RICHMOND, Va. — The undertones could be unsettling, but drivers say it’s not like that.
The action was surprising, but drivers say they had to act.
The growth is worth watching. That’s the way drivers want it.
The decision by the Sprint Cup Drivers Council to publicly criticize NASCAR for fining Tony Stewart $35,000 was a dramatic change for the 11-month-old group. Created to help improve the sport, the Council’s action had mostly been kept quiet — other than the push for the low downforce package, which universally was supported by drivers.
Thursday’s statement was a sign of how this nine-member organization has grown. It is learning what it can be and should be.
Multiple members told NBC Sports that they were displeased that NASCAR fined Stewart, saying they didn’t think what he said disparaged the sport, especially because it dealt with the safety matter of loose wheels. Other drivers not on the Council told NBC Sports that they were encouraged by the group’s action to stand up for Stewart.
The unified action by the Council makes it easy to wonder that if it disagrees with a fine, what’s next? Is this the beginning of a power play? Could it make the first step toward a union?
“I don’t think it was us putting our foot down or trying to get in NASCAR’s way,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr., a Council member, told NBC Sports. “We just didn’t really agree with what they did there in that particular instance.’’
Drivers contend that they need to work together with owners and NASCAR to provide the racing wanted by fans. They stated that butting heads with series officials won’t accomplish that goal.
Still, the drivers know they need to be heard.
“As a group, we talk every week, it may not be every day, but as a group there are conversations going on that are in 100 percent the best interest of the sport,’’ said Kevin Harvick, a Council member, Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “Obviously, our opinions aren’t 100 percent of the equation, but maybe it hasn’t been a third up until the last two years, but we are going to fight hard to have our third of the opinion heard.”
They should because they’re the ones taking the biggest risks. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything they want is right or will be best for the sport. That’s where NASCAR officials must weigh input from owners, drivers, fans, sponsors and television, among various groups.
That leads to many challenges for NASCAR in trying to appease everyone.
“As a sport we have some major decisions to make as to how we want to be identified,’’ said Brad Keselowski, a Council member. “How do we want to compete? What are those aspects? Whether that is NASCAR themselves, the drivers, (Race Team Alliance), the fans, we have to make a decision of what tools do we want to determine who is a winner and who is great. Who is not?’’
Keselowski notes how the role of pit road has become more significant in who wins races. That’s more a measure of a team’s ability as opposed to a driver’s. He said that in the past, a fast car could make up for a bad pit stop because the competition wasn’t as balanced. Now, it’s more difficult to overcome something such as that.
“Do we want to determine who is great off of pit road?’’ Keselowski said. “Then we should just have a pit road competition every weekend if we come to that conclusion. I don’t think we want that. I don’t think we want pit road to mean nothing, either.’’
Those and other issues are what the Council will discuss, debate and help NASCAR decide in the days ahead.
Thursday showed that the group could present a clear message. Of course, that was easy because they felt one of their own had been wronged.
What about other issues?
“We’re all in this together as the drivers,’’ Denny Hamlin, a Council member said. “We want to have one voice because that one voice is obviously a little louder and clearer to NASCAR when we go into meetings talking about where it’s going to head from competition to safety and amongst other things.’’