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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.

Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and went on to claim his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, earned the win in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Jones had dominated the race until the pass by Bell. He led 186 of the race’s 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. bursting with joy over thoughts of baby girl

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — They laughed.

When the doctor told Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy that Amy was pregnant, the couple laughed.

It wasn’t the kind of laugh one makes after a joke or a funny story. It was … well, let Dale explain:

“Something just comes out,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday at Kansas Speedway. “You just burst out like joy. It wasn’t funny ha-ha. It was a joyful moment.’’

And then they got to hear the heartbeat.

“Somebody says you’re wife is pregnant, that registers a little bit but, man, when you hear that heartbeat, it’s like yep, it’s real,’’ Earnhardt said. “This is a real thing in there. It’s here. My God, it’s happening. Just all this emotion pops out.’’

The prelude to the excitement was the waiting. It was almost too much for Earnhardt when they first went to the doctor’s office to confirm that Amy was pregnant.

We went to the doctor and I’m still thinking man, I’m not believing crap until this doctor tells me,’’ Earnhardt said. “So, we’re sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And they’re talking woman language and I’m not understanding. They are just talking about things and I’m like well, when is she going to say it? I want to hear it from the doctor’s mouth that she’s pregnant, so we can rejoice.

“It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, awesome. And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome. They are so much fun because it’s like the closest you can get to it before they’re born and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”

Earnhardt said on his podcast this week that the baby is due May 2.

“I know that Amy has changed my life a lot, and I imagine this baby is going to have the same impact and just can’t wait to meet her,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “It’s just taking forever.”

Earnhardt says he understands the excitement friends and family have had with their children.

“I guess the thing that hits me is I’ve watched all my friends, a lot of them, have kids and my sister have kids,’’ he said. “I was happy for those milestones in their lives, but I had no idea what that really meant. And as we found out and were going through these little moments through the pregnancy it’s just hitting home how impactful that child has been in all the lives of my friends and family. And I just really didn’t understand or appreciate, I guess, how incredible that moment must have been for them and how their lives completely changed. I saw it from a completely different point of view when I wasn’t experiencing it myself. 

“I look at my friends completely different. I look at my sister completely different knowing what I know now and what I’m learning as I go. And I know there is more to be exposed to and more enlightening and more eye-opening experiences that will make me not only appreciate what me and Amy, what we have, but what my friends and family and folks that I am very close to have and what they have experienced. 

“Because I thought I knew, childbirth is exciting, it’s awesome to have children and everybody says it changes your life and everybody says it’s the greatest thing ever, but you just don’t know until you really go through it.’’

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Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the final NASCAR Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway.

Blaney, who will start last Sunday after failing post-qualifying inspection, posted a top speed of 182.057 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Busch (181.143), Kevin Harvick (181.720), Danial Suarez (181.665) and Matt Kenseth (181.543).

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 12th fastest.

Harvick posted the best 10-lap average at 180.120 mph.

Jimmie Johnson, who was 15th fastest, recorded the most laps with 53.

There were no accidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

Tyler Reddick wins pole for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Tyler Reddick claimed his first career Xfinity Series pole Saturday at Kansas Speedway, winning the top spot with a speed of 181.117 mph.

Rounding out the top five are Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon

William Byron was the highest qualifying playoff driver in sixth, but he will start from the year because of unapproved adjustments.

Reddick’s pole comes in his 17th Xfinity start. It also continues an impressive stretch for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Both Reddick and Alex Bowman earned their first Xfinity wins in the last three races. Reddick won at Kentucky Speedway. Bowman won at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago.

“This cooler weather might be helping us,” Reddick told NBCSN. “We were really tight yesterday. I think that’s going to help us in the race.”

The pole also comes the week after one of his grandmothers, Carolyn Joyce Brown, passed away. Her name is on the roof of his car.

“The last two weeks have been rough,” Reddick said. “She was battling health for a long time and just finally lost the battle. She watched every single race and ever lap on track. She was there watching it at the race track or at home. Hopefully we can do something special for her. This will be the first race she hasn’t been here to see.”

Here is where the playoff drivers qualified:

William Byron – sixth

Cole Custer – seventh

Matt Tifft – eighth

Brennan Poole – ninth

Daniel Hemric – 10th

Elliott Sadler – 11th

Justin Allgaier – 13th

Ryan Reed – 15th

Click here for the qualifying results.