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."