Since the death of Dale Earnhardt NASCAR fans have longed for a driver that had a take no prisoners attitude.
A driver that could back up his talk on the racetrack and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Tony Stewart has said he doesn’t want that role; he doesn’t want to be the go-to guy in the garage. And after his comments a few years ago about NASCAR and his subsequent sit down with the top dogs, seems he’s sticking to that.
Nearing the end of the 2009 season it seemed the perfect driver had emerged in Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin. The only problem was that Hamlin’s new attitude was met with a different result than Earnhardt’s.
While Earnhardt was praised, and sometimes criticized, for his rough and tumble nature, Hamlin has received an outpouring of nothing but criticism for his actions.
In October he started using the popular networking site Twitter to express his opinions. Soon his fans were personally connecting with him on how they felt about the happenings around NASCAR.
“You really don’t get a good idea for what the fans think until you see it through several thousands people who have a response to a race or how it goes,” he said about the site.
Things took a visibly more noticeable turn the weekend of the fall Talladega race.
After NASCAR “changed the rules” about what would be acceptable bump drafting, Hamlin was enraged and expressed as much. Some fans understood his position that it wasn’t right for NASCAR to do.
To be more precise, Hamlin actually questioned who was in charge.
“Jeff G [Gordon] told NASCAR we shouldn’t be bump drafting. Cuz they never did in the past. Who’s running this sport??”
Later he would say, “A lot of people just agree with NASCAR because they don’t want to get in trouble with NASCAR, but the truth is the truth.”
What had Hamlin so fired up that day was that NASCAR told the drivers in their pre-race meeting that they were banning two cars from hooking up and shooting to the front.
Something that Hamlin felt he was really good at and was an advantage.
“It’s just frustrating that Gordon has got that much pull with NASCAR…I just wish everyone could have equal say-so and not just somebody behind closed doors being able to change how the rules go,” he said.
“Ultimately, he’s going to lobby to NASCAR saying, ‘We don’t need to push.’ Why? Because his car didn’t push well. So it was an advantage I felt like I had gained over the last couple of years and had it taken away basically right before the race.”
Fans didn’t like what Hamlin had to say or how outspoken he was. Many said that Hamlin had no right to question a driver that has been in the sport longer than he has.
But Hamlin didn’t back down.
His next target was the recurring incidents that he’s had in the Nationwide Series with Brad Keselowski. Hamlin’s side of the story is that Keselowski has wrecked him on four different occasions and that he’s yet to repay the favor.
After the two tangled at Phoenix Hamlin came right out and said he would cash in his chips at Homestead a week later.
Hamlin kept his word and on lap 35 he sent Keselowski spinning down the frontstretch, which he called well worth it after having to serve a one-lap penalty for rough driving.
And yet, fans still aren’t happy. Some called him immature for his constant bickering with Keselowski and say that he’s a whiner when things don’t go his way.
In reality, Hamlin isn’t doing anything that any legends of the sport haven’t done. But instead of being embraced, it seems it’s going to take more time to win over NASCAR nation.
In a time when ratings are down, Jimmie Johnson is dominated the sport, and it seems there are so many things to complain about, Hamlin is giving people everything they’ve asked for.
He’s being aggressive, outspoken, and entertaining. He’s not robotic, or vanilla, he’s being himself, which is what fans have said they want. Now they’ve got it and they don’t like it.
It doesn’t matter to Hamlin though, who’s enjoying his role. As he said, he’s opinionated and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime in the near future.