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Denny Hamlin has earned the right to talk about money in NASCAR

When you’re the star who owns a 31,000-square-foot mansion with a full-length basketball court, helicopter landing pad and 24 60-inch flat screens, income equality is inherently difficult to broach.

Even trickier is making a staunch argument that your brethren are underpaid, and the NASCAR industry needs revenue redistribution.

Denny Hamlin might not be the ideal guy to make the case, but he is the right guy to put forth a complex and divisive topic that at least is worthy of attention and conversation.

A little more than three years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gathered his peers in the parking lot of the NASCAR R&D center, handed out notecards with talking points to ensure consistent messaging and went inside to meet with Mike Helton and other NASCAR executives.

That was the genesis of the Drivers Council, which is in its third year of tackling major issues in Cup through regular audiences with the sanctioning body.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” Hamlin explained during a February episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “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.”

Not always, of course.

Hamlin’s comments Wednesday morning weren’t received well in some powerful corners of the Cup Series (on Thursday, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Hamlin “might need to speak to some of the other stakeholders and maybe get a little bit better education”) and assuredly led to some form of him being read the riot act by someone with a board-level title. And it isn’t the first time he has been willing to enter the crosshairs for what he believes in, either.

This is the same driver who once steadfastly refused to pay a fine in March 2013 for a rather innocuous review of the Gen 6 car that was deemed “detrimental to stock-car racing.” A deal eventually was brokered in which he paid, but NASCAR took the major PR hit because Hamlin stood his ground.

A few years before that, it was an unannounced $50,000 fine for an offhand remark about debris cautions on Twitter. NASCAR discontinued its secret fine system a year later.

The son of a trailer-hitch business owner from the Richmond, Va., area, has his detractors for living lavishly (he hasn’t been shy about showcasing his Lake Norman abode), but there can be no questioning about Hamlin’s willingness to go to the mat for that which he believes.

And the even-keeled manner Wednesday in which he addressed the economics for drivers and teams was indicative of the fact that he clearly has deliberated on this for a long time before landing on a position that was controversial for many — notably fans who are tired of hearing about athletes commanding nine- to 10-figure annual salaries and demanding more.

The question of whether pro sports stars are worthy of such disproportionate compensation is a separate argument for another day, but it’s indisputable that NBA and NFL players have among the best labor deals in pro sports – receiving roughly 50% of their leagues’ primary revenue streams.

It also is beyond debate that if there is a driver qualified to weigh in on that, it’s Hamlin – regardless of his opulent lifestyle (whether it’s fair to judge how he or anyone chooses to spend their money is yet another question).

In the absence of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are fewer drivers than any point in recent memory willing to embrace the scrutiny that accompanies speaking out on a major issue, particularly in a league that is beholden in many ways to image-conscious corporate sponsors.

Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are those who most consistently voice objections when they feel strongly about a topic, and in Wednesday’s case, it’s an issue that should concern everyone – the long-term viability of race teams that make the weekly show possible.

After being asked about whether the 2018 rules would help reduce costs for teams, Hamlin confirmed it would to a degree (via “stacking pennies,” as it’s known in NASCAR vernacular). But he also leaped to a larger solution: Finding a way teams no longer would be so reliant on corporate sponsorship, which is becoming scarcer each season (for some reasons beyond NASCAR’s control).

“The pie has to be shifted,” he said, implying that race teams, which currently receive a quarter of the largest guaranteed revenue stream, should be given more.

This is where things get complicated in an unavoidable mess of optics.

If you’re having an honest discussion about making team financials work, it’s natural to ask whether it should start with jettisoning driver salaries that can be a massive seven- or eight-figure line item. Hamlin was asked just that Wednesday, and he candidly responded that drivers are underpaid, particularly those on the back half of the grid.

This understandably is a hard sell to a fan base that is middle class and traditionally blue collar. No one wants to hear that drivers who make millions aren’t getting their due. From a philosophical standpoint, no professional athlete is underpaid.


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