UPDATE 3/8: From Hamlin’s Twitter account:

The short of the long of it is I believe I was severely disrespected by NASCAR by getting fined. I believe that the simple fact of us not even having a conversation about this issue before I was hit with a fine has something to say about our relationship. What I said was 1 sentence taken completely out of context. Most drivers will tell you that we constantly have our AND nascars best interest in mind when speaking. On the other hand I am a person that worked very hard from the BOTTOM to get where I am today and someone telling me that I can give my 100 percent honest opinion really bothers me. Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give a assessment of the question asked. I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed. So in the end there are no winners. I said today I would not pay the fine. I stand by that and will go through the process of appealing. Trust me, this is not about the money.. It’s much deeper. I will now shift my focus on giving FedEx and my team what they deserve this weekend, a win.

Oh yes, we’re on a slippery slope.

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Remember that kid in junior high that you couldn’t even joke with because he’d take it personally and get his feelings hurt? Remember how pissed you were when you got in trouble for saying something like, “Damn Joe, that shirt is dirty as hell today?” NASCAR is becoming that kid, and has been for a while. The latest victim of the sport’s thin skin: Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin finished third in Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway after starting at the back of the field because of an engine change. At first glance, it would seem like he landed such a strong result by racing his way through the pack and making a ton of passes, but that’s not really the case. Hamlin himself said after the race that solid pit strategy by crew chief Darian Grubb and a number of mistakes by drivers in front of him allowed him to work his way to the top five by the end of the race and challenge Jimmie Johnson for the runner-up position. “I hate to be Denny Downer[ref]Sweet pun, Denny.[/ref], but I just didn’t pass that many cars today,” he said. “That’s the realistic fact of it.”

He went on to say that NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race cars aren’t as great from the get-go as everybody hoped, and even compared the quality of racing to the beginning of the “Car of Tomorrow,” the predecessor of the Gen-6 that did wonders for safety but created, for the most part, boring racing. And now, he’s got a $25,000 hole in his bank account.

Hamlin was fined under section 12-1 of the NASCAR rule book, “actions detrimental to stock car racing,” an area the sport travels to time and time again to punish drivers for anything from swearing excessively on their in-car radio to insulting a media member. It is also a source of great ire for fans because of its widespread usage. NASCAR doesn’t have a single commissioner like the NFL (Roger Goodell) or the NBA (David Stern), but this decision sounds exactly like something they’d do.

In NASCAR, the entire sanctioning body is owned by one family, so rather than an impartial[ref]I use that term very loosely.[/ref] commissioner presiding over a group of team owners, the sport’s top brass simply serve as its collective head: CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton, Competition Director Robin Pemberton, and Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby. So with NASCAR, you have even more people to hate than just Goodell or Stern.

NASCAR’s official stance on the reason they fined Hamlin is as follows: “You can voice your opinion about a lot of things about this sport–and we feel like we give our competitors a great deal of leeway when it comes to that–(but) denigrating the racing is an area we’re going to have a reaction to.” That’s from spokesman Kerry Tharp, and it’s a crock of shit. Hamlin isn’t complaining about the paycheck he received for third in the race, but he’s a racer and, believe it or not, racers want to race. They want to make passes, go door-to-door with other drivers, and feel like they’re competing. Strategy is crucial in NASCAR, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that determines the outcome of a race.

It’s obvious that the Gen-6 cars have not come roaring out of the box to create great racing like everyone had hoped, and the drivers are understandably frustrated. Not surprisingly, they’re going to express that frustration if given the opportunity. And rather than get all up in arms about it, NASCAR should continue tinkering with the cars to get the setups right for good racing. While that happens, it’s OK to note that the racing hasn’t improved a great deal.

Until just last season, NASCAR would fine drivers secretly for violations of that damn section 12-1, and, in fact, Hamlin himself was docked $50,000 in 2010 for tweeting implications that the sport throws unnecessary cautions to bunch the field back up for a restart. Starting with the 2012 Daytona 500, they committed to publicly announcing those fines, but unfortunately it hasn’t stopped the hailstorm of silly punishments.

A week before the Daytona 500, NASCAR called 2012 champion Brad Keselowski into a meeting to basically slap his hand for critical comments he made about the sport in a USA Today article, starting the season off on a remarkably high school drama-esque foot. With this Hamlin fine, the sanctioning body is continuing to portray itself as a tyrannical, reactionary institution that won’t allow anything other than drivers saying NASCAR is, has been, and will always be completely perfect. And it’s a dangerous road to go down, because these kinds of issues don’t bring hate down upon a single person like with Goodell or Stern, they fall on the sport as a whole.

Hamlin has already said he’s going to essentially become a mute and stop commenting at all about the sport, and if NASCAR isn’t careful, other drivers will soon follow suit. Let them speak their minds, and instead of bitchily handing out fines, make the cars better. As quick as they are to complain about bad racing, I guarantee you they’ll be even quicker to praise great competition.