In wake of Denny Hamlin flap, NASCAR drivers discuss how to air concerns.
By Lee SpencerFoxSports
"Free Denny" Day 2 started with advice from four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
When asked about Denny Hamlin's decision to stand his ground and appeal the $25,000 fine NASCAR levied on him for voicing his opinion on the quality of racing with the Generation 6 car, Gordon suggested it’s best “to look at the big picture” and choose battles wisely.
While Gordon found Hamlin’s quest to challenge authority “interesting,” he was surprised his fellow competitor’s comments were even worthy of a fine. Regardless, Gordon is well aware of who ultimately runs the show.
“At the end of the day, I know whose sandbox I’m playing in,” Gordon said. “I like the sandbox. I like to play in it and I want to have the best opportunity to have the most fun in that sandbox.
“Sometimes, while you don’t always like it, you have to bite your tongue and just go out there and race. I have been there before where I have wanted to challenge that and say those things. If he chooses to do that, that is his prerogative. I think in his mind he is just being honest with himself and didn’t see anything wrong with it.
"There are times when I feel like, ‘Hey, this is my place to speak my mind and say what is there.' … Sometimes I choose to do it a little bit less harsh.”
Finding the proper balance and tone when a competitor delivers his or her beliefs is a work in progress for many in the NASCAR garage, including five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Since Hamlin was cited by NASCAR with violating Section 12-1 of the rulebook (actions detrimental to stock-car racing), Johnson insists he will take those words to heart.
“I think we’re all learning, and we’ve all been encouraged to have an opinion and speak our minds about each other as drivers and on certain topics,” Johnson said.
“The old phrase ‘actions detrimental to stock-car racing,’ that’s something that I am going to try to keep top of mind, and as my opinions come about, if it’s something that’s going to hurt our sport and I think about it and it enters my mind, then I probably need to keep my mouth shut and head over to the truck and talk it out in there rather than through microphones.”
Certainly, Gordon has had more time to sharpen his lobbying skills over the last 20 years in the Sprint Cup Series. In the beginning, when he was concerned over an issue, he took his cue from another champion — Dale Earnhardt. His former crew chief Ray Evernham would observe Earnhardt heading to the NASCAR hauler (the sanctioning body’s at track office) and encourage his driver to “go over there and see what it going on.”
“It was one of those things where you knew that Dale had their ear,” Gordon said. “If you weren’t up there giving your side of it, there could be a result that came out of it that might affect you. Half the reason I was even up there was just to see what was going on to make sure I could get my 10 cents.
“There were usually others that followed as well because everyone kind of saw when Dale moved in there.”
Still, Earnhardt had a process. He would hold get-togethers at Dale Earnhardt Inc. with his fellow drivers to gauge the sentiment of the garage. He would talk to industry types as well as select media to gather opinions in an era before message boards, let alone Twitter, existed. Then he would take his proposals to the hauler.
But Gordon says the current NASCAR schedule doesn’t offer drivers the freedom they once had to spend time in the hauler.
“There is just not that opportunity that there used to be to see three, four, five, six guys up in the hauler discussing the sport and discussing the rules and discussing the racing,” Gordon said.
“I’ve always told NASCAR that it wasn’t because we thought we were actually being heard or we actually thought we were making a difference, it was just we felt like we were getting it off our chests and that they might be listening.
“I think we lose some of that now.”
In the new NASCAR, there are town hall meetings where drivers and team principals discuss the issues of the day. And the more intimate meetings, where just the drivers congregate to air concerns?
“Who’s to say those meetings don’t happen today?'' Earnhardt Jr. said.
"I think they do, and I think that those meetings are very productive, and it’s a great way to get a lot of good ideas moving across the table. I think that a lot of the innovations that you’ve seen in the sport in the last probably five or six years have come from those discussions.
“There’s a lot of good dialogue, and I think those style of meetings are still prevalent.”
ON THE FRONT ROW
Due to qualifying being rained out, as defending champion, Brad Keselowski will roll off first for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 — a luxury he’s never experienced at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In four starts, Keselowski’s best qualifying effort on the 1.5-mile track was 13th. He’s never broken into the top 25, but finished 26th twice.
"I was just thinking when I walked in, with this being Vegas and all, what the odds would be of a rainout in Vegas,” Keselowski said.
“I bet that was pretty high. Obviously, whenever you can start up front it is a big deal, and you get the first pit stall and all those things that make a big difference on pit road.”
Keselowski is tied with Earnhardt Jr. for second in the point standings. Although practice was rained out as well on Friday, Keselowski was encouraged by the speed his car exhibited Thursday.
“The way our car has been running the last two weeks, and off of what I saw in practice yesterday (Thursday), I feel like we are in position to hopefully keep that for a very long time in the race and hopefully close it out,” Keselowski said.
“We have been really close to doing that the last two weeks. We were in position to win and just came up a little bit short. Hopefully this will be the catalyst we need to close it out.”
6 — Races that Tony Stewart has run this season outside of NASCAR-sanctioned events. Smoke expects to run at least 100 before the season ends.
4 — Drivers who have raced all 15 Cup events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Gordon.
4 — Wins by Johnson at Las Vegas — most among all Cup competitors.
When Danica Patrick was asked whether she would place a proposition bet on herself to finish in the top 25 in her Las Vegas Motor Speedway Cup debut, she didn’t hesitate:
“Yeah, I would bet on myself,” Patrick said. “I was running up there last year when I had less of an idea what was going on and didn’t have a full-time effort. ... It was only a partial schedule obviously. I would, but I think that even the best of us can have bad weekends, and that they happen.
"Whether it’s from bad luck or whether it’s just from missing it, it can happen. I think we’ll be better than that, and I would think that the test day would help that just to get us up to speed better and make us feel more comfortable and have a better baseline setup for the race.”