Darlington: NASCAR’s penalties rarely add up

ashain@thestate.comMay 11, 2013 

— Imagine criticizing your boss or your company before a televised audience of millions — and not getting punished for it.

Now think about offering mild judgment about your office’s new computer system — and the honchos dock your pay.

NASCAR justice can be hard to interpret.

Driver Denny Hamlin was pinged $25,000 earlier this year for saying he was not too crazy about the new cars this season. But Ryan Newman walked away after using a word that would get a fourth-grader’s mouth washed out with soap to describe NASCAR officials last week.

“I do wish we had a little bit more consistency, and a little more of what are the exact lines,” said Jeff Gordon, who has watched 20 years of drivers sharing their unvarnished views.

Newman was upset about a wreck where Kurt Busch’s car landed atop his Chevrolet during a 10-lap dash at Talladega Superspeedway that came after a lengthy delay.

“That’s just poor judgment in restarting the race, poor judgment,” Newman said. He also remarked how NASCAR “can’t get their heads out of their (posterior) far enough” to keep cars from getting airborne.

Hamlin essentially said in March the new Gen-6 car “did not race as good” because it was more difficult to make passes than its predecessor.

“I thought for sure Ryan was going penalized. It was pretty harsh,” Gordon said Friday before qualifying for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. “I think the thing Denny did, I didn’t think that it warranted a penalty. It looked like a knee-jerk reaction.”

NASCAR president Mike Helton said Friday that the series has a line for drivers where they will be asked for a check.

“We have told our drivers all along, you can challenge us, you can challenge NASCAR and our calls to a certain extent. Now whether or not this has been pushed to the edge, that’s been debated,” Helton said. “But what you cannot do is criticize the product.”

Newman was deemed to be challenging a NASCAR decision, Helton said. (That doesn’t mean series officials didn’t have a moment of prayer with Newman, which Helton suggested to reporters to Friday.)

Hamlin said Helton’s interpretation was similar to what NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a sitdown a week after the driver’s comments: “He said, ‘You can criticize the officiating all you want,’ which is something that other sports don’t allow.”

Hamlin said he was not mad Newman did not get fined.

“I think (NASCAR) realized they took it a little too far with my penalty,” he said. “I think they have loosened up the reins and realized that drivers are in the heat of the moment.”

Drivers admired Newman taking a stand last week (“That was cool by him saying all that stuff,” Joe Nemechek said) and don’t feel too restricted in expressing their opinions (“I think drivers are going to say what they want regardless of the fine,” Jimmie Johnson said).

But in the end, NASCAR drivers have a duty to watch their mouths, said Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion who leads the points standings this year.

“Me taking this microphone right now and saying what is on my mind, is it going to help our sport?” he said. “Some can call it a cop out, they can call it whatever they want, but at the end of the day we need to protect our sport and grow our sport.”

But saying nothing critical would send a wrong signal to fans.

“If we didn’t do it,” Nemechek said, “that means there’s no passion for it.”

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