NASCAR's recent fine of $25,000 against Denny Hamlin for comments about the new "Gen 6" Sprint Cup car makes one have to ask: Why is NASCAR so sensitive?
Following the Phoenix race - in which Hamlin started at the rear and charged to third - Hamlin basically said the car was as bad as the old Car of Tomorrow (CoT) car was at this stage, in that nobody quite had it figured out and so it handled poorly. He also mentioned that the Phoenix race could have been better if Goodyear had a softer left-side tire.
NASCAR claimed Hamlin "disparaged" the "product," and fined him for actions detrimental to the sport. In reality, it was NASCAR's actions that posed a problem for the sanction.
By the time NASCAR announced Hamlin's fine, most people had forgotten about his comments. So what NASCAR really did was draw attention to those comments again. And most fans sided with Hamlin, who announced that NASCAR could suspend him if they wished, he was not going to pay the fine for telling the truth.
NASCAR has a long history of handling situations poorly. When Wendell Scott became the first African-American to win a top-level NASCAR race, they awarded the second-place driver the win to avoid trouble at the track. Years later they completely mishandled the situation with Tim Richmond, when they realized he suffered from AIDS -- in fact, Bill France Jr. stated before his death that NASCAR's poor handling of Tim Richmond was one of his life's regrets. Compared to the way the NBA handled Magic Johnson, NASCAR acted pitifully.
Then, of course, they had their completely unsatisfying press conference after parts of Kyle Larson's car seriously injured fans at the end of the Nationwide race at Daytona. Now they have a PR problem of their own making with Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin may have been whining because he had an ill-handling car, true. But I know few race drivers who don't whine when things don't go their way. None of them like losing. But Hamlin actually spoke the truth -- the teams are challenged because nobody has a notebook on the new car, and it's going to take time before the car reaches its competitive potential.
NASCAR should have left well enough alone. If they hadn't blown Denny Hamlin's comments out of proportion, nobody would be thinking about them today. In fact, NASCAR could have highlighted Hamlin's comments, observing that one of the great challenges of racing this season will be to get a handle on the Gen 6 car before the competition. If NASCAR were thinking straight, they could have used Hamlin's comments to generate more interest. Who will be the first to really get a grip on the new car's potential?
Daytona was OK. The cars almost raced as they did before restrictor plates; you didn't have the pack racing back then. It was actually refreshing to see people able to break away. But despite NASCAR claims that the racing was fine, don't bet against rule changes to bunch the cars back up before Talladega, since that seems to be what the fans want.
Phoenix and Las Vegas weren't barnburners, but they weren't the worst races, either. And NASCAR can be pleased that in the first three races, all the competing manufacturers found victory lane.
The Gen 6 cars do look a lot better than the CoT; in time, surely they'll race just as well. The racing will get better as time goes on and the teams learn all there is to learn about the new cars. Maybe one day NASCAR will learn to leave well enough alone and stop making itself look bad.
Hagerstown Speedway finishes the Brawl in the Fall on Sunday, postponed from last year due to super storm Sandy. Late Models, Sprint Cars and Modifieds are on the card.
The short track at Bristol is on tap for NASCAR this weekend, but there's other motorsports on TV as well. The 12 Hours of Sebring runs on Saturday for the final time under ALMS sanction. SPEED will have coverage beginning at 10:30 a.m. Formula One kicks off its 2013 season from Australia at 1:30 a.m. Sunday on the NBC Sports Channel; it'll be interesting to see Lewis Hamilton's first race for Mercedes. And AMA Supercross will be live from Indianapolis on Saturday night on SPEED, as new point leader Ryan Villopoto attempts to grab his sixth win of the year.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.