The talk this week has been how the new Generation-6 cars would fly at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and whether the track record set last year would come crashing down.
And the new car was a topic of conversation Thursday but not in the manner expected.
NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 for giving what appeared to be mild criticism of the Gen-6 car after the Phoenix Sprint Cup race on Sunday.
Hamlin didn’t take the penalty well, telling reporters after Thursday’s morning testing at LVMS that he wouldn’t pay it. Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota, later tweeted he would appeal the fine, writing his comment about the Gen-6 car was “taken completely out of context.”
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, defended the decision by the sport’s governing body.
“We give (drivers) quite a bit of latitude, but you can’t slam the product,” he said. “That’s where it crosses the line.”
Hamlin got in trouble for this quote: “I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation-5 cars. This is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning.”
On Thursday, Hamlin made clear he couldn’t understand why those words got him fined and said he wouldn’t comment to the media “as it relates to competition” again this season.
“I’m not OK with it,” he said. “This is the most upset and angry I’ve been in a really, really long time about anything that relates to NASCAR.”
Clint Bowyer, who drives the No. 15 Toyota, had some fun regarding Hamlin’s comments and the Gen-6 car, repeatedly saying “good” when asked his opinion so as not to be the driver to incur NASCAR’s wrath.
The media laughed as Bowyer provided levity.
But when Bowyer turned more serious, he said the Gen-6 car will improve over time, and he noted how fast it drove in the testing sessions at LVMS.
“You feel Gs here,” Bowyer said. “I’ve never really said that. ... You’re rolling. You’re just praying that them little black things (tires) that are holding you to the track don’t fail you now because it’s going to hurt real, real bad.”
Bowyer said Kasey Kahne’s track record of 190.456 mph set last year at the 1½-mile speedway easily could fall in today’s qualifying for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Kobalt Tools 400.
“The car really, really rolls through the center of the corner just extremely fast from what you think,” Bowyer said. “The hardest thing is we’ve been to Daytona, and then we’ve been to Phoenix, and then you come here, and it’s so much faster. Initially, your thought is, ‘Holy cow, these things are fast.’
“I was looking at the board there, and they’re getting faster and faster. It’s pretty cool outside. It keeps getting cooler and cooler. Who knows, if it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I think with the cloud cover, you might see a new track record.”
Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford posted the top speed in the afternoon testing, going 189.427 mph. He was one of five drivers to go faster than 189 mph. Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota turned in a 187.396 to lead the morning testing.
Pemberton said he didn’t anticipate speeds rising so much today that NASCAR would have to consider future safety measures with the new car.
“I think we’ve got a lot of margin built in,” he said. “This isn’t a place that you’re too concerned with the speeds. They may increase (today). (Thursday) is a test day. I don’t think that drivers or teams go for 100 percent.”
Expect a fast practice session at noon today because those times count toward setting the field for the Sprint Cup race should the 3:40 p.m. qualifying be rained out. If both are canceled, last season’s points standings will determine the lineup.
Just what drivers say to the media after the field has been set is uncertain. They might be especially careful in light of Hamlin’s fine.
But Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet, said NASCAR’s decision to sanction Hamlin could have far-reaching effects.
“NASCAR probably is the most liberal group — did I say NASCAR and liberal in the same sentence? — of all the sports entities as far as what the drivers can say,” Burton said. “If an NBA player questions officiating, you know he’s going to be fined. It’s not a question of if, it’s how much. We’re closer to them today than we’ve ever been.
“I do think it’s important to note that legitimate criticism, if done constructively, then maybe it can be a good thing. So NASCAR’s got to be careful not to be too strict on the drivers.
“We’re a very open sport. We can’t lose that. We can’t lose the ability to talk openly. But there’s a fine line there. I feel like (NASCAR) went over the line a little with the penalty, but I do understand why they got there.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.