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Podcast: Denny Hamlin on a NASCAR drivers union that nearly happened

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CHARLOTTE – With several established drivers in contract years, 2020 could be one among the most momentous years for free agency in NASCAR history.

But imagine how different the landscape might be if Cup drivers had organized a few years ago.

During the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast, defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin recalled the formation of a union was imminent about five years ago.

“I had every driver’s signature on a document forming this whole thing except for one, and he was on his way,” Hamlin said. “Just for archive purposes, I still have all of these drivers’ signatures on this document that officially made us an association.”

Hamlin was the ringleader of organizing drivers during the 2014 season when NASCAR was debating new direction on its rules (high downforce vs. low downforce). He successfully had recruited virtually the entire series when NASCAR called a sitdown with him and Jeff Gordon.

“I remember (former NASCAR CEO) Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah blah,’” Hamlin said. “They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”

NASCAR is among the only major professional sports that doesn’t have collective bargaining with its athletes, and its longtime opposition to unions is well documented.

Tim Flock and Curtis Turner were banned for trying to unionize in 1961. When the Professional Drivers Association boycotted the Sept. 14, 1969 opening of Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR brought in a field of replacement drivers, and the organization quickly dissolved.

Mindful of the history and the effort that would be required, Hamlin decided to back off on the project.

“I thought about it quite a bit, and I realized what I really needed to focus on was like on track,” Hamlin said. “This was going to take time to really do it right. I mean we’re going to have to hire staff. We were all going to have to split a lot of attorney’s fees for this whole thing.

“And I think it just lost some steam and, and NASCAR then came out with that driver council thing that went on for a few years.”

The Drivers Council, whose origins Hamlin discussed in a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, was formed midway through the 2015 season and lasted through 2018. A group of eight to 10 drivers met quarterly with NASCAR to discuss major competition initiatives. Since last year, Hamlin said feedback to the sanctioning body has returned to the informal format of when drivers regularly visited the series’ official hauler that serves as NASCAR’s at-track headquarters.

“You’re just texting saying, ‘Hey, you know, you really should think about changing this or that,’ but they also sit down with us at least twice a year to get our feedback,” Hamlin said. “They do it differently than they did 15 years ago and it’s all for the better.”

Hamlin said more could be done, though, noting the progress by the Race Team Alliance, a consortium of team owners who formed in 2014, in lobbying NASCAR.

“I still think personally that drivers should have an official voice,” he said. “Now we have a voice. Don’t get me wrong, I think NASCAR definitely listens to us, but you have the RTA and they have a seat at the table when it comes to rules. They have a vote. And I think that that matters. And I think that the drivers should have that as well.

“Now how you organize it? Who does it? I don’t know, but I definitely think it’s important, especially with there’ll be in the next few years, tracks will have their (sanction) agreements redone. The TV (rights fees) will have agreements redone. The drivers need to be protected.”

The decline in driver salaries has been a major topic of discussion in recent years as Cup teams have weathered a decline in corporate sponsorship that once could support a $10 million salary for a superstar driver.

In 2017, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the youth movement in Cup had led to drivers “being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a 10th of what veterans are getting paid. A lot of these veteran drivers are getting paid multiple millions of dollars. A lot of these young guys coming in are getting a fraction of that.

Kyle Larson (who has been open on his status), Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney (who recently discussed his job status), Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Aric Almirola are among many drivers in contract years this season, and it’s unlikely any will see a bump in pay – though Hamlin said being highly skilled still helps your market value.

“I still think if you want to budget your race team and get a budget driver, you’re going to have budget results,” Hamlin said. “And one thing that Joe Gibbs Racing has done has always went out and hired the best drivers and they did whatever it takes to get the best drivers and they get the best results because of it.

“I think 2021 will be the most different the sport has looked as a whole in a long time, certainly. I think that there’s going to be some motivated drivers out there in contract years for sure. As a driver, you find a way. When all of a sudden that the team owner comes in there and they put your stats down for the last five years or 10 years, and they always give you the sample size that makes you look the worst, because they want to pay you the least that they can get away with, but if you’ve got a good (business) team around you like I’ve got, you find a way to make it positive.

“It’s just definitely one of those sports where the drivers, when they know that their performance is getting looked at, they find a way to step up.”

During the podcast, Hamlin also discussed:

–The input that drivers had in NASCAR’s new short track rules for this season;

–Becoming an iRacing team owner with Michael Jordan, who helped design their car’s scheme;

Being a #GirlDad and how he learned of Kobe Bryant’s death;

–How he outdueled Kyle Busch for the Daytona 500 victory last year;

–His outlook for the 2020 season.

To hear the podcast, click on the embed above or listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”