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Good for Hamlin refusing to pay NASCAR fine

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Mar. 08, 2013

Good for Denny Hamlin, who has vowed not to pay a $25,000 fine levied by NASCAR for simply speaking his mind about the quality of racing (or lack thereof) last Sunday at Phoenix.

NASCAR has a tendency to want to play "Big Brother," and here it goes again with a fine that sounds straight out of George Orwell's "1984" novel. Hamlin's comments about the new "Generation 6" car were so mild that when I first read them I skipped right over them. But now NASCAR has a PR problem on its hands of its own making, drawing a silly line in the sand and daring Hamlin to cross it.

So he has, vowing Thursday: "I'm not going to pay that fine. If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don't care at this point. It's an opinion, and it's not even a bad one."

This would be analogous to an NFL player saying he didn't like the rules protecting quarterbacks or the rule change in which the kickoff was moved up and touchbacks thus increased. Have you ever heard something like that before? Of course you have, and the NFL doesn't fine people for it.

Look, I understand that freedom of speech isn't absolutely unlimited. If a driver unleashes a string of vicious curse words on live TV, or if someone used a racist term while being interviewed, that's worthy of a fine. That clearly hurts the sport. Many pro sports do have rules saying you can't criticize the officials' calls publicly or you will risk a fine, and that's OK, too -- that undermines the sport.

But NASCAR is now suffering from a self-inflicted wound. To back up for a second, here's what Hamlin said Sunday when talking about the difficulty of passing: "We learned a lot. I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation 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. Right now, you just run single file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you."

Sounds pretty tame to me. But NASCAR, in announcing the fine, said Hamlin's comments denigrated the racing product, saying in part in its statement: "Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing.... While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."

Oh, c'mon. Someone needs to go to hypersensitivity training.

This could have easily been handled by NASCAR quietly pulling Hamlin aside, asking him to be a little more careful about what he says, and otherwise leaving it alone. Instead, NASCAR is trying to publicly embarrass Hamlin, calling him up in front of class and having him stick his nose in a circle drawn on the chalkboard while NASCAR Nation (and the other drivers, in particular) watch closely.

Hamlin is not having any of it.

And I don't blame him one bit.

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