.
   But the normally boisterous racer says last year's controversies, including a secret $50,000 penalty levied by NASCAR for his complaints about the timing of caution flags, following victory here, have taken a toll.
   "It's just not worth it," Hamlin said.

   For a sport that faces criticism at times about too many 'plain vanilla' drivers, that a rising star like Hamlin feels he's been so beaten down that he is now just taking a low profile may be damning.
    "I've more scaled back just because you're more open to criticism," Hamlin says, almost in a plaintive voice. "You're more open to put yourself out there to get in something you don't want to be part of. 
    "If you could just say your opinion all the time with no retribution, then everyone would. 
    "But you have to face that at some point -- and obviously last year with certain issues -- it side-tracks you. 
    "It puts you in a situation you don't want to be in. 
    "So I've just kept my opinions to myself…because you can face retribution from NASCAR…
    "It's just better if you have your opinion to keep it to yourself…because we're in a big-business where anything you say it's going to be opened up to a lot of people. 
     "It's just not been worth it for me.
     "So I've just kind of kept to myself."


     Matt Kenseth's left-front tire flat. Teammate Carl Edwards says he's worried. Goodyear engineers say the problem is teams are running low air pressure in order to help the cars turn in the corners. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     That sudden burst of emotionalism was one of the day's surprises, and would appear to somewhat undercut NASCAR's avowed 'Boys, have at it.'
    The other three major stories of the day:
   -- NASCAR confiscating engine oil pans from the cars of Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano;
   -- Announcement of a $7 million repaving project here during the off-season;
   -- Reports that ticket sales for the sport's key Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be off 40 percent.
   This 18-degree-banked two-mile track, last repaved in 1995, doesn't really need repaving, but track officials don't want to be caught like Daytona was last year when years of normal wear-and-tear suddenly created a huge pothole in the middle of the Daytona 500.
  The track opened in 1969 and was repaved in 1977 and 1986.
  Goodyear engineers say they expect the project to go smoothly, though they will be carefully watching tire temperatures, which are typically a question on new asphalt. A number of NASCAR tracks have been repaved lately, including Daytona and Darlington, with virtually no issues.
   This project will begin next week with new asphalt to be laid on pit road, to give Goodyear engineers a sample patch for computer testing. The full track is to be repaved following the August race, and the project will be handled by the same design team that handled Daytona, Darlington, Richmond and other NASCAR tracks, including the current repaving project at Phoenix International Raceway.



Joey Logano's crew changing engines. Motor issues hampered all three Joe Gibbs teams Friday at Michigan International Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Ford drivers David Ragan (186.601 mph) and AJ Allmendinger (186.591 mph) showed the fastest cars in Friday's opening practice session, which would determine much of the starting order for Sunday's Michigan 400 if Saturday's qualifying were rained out.
    But Hamlin, who nearly won last year's championship, and who was one of the preseason picks again this year, may be the heart of the weekend so far. He hasn't won this spring, and he's barely in the top-12.
     However Hamlin did have a great day at Pocono last weekend, though again coming up just short.
     "It feels good being more competitive the last six or seven weeks," Hamlin says. "Last week we didn't finish it off like we felt like we could have, or should have. But still things are positive -- we are running better and contending for victories.
     "At the beginning of the year we didn't win because we weren't capable of winning. I didn't feel we were fast enough, and we had bad luck on top of it."
    Now he's got speed. 
    Still Hamlin concedes things are "frustrating."
    "Last weekend one thing snow balled into another…and we found ourselves racing with no brakes the last 50 laps. 
    "I know we're capable of winning, and even though we haven't won, there have been quite a few races where I felt like we could have. 
    "But the sport's not about that.  It's about what you've got in the win column, and how you're performing. We're 12th in points, so we still have some work to do."
    And those controversial oil pans?
    "I don't know a whole lot about it," Hamlin said.
    "When you have something new, sometimes you submit it (to NASCAR, for an okay), and sometimes you don't. This is probably one of the parts NASCAR wants you to submit.
     "That's probably the biggest issue they had with it -- that you showed up at the prom with a different date.
     "It's just one of those instances where they were just kind of caught off-guard I think."



Beautiful blue skies Friday at MIS (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Michigan 400 Friday

NASCAR's fines on drivers are a two-edged sword - they may have made Hamlin so scared that his effectiveness as a racer has been damaged; on the other hand some of the criticisms from drivers step over the line of legitimate criticism and warrant being "beaten down."

The criticism that drivers are too vanilla has always been a foolish one, because the personality argument doesn't wash to begin with. People forget this about vanilla - it always goes better than chocolate. Drivers who act like adults go better than those who have to be flamboyant; flamboyance tends to hide maturity or other issues with the individual involved.

The tire issue (illustrated in the photo) and Goodyear's reaction is typical - if the tires are bad, it's because of - all together now - "aggressive setups." Here's an idea, Goodyear - bring back higher-stagger tires like you did for the 1999 Yankee 400 here; they helped turn the race into a good finish as Bobby Labonte got into a slugfest late in the race for the lead.

JGR oil pans confiscated by NASCAR - I smell some kind of underside aerodynamic work being tried.

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