They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
But as we learned last week, what’s said in Phoenix has a funny way of following a man around.
Denny Hamlin’s post-race comments about the new Gen-6 car following the race in the Arizona desert resulted in NASCAR hitting the driver with a $25,000 fine that was the talk of the infield at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend.
Was it warranted? Well, that’s certainly open to debate.
For what it’s worth, Hamlin’s assessment that the new car didn’t create better racing than the old Cup car came and went without much notice until the fine was announced. In fact, most NASCAR journalists had to go scrambling to their tape recorders to find out just what Hamlin said in the moments following the Phoenix race to earn the fine. So in other words, Hamlin’s words didn’t make much of an impression on most folks outside the home office in Daytona Beach.
NASCAR’s reasoning for the punishment was that Hamlin disparaged the on-track product, which is apparently a no-no because when the fans hear drivers telling them a race is anything less than pulsating, fans instantly believe the action they just witnessed wasn’t worth watching.
Personally, I think that is insulting. Virtually every race fan I’ve talked to is capable of watching a race and making his or her own judgment about how good the event was. If NASCAR honestly believes dwindling TV viewership and attendance have anything to do with the drivers telling them the racing is bad, they’ve got some big issues to deal with.
The fans I talk to who claim to have lost interest in NASCAR tell me it has more to do with a lack of drivers willing to tell it how it is. Most of the ones finding their way back to the sport point to outspoken champion Brad Keselowski as the main reason they are coming back.
Unfortunately, when Hamlin spoke to the media in Vegas, he vowed to be less opinionated in the future following the fine, which he said he wouldn’t pay. If Hamlin follows through on curbing his opinions, that will hurt the sport more in the long run than anything he could have said to a reporter in the aftermath of the Phoenix race.
That being said, I think Hamlin’s assessment of the new car was a bit premature.
One of the most important factors in how well a car handles is the tire compound Goodyear brings to the track each weekend. Softer tires give the cars better grip, but they also fall off faster than harder tire compounds, rewarding drivers who make a four-tire stop over a long run while penalizing drivers who take two tires or none at all in order to gain track position.
Judging by the way the Cup race unfolded in Las Vegas, Goodyear is being conservative with its tire compounds right now. Matt Kenseth opted to go without fresh tires during the pit stop before the final restart, and was able to hold off Kasey Kahne, who had the faster car for most of the race, to earn his first win as a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing.
If Goodyear is being a tad bit conservative with its tire compounds, it is for good reason. The last thing anyone wants is a replay of the tire debacle that marred the Brickyard 400 back in 2008, the first year the CoT was used in Indianapolis.
It will take the tire manufacturer a while to gather enough data to be comfortable pushing the envelope and bringing softer tires to the track. While the new car should be less taxing on right front tires than the CoT, which had a high center of gravity and also weighed more, there is no reason to go crazy until enough data is collected and analyzed.
If all goes well, the tires will get softer and that will promote more passing at most racetracks on the circuit. Late-race strategy will also get more interesting as drivers take four tires and make a mad dash back up toward the front of the field as the final laps tick way.
As the NASCAR circus rolls into Bristol, talk will probably continue to center around Hamlin’s stand and the outcome of his appeal. Considering he’s appealing to NASCAR to overturn a fine NASCAR dished out, I don’t like his chances.
But hey, if it doesn’t go Hamlin’s way, he can rest easy in the knowledge that he isn’t the first person to fly to Vegas and lose a little money.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.