Hamlin: Drivers Council 'didn't agree' with fine
RELATED: Stewart returns to No. 14 Chevrolet RICHMOND, Va. -- Denny Hamlin expounded on the NASCAR Drivers Council's recent show of solidarity for three-time champion Tony Stewart on Friday, saying that he hoped the sport's competitors would have better freedom to express themselves in the future. Thursday afternoon, NASCAR officials handed down a $35,000 fine to Stewart, making his first Sprint Cup Series start of the season this weekend in his return from a severe back injury, for making harsh, candid remarks toward its competition department and its stance on policing loose or missing lug nuts. Within hours, the nine-person council produced a statement that it intended to pay Stewart's fine. "When Tony informed us of the fine, we didn't agree with it. No one agreed with it and we thought there's something we should do about it," Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway . "I think it was a way for us to send a message back to NASCAR -- not that we were trying to send any specific message, but that, hey, we just believe we should have the right to speak our opinion." Stewart's comments came at a Wednesday appearance at a service station to promote sponsor Mobil 1's contributions to the NASCAR Green initiative. When asked about NASCAR's relaxed stance toward tightening all five lugs, Stewart offered pointed criticism, saying that competition officials "totally dropped the ball" in regards to safety. NASCAR officials had no comment on the penalty Friday at the .75-mile track. Hamlin indicated that NASCAR officials had not contacted him about the council's statement as of early Friday afternoon. NASCAR competition officials changed the rules governing lug nuts before the 2015 season, saying they would no longer issue penalties for loose or missing lug nuts. The change dovetailed with the debut of a new pit-road officiating system that reduced the need for competition officials to go over the wall during stops. The rule created an opening for pit crews looking for advantages, allowing them to skip tightening lugs in an effort to save fractions of a second on pit road. But as teams have become more aggressive pushing the rule this season, the result has been a rise in loose wheels, vibrations and the need for extra stops. "I think it's a safety issue that we should look to address before there is a negative outcome with it," said Kurt Busch , Stewart's teammate in the No. 41 Chevrolet and the defending race winner. "To me, it makes sense to have five lug nuts. You want five of them tight. You go to your Goodyear Tire store and get your tires rotated, they put on three lug nuts, you are not going to feel so comfortable about that." But Hamlin insisted the council's actions were less about lug nuts and more about drivers' ability to speak openly. For years, NASCAR officials issued so-called "secret" fines -- undisclosed penalties -- in response to competitors' remarks that crossed the bounds of criticism of the sport. That practice was abandoned before the 2012 season. Hamlin was fined $25,000 in March 2013 for critical comments about the newly released Gen-6 race car design. In issuing the penalty, NASCAR officials said, "the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product." Hamlin said the out-of-bounds line for which comments are admissible or not is a murky one, but that "obviously we just believe that you should be able to express your opinion as long as you're not just totally trashing the sport itself or anything like that." He also indicated that Stewart's status as a three-time series champion and an outspoken veteran should have factored in NASCAR's decision. MORE: All of 'Smoke's' Cup wins "We try to do our best to give honest answers and sometimes those aren't always the best thing," Hamlin said. "I know at times I've been very guilty of being too honest at times or too opinionated at times and it costs you a nickel or two. We just think that there should be a little bit of leniency there for someone that knows a lot about our sport and has been in our sport a long time. He gave his opinion and especially when it's something on safety, too. I think it's pretty important." Stewart was back in his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevrolet on Friday, turning his first laps since he was hurt in an all-terrain vehicle incident Jan. 31. His injuries sidelined him for the first eight Sprint Cup races of his final full season in NASCAR's top division. MORE: Lineup for Richmond race " Photos: See Stewart back in No. 14
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