NASCAR Cup Drivers Council

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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 soliciting feedback about future of Drivers Council

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR held preseason meetings with all of its full-time Cup drivers this week, and the future of the Drivers Council was among the topics discussed.

NASCAR is soliciting feedback from drivers on whether there are changes they might like to see with the panel, which was formed nearly four years ago and meets with series executives several times annually to discuss big-picture issues.

There were 10 members on the 2018 council: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ty Dillon and William Byron. The council usually is determined via driver voting by Speedweeks, but it could take longer this year, depending on whether there are structural changes.

“That’s still up in the air in how it’s going to look and feel,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “That was one of the points that was brought up. We still have to vet that out.”

Among the options would be keeping the current structure, which NASCAR officials have found useful in helping chart directions on competition. Johnson said drivers also have been satisfied with how NASCAR handled “a whole list of things” that have been “addressed and answered” after being presented by drivers.

“It seems like we’ve worked through a lot of the issues,” Johnson said. “So the meetings are much shorter. There’s still input they clearly want to have from us. They want to make sure they cover their bases, and all drivers have a voice. They personally like the structure of it. I think that helps them.

“On our side, I think it’s more in that category of, ‘Are we still effective as we sit as a group or not?’”

NASCAR met with drivers in two groups Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning at the Charlotte Convention Center, where many had preseason media obligations.

The meetings’ primary agendas were to highlight key marketing and competition initiatives. Johnson described it as a “state of the union opportunity” and was pleased by what he saw.

“They’re just making sure that regardless of driver or team that everyone has a chance to be with the executive staff and hear and speak and ask questions if need be,” the seven-time series champion. “It was good. There’s a lot going on. We all know we have some problems. But there is a clear plan forward. They’re following a game plan that they feel really confident in, so their confidence brings me a lot of confidence.”

The origins of the NASCAR Drivers Council explained by Denny Hamlin … and what’s ahead

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin isn’t always the most verbose of NASCAR stars.

But when he has a point to make, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver always has made it firmly and simply while standing his ground.

It explains why Hamlin has emerged as a leader on the Drivers Council after spearheading its formation.

The scrutiny and heat that accompany being the face of the group is worth the trouble for the Chesterfield, Va., native.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” he said during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And 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.”

The Drivers Council, which is in its third year, grew out of a meeting that Hamlin had with NASCAR executive Mike Helton in September 2014.

Hamlin was displeased that NASCAR was adding downforce and raising the spoiler and expressed it to Helton, who recommended organization.

“I credit Mike Helton for this,” Hamlin said. “He said, ‘If you guys overall feel there’s something as a group that we need to change, you get some drivers together and come meet us at the R&D Center and we’ll have a talk.”

Hamlin called up several Cup stars and had them in the parking lot at the R&D Center before the meeting. He distributed notecards with talking points because presenting a united front was important.

“I handed out notes (and said), ‘OK, guys if we don’t stay on track, that’s the No. 1 thing at times that NASCAR pinned against us,’” Hamlin recalled. “Hey this driver thinks this is the way. Hey this one thinks we should go this way. Instead they just go their own way.

“So I said we have to be united and have to have the same voice if we want to get anywhere. From that point on, it started clicking.”

The council has made an impact with NASCAR, contributing valuable input to the 2017 format enhancements and lobbying for the recently announced traveling safety team. Hamlin said improving pit access and monitoring to help keep fans from touching cars on race day mornings also is on the agenda.

“There are really small things we’re working on day by day,” Hamlin said. “Format changes. Talking about All-Star Races and making them more compelling. The stage and formats came from ideas with people within NASCAR, TV and drivers.

“We’re seeing the fruits of what was done behind closed doors.”

This year, the council has added Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott (click here for the full member list). Putting three drivers under 30 on the panel was by design.

“Those guys are going to be here for a very long time,” Hamlin said. “Kyle Larson was on it last year and honestly didn’t say a whole lot, but I can appreciate that. I can guarantee if I was in his position I probably wouldn’t either. But he took everything in and by end of year, he was starting to engage more and give his opinion a little bit more, which was good.

“I’m in the middle of my career. There’s a few others on the tail end. It’s good to have a young group see the veterans in the room and how they handle things. Because when they’re gone, it’s up to them to get that same message across. Even though they’re there to support and listen now. They’re going to be the future leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

NASCAR America: Why young members on driver’s council is a good thing

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As in many things in life, there’s a lot to be said about having youthful energy, ideas and input in NASCAR racing.

On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst Jeff Burton and NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan discussed the positive attributes of having some of NASCAR’s young stars like Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola on the NASCAR Cup Series Driver’s Council.

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NASCAR Cup Drivers Council adds four new members

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The NASCAR Cup Drivers Council will have a different look this year with four new drivers on the group, which regularly meets with NASCAR officials to discuss on-track and off-track matters.

Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola are the new members. They join returning members Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.

The new drivers replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson.

Drivers earn a spot on the 10-member council based on their performance the previous year or by being elected by fellow competitors.

The group was to have met Sunday morning at Daytona International Speedway before the Clash was rescheduled from Saturday night.

Johnson told NBC Sports that the group added Blaney and Dillon as a way to get more young drivers involved. Elliott earned his spot as the reigning rookie of the year.

“It’s pretty neat to be involved,’’ Blaney told NBC Sports. “It’s nice that they wanted us to be a part of it. I’m excited to hear all the ideas that them and NASCAR have.’’

Almirola also said he’s honored to be a part of the group.

“Obviously, all the drivers have a voice, but the guys that go in and sit in the room are sort of the messengers and relay all the drivers’ feedback,’’ Almriola told NBC Sports. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to see how that whole process works.

“To have the opportunity to not only be a driver in this sport and have a voice and be on the Drivers Council and use that platform to hopefully make a difference … is going to be really cool.’’

The Drivers Council has played a role in a variety of subjects from security on pit road to the format for last year’s All-Star event to the push for a traveling safety team. Last year, the Council offered to pay Tony Stewart’s $35,000 fine after NASCAR punished Stewart for critical comments about lug nuts.

Also, Hamlin and Keselowski represented the Council in NASCAR meetings that shape the sport’s format enhancements for this season.

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