Denny Hamlin said Sunday that NASCAR president Steve Phelps is needed at the top of the sanctioning body’s leadership just a day after saying that NASCAR needed “new leadership.”
Hamlin confirmed after he finished fifth at Talladega that he had spoken to Phelps Sunday morning. And the comments he made after the race were much different than the tone he struck on Saturday when he spoke about the design of NASCAR’s new Cup Series car.
Denny Hamlin confirms he met with #NASCAR President Steve Phelps before Sunday’s race. Meeting came after Hamlin’s comments to the media about the car and more. What Denny said of the meeting with Phelps. pic.twitter.com/c5dG03Bump— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) October 2, 2022
“I’m great friends with Steve Phelps and he is a leader that we need. He’s not who I directed any of my comments toward because he’s a huge asset for our sport.”
Hamlin said Saturday that safety and racing-related problems with the car implemented this season were a product of "bad leadership" atop NASCAR. Both Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch missed Sunday's race because of concussions sustained in crashes. Busch has been sidelined since late July after crashing during qualifying at Pocono and Bowman was ruled out of the race this week after he crashed similarly during the previous race at Texas.
It’s also worth noting that Hamlin said on Saturday that “you can start at the top and work your way down” when he was asked about any potential changes to NASCAR’s leadership that needed to be made. Phelps is, of course, at the top.
#NASCAR … Denny Hamlin is asked how the sport is in this spot with the new car:— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) October 1, 2022
“Bad leadership” pic.twitter.com/gokP6TDZ34
It’s easy to connect Hamlin’s change in tone to his conversation with Phelps. NASCAR has historically quelled driver pushback — it has long taken a hard stance against driver unions and even ran a Talladega race as scheduled in 1969 after numerous drivers refused to race — and it’s not uncommon for a driver and his team members to be called to NASCAR’s hauler for a conversation after saying or doing something controversial.
But it shouldn’t be easy to dismiss what Hamlin said on Saturday because of any potential connection to his conversation with Phelps on Sunday. While Hamlin might have been speaking out in frustration the day before, there’s likely a significant reason why he made the public comments he did. Hamlin has the rare platform as both a veteran driver and a team owner; he’s the co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan.
If Hamlin is saying something publicly, it’s likely already been said privately. And it’s reasonable to assume there’s a reason he went public with his sentiment.
#NASCAR … Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been outspoken about the car. Says Hamlin: “I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives.” pic.twitter.com/vIuwIlkeod— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) October 1, 2022
His feelings about safety are shared around the Cup Series garage too.
"It just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that offers all of this technology and all of this time and experience of so many super talented people in this sport and we allow it to go backwards, especially with safety," Talladega winner and 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott said on Saturday. "It’s just super surprising to me that we allow that to happen. But we did and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here; making sure we’re making the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex (Bowman) this week from happening."
The new Cup car appears to be far more rigid than its predecessor. And car rigidity has an inverse correlation with force dissipation. The less force absorbed by the car means the more force absorbed by a driver's body. Teams have also had issues with the cars catching on fire. Both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have used the term "crappy parts" to describe parts failures on their cars. The new Cup car is largely built from single-source vendors approved by NASCAR and not by parts designed and built by teams themselves.
NASCAR has said that a test is scheduled this week for a new rear clip that could potentially absorb more impact. But that test is too little too late for any improvements in 2022. And that lack of immediate change is likely a big reason why NASCAR doesn’t want its drivers’ comments about the lack of safety of the new car to overshadow the five remaining races in the playoffs.