Jeff Gluck, USA Today
Denny Hamlin Stands Up To NASCAR
LAS VEGAS – Denny Hamlin has decided to double down in his battle with NASCAR.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who was fined $25,000 by NASCAR on Thursday for speaking his mind about the new Generation 6 cars last week at Phoenix, has vowed he won't pay the fine and will appeal.
Jeff Gordon thinks it'll be a losing bet.
"I mean, we are in Vegas, so we can try to count the odds of when the apology is going to be coming and when the, 'We're all in this together to grow this sport' tweet is going to be coming," Gordon said. "Your guess is as good as mine."
By refusing to go along with NASCAR's penalty and saying he would not pay, Hamlin has essentially decided to take on the establishment – a stance many drivers are afraid to take. His team released a statement Friday saying it would stand by its driver during the appeals process.
While NASCAR appears over-sensitive in issuing a penalty for comments that didn't seem incendiary, Hamlin could be the loser if officials choose to remind the driver who is in charge.
"It's like a soap opera or a train wreck; I think we're all curious to see how it plays out," said reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who has drawn NASCAR's ire in the past with his comments. "I really want everyone to win, and that clearly is not going to be possible."
Keselowski called NASCAR out on a variety of topics in a USA TODAY Sports story before the Daytona 500, and that earned him meetings with NASCAR chairman Brian France and International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy. Keselowski received no fine, however.
Refusing to back down might seem like a risky decision, but Hamlin has always been the kind of person to stand firm.
"He believes what he says," said his girlfriend, Jordan Fish. "He stands his ground. And that's something I admire about him. If somebody wants to tell him differently, he has these values he believes in and he's not going to back away from that."
Hamlin, 32, clawed his way out of Virginia's short tracks when Joe Gibbs Racing noticed him and gave him a shot to race NASCAR in 2005. After just a year in the Nationwide Series, he was promoted to the Sprint Cup Series.
He was fast right away. Hamlin made the Chase during his rookie season and has never missed it since, winning 22 races along the way. In 2010, he entered the season finale with the points lead but was overtaken by Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
Despite his success, and despite a friendship with high-profile sports figures such as Michael Jordan and golfer Bubba Watson, Hamlin mostly stays under the radar. He was not one of NASCAR's 10 most popular drivers last year and typically doesn't draw a loud reaction from fans during pre-race introductions.
His gritty short-track racing roots don't seem to go with his urban interests – which include part-ownership of a Charlotte nightclub – but Hamlin often comes across as a puzzle to even those close to him.
Fish, who recently gave birth to the couple's first child – daughter Taylor James – said her boyfriend is "a little quiet" but never talks just for the sake of having an opinion.
"He might not say a lot, but when he does, you know it's something you want to listen to," she said. "It's something with meaning. He doesn't just say something just for fluff."
Hamlin often backs up his comments, too.
Shortly after a pit road miscue cost Hamlin a shot to win last season's Chase opener at Chicagoland, he tweeted a guarantee: "We will win next week" at New Hampshire.
He did, then celebrated with a Babe Ruth swing to remind everyone he called his shot.
But if he's truly intent in taking on NASCAR, it could be one of his toughest challenges yet. After angrily telling reporters he would not pay the fine, he reaffirmed his stance hours later with a post on Twitter.
"I said today I would not pay the fine," he tweeted. "I stand by that and will go through the process of appealing."
This isn't the first time Hamlin has been fined. In 2010, he was secretly docked $50,000 after speculating in an online Twitter conversation (with this author) that NASCAR sometimes threw debris cautions to tighten the field for the benefit of the show.
Before the fine, Hamlin had been Keselowski before Keselowski was – interactive on Twitter and highly opinionated. Since then, he tweets less, interacts less and has fewer public opinions.
Gordon said he won't be surprised if Hamlin ends up having to go along with NASCAR's punishment again this time.
"It's been an interesting story for someone to challenge that authority," Gordon said. "But at the end of the day, I know whose sandbox I'm playing in, and I like the sandbox and I like to play in it, and I want the best opportunity to have the most fun in that sandbox.
"Sometimes, while you don't always like it, you've got to bite your tongue and go out there and race."