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Denny Hamlin Is a Thorn in NASCAR’s Side, Maybe for the Better

Not everyone loves Denny Hamlin, and as he proved by confronting NASCAR CEO Jim France directly, he’s OK with that.
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Whether or not you’ve been paying attention, NASCAR is different in 2022. Or at least it’s heading in the direction of different, and key voices within the sport want leadership to pick up the pace. That’s doubly true for Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing and driver of the FedEx-backed No. 11 Toyota Camry. Plainly put, the three-time Daytona 500 winner has strong thoughts on the future of stock car racing and the business surrounding it—and he’s making sure people listen.

Hamlin doesn’t shy away from Twitter, but he recently addressed his concerns in a direct conversation with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France. A report from Sports Business Journal explains with insight from Hamlin how we came correct and laid it all out for the sanctioning body’s longtime boss: Until changes are made, investments are being held. The changes he wants to see are by and large operations related, and without them, Hamlin’s not greenlighting any high-dollar expansions for the team he runs with Michael Jordan.

Regarding his meeting with France, Hamlin told SBJ, “[M]y message was clear that we need to stop talking about cutting. Cutting does not equal growth. If we start working collectively then we can grow this sport together. But the business model will have to change for that to happen. We at 23XI have big plans. But those plans are on hold until we see change.”

“It’s very hard to convince dinosaurs they must eat differently,” he said at another point. “I want change. If we’re going to appeal to a new audience because our [current] audience is aging or has aged, you’ve got to get with the times.”

Hamlin tossed himself into team ownership while still being deeply involved with the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew. He races for W’s, and he notched two last year as well as one so far in 2022, at Richmond. All three came while running against Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch, who have now each won a Cup Series contest for 23XI Racing after last week’s Kansas 400-miler. Through all this, he’s gained insight that was pretty much inaccessible before.

The 41-year-old credits his relatively new ownership role for intensifying his drive for dynamic development, which was never dull to start with.

“I’ve gotten educated quite a bit with the business side of things: How does marketing work, how do you keep sponsors happy and just so many other different aspects of a team that I didn’t have my hands on as much as a Joe Gibbs Racing driver,” Hamlin added.

For example, he takes aim at track ownership. The financials aren’t so public but venues take the lion’s share of revenue while NASCAR gets its part, leaving teams to make around 75 percent of their money from sponsorships. Hamlin has called out the lack of marketing from track owners, which he feels leaves them doing less work for more cash.

Hamlin also questioned NASCAR President Steve Phelps about Hendrick Motorsports’ Le Mans entry with the Next Gen car. There have been concerns from Ford and Toyota about NASCAR hand-picking Hendrick, a rival team to many and Chevy flagship, and why they weren’t informed of the decision or given the same offer. The part Hamlin took issue with was that he was only clued in by a tweet after the fact.

His conversation with France took place in March, around the time NASCAR was racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s now late May and he’s still calling it like he sees it; that applies to on-track action, too.

Hamlin’s most recent beef with NASCAR also involves Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney, who won the Texas All-Star Race last Sunday. Blaney prematurely lowered his window net, thinking he had won when a last-lap caution was thrown for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s collision with the wall further back. This would normally result in Blaney being called to the pits by NASCAR to have it fastened back, but instead, they let him stay out as he fumbled to resecure it.

But hey, what’s new? Hamlin owns his reputation and puts it thusly: “I know I push the envelope at times, but I’m not going to change for anyone.”

Personally, I was never worried about that.

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