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 Wednesday, 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 – the same day Stewart announced he was returning to race for the first time this season in Sunday’s 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.”
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 Friday. “To us, that was a moment and I think it just shows solidarity that we’re all in this together as drivers.”
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,” said Harvick. “It’s important for everybody – whether it is fans, owners, drivers, -- for all of us to work hard to make this sport better.
“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.”
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,” said Keselowski. “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.
“I think everything is case by case,” Harvick said. “Obviously, as a group we 100 percent believed in low downforce. We really worked hard together to really try to make the low downforce package get on the race track. I think as we move forward I think everybody has seen the benefits of the low downforce. There is still a lot of room for improvement. As a group we talk every week, it may not be every day, but as a group there are conversations going on that are in 100 percent best interest of the sport to make it better in our opinions. Obviously, our opinions are 100 percent of the equation, but maybe it hasn’t been a third up until the last two years, but we are going to fight hard to have our third of the opinion heard.”
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.