RICHMOND, Virginia: News that NASCAR had fined Tony Stewart $35,000 for critical comments about a recent rule change has resonated quickly in the drivers community.
Enough so that the Drivers Council — a recently formed nine-member group that gives the sport’s drivers a unified voice — took the unprecedented action of denouncing the fine and even offering to help Stewart pay it.
The suddenly hot-button issue of lug nuts is what got Stewart in hot water with NASCAR. But it’s the principle behind Stewart’s ability voice his displeasure that brought him the support of his fellow racers.
“It’s not about lug nuts,” said driver and council member Denny Hamlin. “It’s about us believing we have the right to express our opinion.”
Speaking to a small group of reporters on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila), Stewart was critical of a 2015 NASCAR rule change that doesn’t require teams to replace all five lug nuts during pit stops.
On Thursday (Friday in Manila) — the same day Stewart announced he was returning to race for the first time this season in Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway — NASCAR announced its fine, citing a clause in its rule book that prohibits “disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership, or verbal abuse of a NASCAR official, media members, fans, etc.”
Hours later, the Drivers Council responded with a statement released to NBC Sports through driver Denny Hamlin:
“We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner. While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine,” they said.
It was a strong stance for a group that has been in existence for less than two years and is still trying to find its footing.
“This was a pretty black and white thing from a driver’s perspective,” Hamlin said on Friday (Saturday in Manila). “To us, that was a moment and I think it just shows solidarity that we’re all in this together as drivers.”
Standing on the fine
But NASCAR Chairman Brian France defended Stewart’s fine.
“Nobody has led, done more and achieved more in safety than we have,” France told the Associated Press Sports Editors convention earlier this week. “It is a never-ending assignment and we accept that. We do take offense that anything we do is somehow leading toward an unsafe environment. Safety … that’s the most important thing we have to achieve.”
Joining Hamlin and Stewart on the council are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.
“Our goal is to be part of making the sport better,” Harvick said. “It’s important for everybody — whether it is fans, owners, drivers, — for all of us to work hard to make this sport better,” they said.
“As a group, we strongly didn’t agree 100 percent with what went down [with Stewart]. We voiced our opinion and I think as we move forward we need to have an opinion and voice that opinion and have that be a unified voice from the council. I’m all about voicing my opinion. It’s nothing personal, it’s not pointing fingers or anything like that, but it’s the council’s job. We are going to push hard for the things that we believe in,” they added.
The council’s job is to bring the drivers’ perspective to issues surrounding the sport. It’s mostly about finding common ground among the drivers, owners and NASCAR.
“I think it’s collaboration,” Keselowski said. “If we can herd all the cats into the same room and get into an active dialogue — and I think we have made [some]major steps on over the last year or so — we have to understand that there is going to be a lot of self-interest. Sometimes you wear those glasses where our own interests supersede the interests of the sport. That is tough to get through but in time will work themselves out if everybody collaborates.”
Harvick mentioned the addition of the new low-downforce aerodynamic package as an example of how the council has been able to help make an impact.
The council — members are elected by their peers — makes up about one-fourth of the Cup series drivers. Does the council have the confidence of the rest of the drivers that it’s acting in their best interests?
“Absolutely,” said non-member Kurt Busch.