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Ryan: Denny Hamlin has earned the right to talk about money in NASCAR

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When you’re the star who owns a 31,000-square-foot mansion with a full-length basketball court, helicopter landing pad and 24 60-inch flat screens, income equality is inherently difficult to broach.

Even trickier is making a staunch argument that your brethren are underpaid, and the NASCAR industry needs revenue redistribution.

Denny Hamlin might not be the ideal guy to make the case, but he is the right guy to put forth a complex and divisive topic that at least is worthy of attention and conversation.

A little more than three years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gathered his peers in the parking lot of the NASCAR R&D center, handed out notecards with talking points to ensure consistent messaging and went inside to meet with Mike Helton and other NASCAR executives.

That was the genesis of the Drivers Council, which is in its third year of tackling major issues in Cup through regular audiences with the sanctioning body.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” Hamlin explained during a February episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations: You’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea, and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it, and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

Not always, of course.

Hamlin’s comments Wednesday morning weren’t received well in some powerful corners of the Cup Series (on Thursday, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Hamlin “might need to speak to some of the other stakeholders and maybe get a little bit better education”) and assuredly led to some form of him being read the riot act by someone with a board-level title. And it isn’t the first time he has been willing to enter the crosshairs for what he believes in, either.

This is the same driver who once steadfastly refused to pay a fine in March 2013 for a rather innocuous review of the Gen 6 car that was deemed “detrimental to stock-car racing.” A deal eventually was brokered in which he paid, but NASCAR took the major PR hit because Hamlin stood his ground.

A few years before that, it was an unannounced $50,000 fine for an offhand remark about debris cautions on Twitter. NASCAR discontinued its secret fine system a year later.

The son of a trailer-hitch business owner from the Richmond, Va., area, has his detractors for living lavishly (he hasn’t been shy about showcasing his Lake Norman abode), but there can be no questioning Hamlin’s willingness to go to the mat for that which he believes.

And the even-keeled manner Wednesday in which he addressed the economics for drivers and teams was indicative of the fact that he clearly has deliberated on this for a long time before landing on a position that was controversial for many — notably fans who are tired of hearing about athletes commanding nine- to 10-figure annual salaries and demanding more.

The question of whether pro sports stars are worthy of such disproportionate compensation is a separate argument for another day, but it’s indisputable that NBA and NFL players have among the best labor deals in pro sports – receiving roughly 50% of their leagues’ primary revenue streams.

It also is beyond debate that if there is a driver qualified to weigh in on that, it’s Hamlin – regardless of his opulent lifestyle (whether it’s fair to judge how he or anyone chooses to spend their money is yet another question).

In the absence of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are fewer drivers than any point in recent memory willing to embrace the scrutiny that accompanies speaking out on a major issue, particularly in a league that is beholden in many ways to image-conscious corporate sponsors.

Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are those who most consistently voice objections when they feel strongly about a topic, and in Wednesday’s case, it’s an issue that should concern everyone – the long-term viability of race teams that make the weekly show possible.

After being asked about whether the 2018 rules would help reduce costs for teams, Hamlin confirmed it would to a degree (via “stacking pennies,” as it’s known in NASCAR vernacular). But he also leaped to a larger solution: Finding a way teams no longer would be so reliant on corporate sponsorship, which is becoming scarcer each season (for some reasons beyond NASCAR’s control).

“The pie has to be shifted,” he said, implying that race teams, which currently receive a quarter of the largest guaranteed revenue stream, should be given more.

This is where things get complicated in an unavoidable mess of optics.

If you’re having an honest discussion about making team financials work, it’s natural to ask whether it should start with jettisoning driver salaries that can be a massive seven- or eight-figure line item. Hamlin was asked just that Wednesday, and he candidly responded that drivers are underpaid, particularly those on the back half of the grid.

This understandably is a hard sell to a fan base that is middle class and traditionally blue collar. No one wants to hear that drivers who make millions aren’t getting their due. From a philosophical standpoint, no professional athlete is underpaid.

But in the real world, it’s fact that NASCAR drivers don’t stack up with their counterparts – even though they are face greater occupational hazards (yes, the riskiest jobs often don’t draw the largest salaries – this is comparative analysis, not an exacting thesis on the shortcomings of capitalism).

NFL and NBA players earn a greater percentage of league income through their labor contracts (again, it’s a separate discussion why stock-car racing doesn’t have them, and drivers are in a weaker position partly of their own making). NASCAR driver salaries are closely guarded secrets, but it’s reasonable to presume it’s nowhere near 50% of guaranteed revenue.

When Hamlin lobbies for driver earnings to be commensurate with other leagues, he isn’t suggesting he deserves the $40 million annual deals that many NBA stars are getting (though he and other NASCAR stars probably should get a similarly proportionate shake, the NBA’s current popularity makes it more flush with cash).

Hamlin isn’t so tone-deaf to demand his lakeside estate could use a few technological add-ons and a new parquet court.

But he is arguing the disparity from the top to bottom of the grid needs to be fixed. There are benchwarmers in the NBA who are earning more annually than all but a handful of NASCAR stars. The last quarter of a NASCAR field isn’t anywhere close to that stratosphere.

How does that get addressed?

Well, making the teams more self-sufficient – the starting point Wednesday for Hamlin – would help. Should that help come from racetracks owned by publicly traded companies that are receiving a lion’s share of revenue (again, another way in which NASCAR understandably is different from other pro sports leagues)?

These aren’t easy topics for the NASCAR industry to ponder, but they get addressed only after starting a dialogue.

And as usual, Hamlin was the one willing to go there.

While you’re screaming about his lofty standards of living, it’s worth remembering he partly enjoys them because of his willingness to fight.

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As the oldest driver at Hendrick Motorsports by more than 17 years, the comforting interaction of Jimmie Johnson, 42, with Chase Elliott, 21, after Sunday’s race at Dover could be a preview of an expanding role for the seven-time series champion as mentor in 2018. Alex Bowman, 24, and William Byron, 19, will race Cup for Hendrick next year.

“I’m here for those guys,” Johnson said Thursday night during Hendrick’s splashy car and driver unveiling for next season. “I honestly walked over to Chase, and I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t really know what to say, either. But it was ‘Hey buddy, I’m here, if you want to scream, yell, punch something, kick something, anything you need, I’m here.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, just know when or if or whatever it might be, I’m here.’ I’ve had guys here for me, I just want to be that person for my teammates as well.”

When Johnson joined Hendrick in 2002, he spent his early years just watching Jeff Gordon and said he can sense Byron (who grew up in the same neighborhood where Johnson lives) doing the same.

“It can be as simple as just being around and seeing how people carry themselves to actually sitting down and working through a given topic,” he said. “I am aware that (Byron) is paying attention and Alex is, and I need to lead by example on a lot of fronts. But at same time, we might have to sit down and talk through some things, too.”

It’s a little new for Johnson, who only last year shifted into more of a leadership role in becoming Hendrick’s driving dean with the retirement of Gordon.

“The majority of my career has been the up and coming, the young gun, all these titles in front of my name,” Johnson said. “Then veteran appeared, and now it’s like senior citizen. It definitely is different, but I’m young at heart, so I’ll fit in well, and I know all three of these guys so well, and excited to have that youth in our program.”

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Alex Bowman also is the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his road to the No.88 Chevrolet, the advice he’s gotten from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and the social media tips he has offered him) and the harrowing Midget crash that once left him in intensive care for several days.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

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There have been industry meetings galore in Charlotte this week with Sunday’s quasi-home game at Charlotte Motor Speedway bringing virtually all of the industry power brokers to NASCAR’s hub.

With the 2018 rules distributed to teams Tuesday, NASCAR met Thursday afternoon with Goodyear about next season to lock down the competitive landscape for 2018. After that’s done, O’Donnell said meetings will begin in earnest on mapping out the Gen 7 car that is expected to be phased in within the next few years.

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A documentary about Danica Patrick directed by longtime ESPN anchor Hannah Storm is expected to make its debut next month, and a trailer that briefly appeared online last week hinted that it will be quite revelatory.

In a preview that ran a couple of minutes, the Epix production alluded to Patrick’s fiery outbursts, her desire to start a family and her diminishing tolerance for questions about her career and motives. There also were snippets of an interview with Bobby Rahal, her former car owner in IndyCar, who predicted Patrick would have won the Indianapolis 500 by now if she hadn’t transitioned to NASCAR but added that she increased her earnings power by racing stock cars.

Patrick has tweeted the movie’s release is scheduled for Nov. 8.

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Ryan Blaney did two things after his Xfinity win at Dover International Speedway that were trend-worthy, but only one drew much attention. While admirably giving the checkered flag to a young fan deserved the raft of attention it received, the Team Penske driver’s decision to skip a postrace victory burnout also should be hailed as an example for others to consider.

“It’s not really my thing,” said Blaney, who also skipped burnouts after an Xfinity win at Charlotte in May and his first Cup win at Pocono Raceway in June. “I used to do them and just not a fan of them anymore, especially when people destroy their race cars. That raises a lot of questions.

“I just don’t think that it’s really that nice to do. That’s just something personal that I don’t think a big smoky burnout (does). You can just go down there and give a big wave to the fans, and they get pretty pumped up about that as a big, smoky burnout and all that. Just personal preference.”

It’s a preference we wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of his generation adopt, particularly with the recent questions about a celebration that really does nothing more than amplify exuberance with mind-numbing destruction. There are classier ways to carry the checkered flag, as Blaney showed.

Ron Hornaday Jr. kept up a cold tradition with Hall of Fame induction

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – The call came “out of the blue” in November.

The name “Horny” flashed on Wayne Auton’s phone.

The nickname belonged to Ron Hornaday Jr., four-time Camping World Truck Series champion and one of Auton’s closet friends.

Earlier in the year, the former Truck Series director and current manager of the Xfinity Series had been the one to call Hornaday and let Hornaday know he was one of the nominees for the 2018 class in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Hey, buddy, I need you to do something for me,” Hornaday said. “I want you to induct me into the Hall of Fame.”

Auton needed a moment.

“Ron, did you just say what I thought you said?” He eventually responded.

“Yeah.”

“Damn man, you need to let somebody in your family do that.”

“No, you are my family.”

Auton began crying.

For two days Hornaday couldn’t sleep.

The 59-year-old native of Palmdale, California, fretted over the speech he’d give Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center as the first Truck Series champion to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“This is really the crown jewel of everything he’s done,” Hornaday’s wife, Lindy Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He was scared he was going to forget somebody and I said, ‘Everybody knows you and they know that you’re thankful to everybody. So don’t thank anybody specifically. Just thank them all.'”

Friday morning, Hornaday woke up without a speech set in stone.

“I got up at 9 o’clock this morning and it was like *makes gagging noises*,” Hornaday said. “I walked away, took a deep breath, come back and I couldn’t do it again. And I said to hell with it. When I started seeing my friends and family, something will come to me instead of trying to read this speech off that prompter. I got back to the room and I’ve never had an anger deal, I don’t know what it’s called in your stomach, but my stomach was turning over so bad. I was regurgitating air for about four hours. I finally fell asleep for a little while. My wife wanted to go to lunch. I sent her with all the family to lunch. I finally thought about thinking about what this really means and still didn’t know what it meant until I started seeing friends, family, peers, the Hall of Famers. They really just got me into a different mood. I did that one sober. Usually I get a couple of beers in me before I speak.

“Everybody’s telling me, ‘be yourself, take your time.’ How can you do that? It’s the freakin’ Hall of Fame!”

Those are the same words Hornaday bellowed at the beginning of his unscripted speech, with both arms raised high.

“That was the best part about the whole thing,” Hornaday said. “Had to break the ice, just to get somebody to giggle. And I knew I could get on a roll.”

Hornaday said he only forgot to mention Chevrolet, the manufacturer he earned all 55 of his NASCAR wins with.

Wayne Auton, left, poses with Lindy Hornaday and Ron Hornaday Jr. (Photo: Daniel McFadin)

During the two days Hornaday fretted over his speech, Auton was with him.

The two first encountered each other in 1995, the inaugural season of the Truck Series.

“He was there at every one of my wins,” Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He’s the one that gave me the words of wisdom, he’s the one that pulled me down and closed doors and told me what I had done wrong on the race track. He’s the one that chewed my butt out, he’s the one that when he got all done and said I’d chew his butt out. We got all done and said and we’d get a beer together.”

For 18 years, the two were “friends, enemies and warriors,” said Auton.

“Whether he won, whether he lost … when we were inside the gate we had a job to do,” Auton said. “When we walked outside the gate we were very good friends. We had to have a beer together. Cold beverage. We knew each other’s family like they were our own.”

Leading up to the ceremony, the two pestered each other about what the other would say when the time came.

“I said, ‘Ron, I just hope I don’t pee in my pants,'” Auton said.

“When he was up there speaking, I seen him shaking pretty good,” Hornaday said. “I’m glad I got back to him and made him as nervous as I was.”

Standing on the auditorium floor afterward, Auton described the moment as “the biggest honor” he could ask for.

“I’ll never top that.”

When they left the stage, it took them awhile to get back to their seats.

Auton said they stopped to have a cold Coors Light.

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

 

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”