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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.

Chase Elliott wasn’t buying Denny Hamlin’s explanation for wreck

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia – As the boos reigned down from the Martinsville Speedway grandstands, Chase Elliott stepped away from an awaiting TV interview and ambled toward the noise.

The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet began waving his arms up and down, beckoning the crowd for more juice – and jeers.

Their target was Southwest Virginia’s sudden Public Enemy No. 1 and driver of the No. 11 Toyota, Denny Hamlin, who was being interviewed on a large videoboard to the great derision of several thousand fans who lingered after the jaw-dropping, car-slamming conclusion of the First Data 500.

“These fans have been coming here for a long time, and they know when someone gets wrecked, and when someone has a nice fight for the lead, and that wasn’t one,” Elliott said. “It was unnecessary.”

Three laps from getting his ticket to the championship round punched, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was punted from the lead entering the third turn on the 0.526-mile oval. Elliott had taken the lead from Brad Keselowski during a restart on Lap 497 of a scheduled 500 laps before the contact with Hamlin, who led the next seven laps before getting moved aside by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on the final lap and taking seventh.

Elliott managed to finish in 27th, but his title chances are win or bust in the next two races at Texas and Phoenix – which is why he rammed Hamlin’s car multiple times on the cooldown lap.

That prompted both drivers to exit their cars and engage in a heated argument on the backstretch (video above) before driving back to the pits for interviews.

“He said somebody was pushing him, but it wasn’t two car lengths between him and the next guy,” Elliott said. “So, my momma always said if you don’t have anything nice (to say), not to say anything at all. So, it’s not even worth my time. We’ll just go on to Texas.

“We had a great car today and we had an opportunity. We had a good restart there at the end and felt like I was doing what I needed to do. And I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”

Crew chief Alan Gustafson chalked it up to being an incident involving high stakes and the shortest track on the circuit.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “A lot on the line, so anything can happen. It’s just racing at Martinsville. A lot on the line. I think we had one of the best cars here and came home with nothing.

“I’m cool with it, but when we have (Hamlin’s) back tires jacked up going into probably (Turn) 3 at Texas … that will be a bigger corner. Then just be good with that, too.”

Elliott again was good enough to break through for his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series. Rebounding from a miserable test at Martinsville two weeks ago, the team brought a new Chevy, and Elliott responded. He qualified third and led 123 laps.

“He’s done an incredible job,” Gustafson said of Elliott. “It’s unfortunate that race wins have eluded us, because I think that’s the only thing we haven’t been able to do this year. We’ve done everything else. I thought he did a great job.”

Elliott had to get rough, too, making contact on his pass of Keselowski (who had taken the outside lane on the restart). Keselowski skidded up the track but held on for fourth.

“The thing we all like about this track is you can race people hard and have contact and not crash them,” Gustafson said. “Look, I know Brad isn’t happy about what Chase did to Brad. I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure the team is not. But at the end of the day, he didn’t wreck him.

“But what can you do? You race as hard as you can. Things happen.”

Elliott said his battle with Keselowski was “as clean as we could race each other … a hard fought battle for the lead,” while with Hamlin “that was not a battle at all. That was just a wreck.”

“What he did was unnecessary,” Elliott said of Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville who later tweeted an apology. “The guy’s been doing this long enough. He’s won a lot of races here. There’s no reason for that. He knows the deal, how this race works, and he knows how Martinsville is.

“I didn’t race him dirty at all. I don’t know what his problem was. What happened in Turn 3 was over the line.”

Joe Gibbs Racing won’t appeal Denny Hamlin’s Darlington penalty; Chris Gabehart to be crew chief

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Denny Hamlin will start the Cup Series playoffs without crew chief Mike Wheeler.

Joe Gibbs Racing said Wednesday it won’t appeal Hamlin’s rear-suspension penalties after the No. 11 Toyota’s win in Sunday’s Bojangles Southern 500, which means Wheeler’s two-race suspension will begin with the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond Raceway (rather than be deferred while awaiting an appeal hearing that could have made him eligible).

Chris Gabehart will be the interim crew chief for Hamlin at Richmond and Chicagoland Speedway. 

Gabehart has been the crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series team of JGR in 23 races this season, including four victories. He has worked three times in 2017 with Hamlin, winning the June 17 race at Michigan International Speedway. Gabehart was suspended two races after NASCAR ruled that victory also was encumbered becuase of an illegal splitter.

Denny Hamlin caps impressive comeback from pit error to capture Southern 500

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Denny Hamlin rebounded from a major mistake, taking the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with two laps remaining and hanging on to sweep the weekend at Darlington Raceway.

It was Hamlin’s second 500-mile win at the 1.366-mile oval and his first on Labor Day weekend. He won Friday’s Xfinity race at Darlington from the pole position.

Hamlin had been in control of the race before he missed the pits while leading under green on Lap 315 of 367. He made up a nearly 20-second deficit on the lead over the final 52 laps in his No. 11 Toyota.

“Drove our ass off,” Hamlin told NBCSN’s Rutledge Wood after his second victory of the season and 31st of his career. “That’s as hard as I can drive.”

Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Erik Jones.

MORE: Race results.

MORE: Points standings.

Trying to defend his 2016 Southern 500 win, Truex nearly made it a sweep of his own after winning the first two stages, but he smacked the while leading on Lap 365 with a flat right-front tire after trying to stretch it on worn rubber after making his final pit stop under green with 62 laps remaining.

The Furniture Row Racing driver finished eighth and clinched the regular-season points championship, ensuring he will have at least 52 playoff points for the 10-race title run that closes the season.

Stage 1: Truex nips Larson for win.

Stage 2: Truex captures 17th stage victory of the season.

HOW DENNY HAMLIN WON: He led four times for 124 laps, overcoming a massive deficit to take advantage of Truex’s misfortune.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Kevin Harvick (sixth) became only the 17th driver to score his 300th top 10 in Cup (joining only Jimime Johnson and Matt Kenseth among active drivers). The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will make his 600th start next week. … Runner-up Kyle Busch has finished first or second in three of the past five races. … Kurt Busch (third) earned his best finish since winning the Daytona 500 and led more laps (seven) than in the previous 24 races this season. … Erik Jones has five straight top 10s. … Austin Dillon (fourth) earned his first top five since winning the Coca-Cola 600.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Clint Bowyer (40th) fell into a must-win situation at Richmond because of an engine problem. … Daniel Suarez crashed out for the second time in three races.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “It’s pretty simple.  You could almost write an article without talking to me.” — Joey Logano, on being asked if his situation was “pretty clear” after finishing 18th and needing a win at Richmond to make the playoffs.

NEXT: The Cup Series will return to action Sept. 9 with the regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway on NBCSN.

If a baby is on board, Denny Hamlin won’t be at Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – If Denny Hamlin gets the word that he is becoming a father for the second time, he won’t be hanging around Watkins Glen International for long.

Even if he’s behind the wheel of the No. 11 Toyota.

“As far as I’m concerned if and when I get the call I’ll go just immediately,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said Saturday between Cup practices at the 2.45-mile track. “It really doesn’t matter to me when it particularly is. I mean, short of it being in the pace laps, then I would try to run one lap and then come in, but any other time I would just go right away. I’m not really sure how it all will work, but I assume that my people will be gotten a hold of as soon as I need to go.”

Hamlin’s jet is on standby if word comes from his girlfriend, Jordan, who is due to give birth to their second child Thursday.

Regan Smith, who is a “super sub” of sorts in NASCAR’s premier series, is at Watkins Glen in case Hamlin needs a relief driver.

NASCAR rules stipulate that a driver must attempt to start every race in order to maintain playoff eligibility, but it has granted waivers in the past to drivers who haven’t run the full season.

Hamlin, who is qualified for the playoffs through his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago, said he hasn’t asked whether he would be granted dispensation.

“I thought about it this morning, but no, I haven’t quite asked what the rules are,” he said, “but I’m assuming it would be allowed.”