CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR chairman Brian France is "very pleased" with the first five weeks of the season, and thinks the new Gen-6 race car has contributed to the many story lines fueling the sport.
But he won't stand for any driver criticism of the racing, and again defended the $25,000 fine handed to Denny Hamlin for doing just that.
Hamlin said after the race at Phoenix that the Gen-6 didn't drive as well as last year's model. Hamlin angrily said he'd be suspended before he'd pay the fine, but he ultimately dropped the fight and NASCAR is garnishing the money from his earnings.
France said drivers know there's no gray area when it comes to talking about the car.
"I have been crystal clear in the meetings with all of the drivers and all of the owners about the fact that we are going to give them more opportunities to criticize more things than any other professional sport in America," France said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Having said that, there is one line that we are not going to tolerate and that's going to be criticizing the quality of the racing product in any way, form or fashion."
France said the clampdown is necessary because drivers don't always know the facts when they make a statement.
"Sometimes one driver or another can have an opinion about that, and they may be very, very wrong. Their car may not have been working right," he said. "When you call out the entire rules package in some form or fashion, that's going to get a reaction, and should get a reaction, because that's our product. If we don't have a line out there, people can form their opinions and often they will be wrong, but everyone will pay attention to that wrong opinion."
The decision to fine Hamlin was widely criticized by fans, who rallied to Hamlin's defense and resented NASCAR censoring the driver.
France said he understood the negative fan reaction.
"They look at that as a sanction against somebody speaking their mind, and I understand where our fans are coming from," France said. "But when they take a step back, they'd understand that no other professional sport lets you have at it, criticize anything, criticize me personally, calls we make, decisions we make, because those are judgment calls that we make week in and week out. The other sports don't allow that — they look at it as infringement on the integrity of the officials. But we allow that, and only want them to be careful on one topic.
"We have such a small line, it's way on out there, and if (a driver) can't figure that out, then I don't know."
Hamlin has been a central figure so far this season. He was on baby-watch during preseason testing, waiting for the birth of his first child, then opened the season determined to finally win his first Sprint Cup title. A bid to win the Daytona 500 fell short and he publicly blamed Joey Logano, his former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, for clogging up traffic in the closing laps.
Their feud continued Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, where the two raced hard in the closing laps for the win. Contact between their cars caused both to wreck, and Hamlin hit head-on into an interior wall. The crash left him with a compressed fracture of a vertebra in his lower back, and he'll miss at least five races.
All that aside, the statistics indicate the racing is better this season — there have been 147 green-flag passes for the lead through five races, compared to 122 last year — and television ratings and attendance, Bristol Motor Speedway notwithstanding, have also seen a boost .
"On the competition side, I know we had an exciting race at California, and we remain very, very committed to the science vs. art to get the best rules packages to provide the closest racing that we can. There's no rest," France said. "All in all, it's obviously a very good, strong start to the season and the kind of racing we want to see week in and week out is coming into play with this car. It really promotes close competition.
"It all goes together. When you have close, competitive racing, you'll have more contact, as you saw on Sunday. You'll have more people in Victory Lane, and you'll certainly have more passing."
FIELD TRIP: Kyle O'Gara is taking his entire high school on a field trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch him race in the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100.
The 18-year-old racer will make his Indy Lights debut in the May 24 race driving an entry backed by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Schmidt cars have won seven of the 10 Freedom 100's at Indy, and six of the last 11 Indy Lights championships.
O'Gara's announcement was made Wednesday at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, and sponsor SportEvents.com said it would provide race tickets to all of his classmates and faculty members at the school.
"It's going to be so cool to see my classmates out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, especially since a lot of them might not typically go," O'Gara said.
O'Gara has traveled for racing most of his high school career, but has worked closely with Roncalli staff to ensure he maintained a 4.0 GPA. The left side of his helmet at Indy will be painted in Roncalli colors and carry the red "R," while the right side will feature the orange, white and green Irish paint scheme he has carried since he was began racing.
"It's a dream come true for me to be racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," O'Gara said. "Sam Schmidt has proven over and over that his team knows how to put together a car that can win in Firestone Indy Lights competition, and I'm excited to be a part of that and learn as much as possible."
The O'Gara family has been involved in racing at Indy for more than 35 years in various capacities from mechanics and crew chiefs to engineers, race strategists and team owners. Kyle O'Gara will be the first O'Gara to race at the famous track however, not counting his sister-in-law, team owner Sarah Fisher.
"It will be very rewarding to watch Kyle drive over the yard of bricks after knowing and working with him for so long," Fisher said. "Being part of most of his racing efforts to date, it's been exciting to see him moving up the ladder. This rung will be the most fun so far, knowing what his next steps could be. I'm tremendously proud of him and look forward to standing on the grid with him at Indianapolis."
CATWALK FOR A CAUSE: Toyota has reached a two-year agreement to serve as the presenting sponsor for the annual "Catwalk for a Cause" charity event organized by the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation.
This year's event is scheduled for May 15 at Michael Waltrip Racing in Cornelius, N.C., and benefits Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte and the 'Martin Truex Jr. Special Needs Fund,' which was created at the hospital in 2011.
The event is a New York-style runway show featuring the hottest designer labels for spring, and most of the models are children who are patients at Levine.