Denny Hamlin Staring Down a Naked Emperor in Brian France
“The first rule of NASCAR club is you do not talk about NASCAR club.
The second rule of NASCAR club is you do not talk about NASCAR club.”
-Brian 'Tyler Durden' France
I'm normally not one to mindless bash either the sport of NASCAR or its front office. Much of what is done goes on behind the scenes and for those of us whose NASCAR knowledge comes from our television and computer screens, we often do not have the necessary information to criticize. In fact, this was Brian France's chief complaint with Brad Keselowski's interview with USA Today- that he was commenting on sponsorship and competition issues without knowing all of the relevant facts. And Brad's the defending series champion, a former Nationwide champion, and someone who has driven for all multiple manufacturers during his time in the sport. But I can't find an explanation for NASCAR's announcement that Denny Hamlin was fined $25k for his comments after the Phoenix race.
For those who haven't heard, Hamlin was mildly critical of the new Gen 6 car after the race. “...it did not race as good as our Gen-5 cars. 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.” Hardly a scathing indictment of NASCAR as a sanctioning body or the car itself. He simply said the same thing that many of the rest of us have said; that this is a new car and it's going to take time for the teams to figure out how to make the car truly effective as a racecar. Nothing more, nothing less. Contrast those comments with Kyle Busch's comments after winning the debut race in the COT where he left no doubt that he thought the car looked, drove, and would always be a pile of junk.
Not that he was wrong. In hindsight, he wasn't. But that's hardly the constructive criticism that NASCAR itself said it was open to when announcing Hamlin's fine. Nor were the comments that led to Denny's previous fine where he basically accused NASCAR of throwing phantom cautions to bunch up the field and increase excitement. That's tantamount to accusing NASCAR of fixing the races- an impression that the sport fights hard enough against and cannot have coming from its competitors.
No, in this case Hamlin voiced the obvious. The Gen 6 car isn't going to be the savior of stock car racing and it isn't going to be perfect out of the box. But don't tell Brian France that; he's still got tickets to sell for the ISC races in the weeks to come. Those races will likely be essentially testing done with a 1st place trophy. Don't tell Mike Helton and Robin Pemberton that, who sung the praises of the new car loud and long before it took a single competitive lap. These are the same individuals who ask us for our patience and understanding as fans when something goes bad but offer none of the same to one of their drivers who says the same thing.
Denny Hamlin is not the problem here. Unrealistic expectations set by NASCAR are. How many different features did we see on Speed TV and Fox prior to the Daytona 500 focusing on the new car? How many articles from Speedweeks centered on, “don't these cars look great, folks? And they're gonna race better too!” Yet those of us who watched the preseason testing and read between the lines in the comments made by drivers before the first race told us this was going to be a work in progress. There would have been little to no backlash from fans had NASCAR been up front about that fact; the change in appearance would've bought them time to improve its driveability... especially if NASCAR could find the courage to own up to what's obvious to everyone through two weeks. This is a blank slate and it will take time for teams to flesh out their notebooks.
“I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”
-The 1st and 3rd Commandments
Quite clearly, NASCAR has taken on the role of God here. Criticism (constructive or otherwise) will not be tolerated. Disagree and you'll find yourself guilty as Hamlin did of violating NASCAR rule 12.1. While the rule book itself is not available to the general public, this is the rule NASCAR cites whenever a driver gets out of line, “Actions detrimental to stock car racing.” In other circles, this might be called the, “If they want ya, they got ya,” rule. There is no established guideline as to what exactly constitutes actions detrimental to stock car racing- instead, that translates into whatever NASCAR's leadership believes is an action detrimental.
Moreover, the appeals process is something less than ideal. Teams essentially are appealing to the same body that issued the punishment in the first place. While a final appeal goes to a supposedly independent arbiter in chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, that arbiter owes his position to NASCAR itself. It doesn't take a genius to see that there's a huge conflict of interest. Ruling against the penalties handed down by NASCAR may very well see them ultimately charged with the same violation, their actions now the ones considered an “action detrimental to stock car racing”. It hasn't happened in the past. But the very fact that it's a consideration is a telling point.
NASCAR would be well advised to remember a children's tale penned almost 200 years ago, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that tale, the ruler of the land commissioned new clothes from a pair of con artists. They convinced the emperor that his clothes were made of invisible fabric and that those who failed to see them were hopelessly ignorant. Not wanting to appear stupid before the emperor, his advisers and sycophants all claimed to love the new threads, complimenting him on his attire. Finally, a child in the crowd, not knowing any better, points out the obviously naked sovereign. The story ends with his ultimate embarrassment as the crowd joins in laughs at his predicament.
The moral of the story? Sometimes you need someone around who's going to tell you the truth, even if you don't want to hear it. Surrounding yourself with yes-men and glad-handers may make the news more palatable. But in the end, it doesn't change facts. In this case, NASCAR has said that their drivers are free to share their thoughts and opinions- so long as those thoughts and opinions are positive about the new car. Instead of admitting the reality of its steep learning curve, NASCAR wants to pretend that all is well with the Car of The Day After Tomorrow. Which means we're likely to see more of the same until NASCAR's own version of the village child points out just how chilly it's getting.
Anyone feel like contributing a blanket?