Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin talks with his crew members in this AP file photo.
We know exactly what happened to Denny Hamlin on Sunday in Martinsville.
He started on the outside of the front row, fought the handling of his car on long runs and faded to a 19th-place finish. It's all spelled out in black and white on the race recap.
What is less clear, however, is what happened to Hamlin the Sunday prior in California. Hamlin was a late scratch for the Auto Club 400 after doctors ruled him out due to an apparent sinus infection and sent him to a local hospital. From there, it didn't take long for the rumors to start swirling.
NASCAR is unique among the other major professional sports in that its competitors race on Sundays and then are left largely to their own devices until the next race weekend. Sprint Cup drivers certainly have their share of meetings and sponsor obligations, but there is no team bus, no daily practice — just a private jet and a healthy dose of unsupervised free time.
In any other profession where unlimited funds are placed in the hands of people in their late teens and 20s, bad decisions become routine. Whether it be movie stars, rock stars or professional athletes, tales of things spiraling woefully out of control have become commonplace in our culture.
And yet, aside from the cautionary tale of Jeremy Mayfield, NASCAR drivers have managed to avoid these pitfalls. To a public growing more skeptical and cynical with each passing day, this seems too good to be true.
So when a young, wealthy guy like Hamlin with a penchant for getting out of his house and hitting the town every now and then misses a race in Southern California, it doesn't take much imagination to conjure up a scenario straight out of "True Hollywood Story." By the time Hamlin stomped into the media center in Martinsville on Friday, the tale about him faking an injury in California in order to sidestep a drug test had been percolating on Twitter, Facebook and NASCAR message boards for days.
Hamlin did his best Don Quixote impression during his media availability at Martinsville, tilting at windmills by offering an impassioned defense of his character and laying out a detailed timeline of his eye problem and the subsequent medical intervention.
The problem is that it's impossible to shine the light of truth on Internet innuendo. By the time Hamlin was done talking, the theory had already shifted its shape and started attacking at a different angle. The small piece of metal that Hamlin claimed found its way into his eye and caused the infection was being scrutinized like the magic bullet in the JFK assassination by Friday afternoon.
If Hamlin was telling the truth, and there is no reason in the world to believe he wasn't, it's hard not to feel bad for the guy because he's simply the victim of NASCAR's ever-widening credibility gap.
From ESPN wishing Tim Richmond a speedy recovery following a motorcycle wreck most agree never happened to Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds championing the great racing created by the Car of Tomorrow, the amount of pure propaganda that has been passed off as NASCAR coverage over the years has left many fans wondering if they can believe anything they see or read about the sport.
It also doesn't help when NASCAR bullies a website like www.NASCARnomics.com into submission. For those not familiar with the site, it is run by an economist named Andrew Maness who committed the cardinal sin of analyzing television ratings and other data related to NASCAR.
Even though Maness did little more than crunch numbers relating to health of the sport, NASCAR's lawyers came after him. The site is now known as www.racingnomics.com, and while Maness analyzes TV ratings for IndyCar and Formula One, NASCAR's television ratings are now off limits.
It would be bad enough if NASCAR had attacked Maness over his opinions, but to take a website down because you don't like the facts (many of the statistics Maness provided came straight from NASCAR) is the sort of move that gives the most outlandish conspiracy theories the oxygen they need to live and breathe.
The only thing Hamlin can do now is keep his head down and keep racing with the vague hope that the truth will ultimately set him free. After all, the truth is always out there in NASCAR if you listen hard enough.
Problem is, it always seems to be running several laps behind the pep band and the cheerleaders.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.comments powered by Disqus