NASCAR must be pretty sensitive about the new Gen 6 Sprint Cup car judging from their overreaction to comments by Denny Hamlin after last Sunday's Phoenix race.
I thought that Hamlin's comments were pretty mild, but NASCAR slapped him with a $25,000 fine. Hamlin is appealing the penalty, and I wish him luck. Veteran driver Jeff Burton weighed in on the subject, also calling it an overreaction. And TV commentator Kyle Petty, to no one's surprise, was even more outspoken on NASCAR's action. Petty said he was going to buy a Denny Hamlin t-shirt and hat to show his support. He went on to say, "I could not survive in this sport as a driver at this time. I'd be paying a fine every week. I'd be broke."
NASCAR's strength is their drivers, and if they are going to muzzle them, it will not bode well for the sport.
Even after all the positive comments about the car at Daytona and during early season testing, it was only to be expected that a few teething problems would crop up. Yes, the Phoenix race could have been more exciting, but drivers were able to pass, including Hamlin's last-lap move on Brad Keselowski and his fender-banging finish with Jimmie Johnson. The new car has only raced at Daytona's high-banked restrictor plate track and the relatively flat Phoenix mile. It's too early to expect the car to be perfect, and it will evolve as the teams and NASCAR do development work and make a few tweaks. The new car is already vastly better than the COT was at this stage, not to mention far better looking. Fans seem to approve of the manufacturer differentiation that was so notably lacking in the previous car.
It's fortunate that NASCAR scheduled a Thursday test at Las Vegas, the first 1 1/2-mile track on the schedule. Fortunate because Friday practice and qualifying were rained out, and not even NASCAR's new Air Titan track dryer can do much while the rain continues to fall. As I write this, NASCAR is hoping to get some late afternoon track time for the Nationwide series cars, which have not yet been on the track. Nationwide qualifying and the race are scheduled for today.
Congratulations to Carl Edwards for breaking his almost two-year streak without a race win. After a disastrous Daytona, where he wrecked no fewer than five cars, it was good to see the back-flip again. Jimmie Johnson finished second and leads the championship points with 90, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski eight points behind in a tie for second, with Hamlin and Clint Bowyer tied for fourth 18 points back. With only two races out of 36 in the books, it's too early to pick a winner, but I would not be at all surprised to see a Hendrick Racing driver on top at season's end. And the most likely of that bunch is old five-time Johnson himself.
A.J. Allmendinger seems to be rebounding well from the problems of last season. He finished a very creditable eleventh at Phoenix last Sunday, driving the under-funded Phoenix Racing No. 51 Chevrolet. He has also been tapped by Roger Penske to drive in the Indy 500 this year, with another IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park, and possibly more if sponsorship can be found. If you recall, Allmendinger raced well in the old Champ Car series before he switched to NASCAR in 2007. He may also pick up more Cup rides this season, although Austin Dillon will be in the No. 51 this weekend.