NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, right, meets with crew chief Darian Grubb in… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)
Only days after being involved in a 2nd Amendment dispute, NASCAR now is dealing with a 1st Amendment rift with one of its best drivers.
NASCAR levied a $25,000 fine against Denny Hamlin after he said the Sprint Cup Series' new car, dubbed Gen 6, made it tough to pass other drivers.
When Hamlin made the comments after finishing third at last Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway, the second race of the season, they gained little public notice.
But NASCAR, in announcing the fine Thursday, called them "disparaging remarks" that ran afoul of its rules against actions "detrimental" to the sport.
Hamlin promptly said he wouldn't pay the fine and would appeal, then went to Twitter to say he "was severely disrespected by NASCAR by getting fined" and that he didn't appreciate not being able to give his opinions publicly.
Twitter, predictably, lit up. Supporters argued that NASCAR was limiting Hamlin's free-speech rights, and a new topic with the hashtag #StandWithDenny was created.
But critics said Hamlin should, in effect, be quiet and drive. "Denny Hamlin suck it up or go grab a 9-5 then complain," tweeted one.
All this came only days after Texas Motor Speedway announced that its Cup race April 13 would be sponsored by the National Rifle Assn., planting NASCAR in the national debate over gun control.
Hamlin drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, which said Friday it would "keep an open dialogue" with NASCAR about Hamlin's comments but would keep those talks to itself.
Gibbs also said it would "fully support Denny in his appeal process."
If NASCAR's goal was to curb criticism of the new car's performance, Hamlin's fine and its fallout only elevated the issue among stock-car racing fans.
Hamlin, 32, is seldom afraid to speak his mind. Thoughtful, mercurial and opinionated, the Virginian has 22 career Cup wins and has made NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff in each of his seven full years in the series.
But in talking about the Gen 6, he was questioning a much-ballyhooed car that NASCAR hopes will make its racing more exciting and thus spur gains in race attendance and television ratings.
NASCAR said it "will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."
And unlike many sports leagues that have team owners and a commissioner calling the shots, NASCAR is controlled by one entity, the France family, and drivers and teams must play by its rules.
Hamlin's gripe after the Phoenix race was that the Gen 6 car "did not race as good" as the previous car, and that until Gibbs and other teams figured out the correct adjustments for the Gen 6, "you just run single file."
The Gen 6 gets its next test Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval, where drivers arrived Friday for practice.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon told reporters there that "we brought more light to the situation by the fine" and that "I don't think it was right, the things that Denny said and how he went about it."
Gordon also said, "I don't know if that really justified a fine," but he added: "At the end of the day, I know whose sandbox I'm playing in."
After Las Vegas, the Cup series moves to the half-mile Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on March 17, then returns west to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on March 24.