NASCAR driver council status unknown entering 2019
Depending on who you ask, the NASCAR drivers' council is either going through a restructuring or has been outright disbanded from within.
It begs the question of just how Cup drivers and the sanctioning body will communicate on matters moving forward if there is no longer a unified coalition working on conflicts that arise between the two parties.
On the other hand, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson says there is no need for a unified group at this time, because the rotating panel had accomplished many of the goals it had established upon its formation back in 2014.
"I'm not sure it's fallen apart," Johnson said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day. "We're certainly trying to make sure that it's doing what it should. Truthfully, being on the council every year, we kind of got to a spot where we've worked through a lot of the things that we found important, that were on our agenda.
"There's no sense in just meeting to meet, to just say there's a council that's in effect. I know we're looking hard at what it looks like moving forward because NASCAR does want our input. We certainly want to have a voice. But we just don't want to waste anybody's time.
"We're trying to figure out what it looks like next moving forward."
Denny Hamlin revealed late last season that the organized council had splintered off into various sub-councils.
Martin Truex Jr. said on Wednesday that the council likely wouldn't exist as it had before since it wasn't as effective as it needed to be.
"We had the driver’s council and we all wanted one thing and (NASCAR) did another," Truex said. "I think that’s probably where some of the frustration comes from."
Regarding the development of the 2019 Cup Series rules package, Kevin Harvick said in August that he had removed himself from the dialogue with NASCAR because he "felt frustrated" by it.
Hamlin says that without a drivers council, and sometimes even with it, driver feedback wasn't as embraced as he would have liked it to be. However, Hamlin feels like a council is needed now more than ever since he believes that NASCAR has been more receptive to feedback since Jim France took over leadership of the company from his nephew, Brian.
"I think there’s value to it," Hamlin said of a continued council. "Driver feedback is very crucial to putting on good racing in my opinion. I do think with the changing of the guard as far as management with Jim France, you’re likely to see him listen to the drivers more so than what’s been in the past.
"But sometimes, it kind of falls on deaf ears. Like, ‘Are they really going to make that change or is their mind already made up on it?’ Certainly you’ve seen and the owners have seen that changes are coming and changes have been made over the last year or so quicker than what has in the past. If there’s any time for a driver’s council, this would be the right time because you have the right people that are there to listen."
Johnson gave NASCAR credit for how they balance the conflicting interests of the various stakeholders. He said that NASCAR has the unenviable task of trying to cater to drivers, fans, tracks and numerous other stakeholders.
"They go to a drivers council meeting, then a manufacturers meeting, then an owners meeting, then to a team presidents meeting," Johnson said. "They have it coming at them every way.
"I know that creates frustration in all those councils because they think it's heading in one way, NASCAR goes and talks to another group, it takes another turn in a different direction. That part is frustrating.
"I'm just happy we all have a seat at the table, we're all able to weigh in. Finding a way for the drivers to have a voice is still kind of being defined."
The dialogue between drivers and NASCAR perhaps means more this month following the 2019 rules package test at Las vegas, when 2015 champion Kyle Busch criticized the formula to the tune of suggesting that it took considerable less talent to drive cars this season.
"We’ve taken the driver’s skill away from the drivers in this package," Busch said. "Anybody can go out there and run around there and go wide open. It’s a lot more of a mental game, more of a chess match, thinking how you make moves and how daring you can be."
NASCAR's vice president of racing development, John Probst responded by saying that drivers needed to "be careful" in criticizing the direction because it could hurt their bank accounts.
"For the drivers, we know who don’t like it, they are very good at what they do and they get paid a really good chunk of money to do things that take a lot of talent. If they want to spout off about (this racing) not needing a whole lot of talent, then eventually that will hit them in the pocketbook, too.
"They should be careful."
Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 by NASCAR in 2013 after the spring race at Phoenix for simply saying that the recently-unboxed Gen-6 car drove differently than its predecessor, and that it was harder to pass based on that one race.
It's something that he hasn't forgotten.
"If you go back and look at the comments I made, I should get my money back because that's BS," Hamlin said with a bit of a chuckle. "I didn't even say anything. I just said that the car didn't drive the same as the previous one. They at least owe me a beer or two."
Hamlin added that NASCAR has never liked drivers taking their frustrations to the media.
"They feel like anything we say, that fans will agree with it, regardless of merit," Hamlin said. "So anytime drivers are feeling negative about a given direction, they just want things to shake out on the race track and let fans decide for themselves.
So how are the drivers getting their message across if their comments sometimes "fall on deaf ears," and there isn't a unified council, and their most candid commets are met with scorn from the likes of Probst or Steve O'Donnell?
Enter Brad Keselowski.
"Not very well," the 2012 champion said. "I don't know if you have seen my track record. It is a very difficult scenario. The media has a lot of power in our sport. Social media has a lot of power in our sport. That comes at the risk of making a lot of people angry that actually run the sport. It is difficult. Sometimes you feel like you are pushing a sled uphill. It is just the way it is."
So with that in, Hamlin hopes to see the council stay together in some way, as opposed to the various groups that have formed since last summer.
"I think that there’s a good group of guys that always going to have the general interest of drivers in mind," he said. "Certainly if I’m on it, that’s fine, but if not that’s okay, too, because I always communicate with those people that are on it if I’m not."