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Paulk: It's a battle over free speech

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

It's fascinating to think that NASCAR officials are quick to defend Second Amendment rights but unblinkingly rebel against one's First Amendment rights.

Frankly, it's an appalling contradiction.

The Constitution grants all citizens —including the insane among us — the right to bear arms. It, too, permits us to speak freely for or against the very legislative body that framed the Constitution.

Only days after NASCAR gave its blessings to Texas Motor Speedway to sign the National Rifle Association as its primary sponsor for next month's 500-mile race, it had the temerity to fine Denny Hamlin $25,000 for actions detrimental to stock car racing.

Specifically, Hamlin dared to complain that the new Gen-6 car wasn't much different from the Car of Tomorrow after the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Hamlin quickly counterpunched by unleashing a flurry of unsettling remarks that seemingly put him in NASCAR's doghouse. He was hit with a questionable pit road penalty in Las Vegas last Sunday after he threatened to appeal the fine.

Ultimately, Hamlin conceded. On Thursday, NASCAR released a statement saying it considers the matter closed.

Not so fast.

Let's be clear about one thing. Hamlin wasn't the first driver to point out the apparent shortcomings of a car that had been hyped as the next best thing since the invention of the Model T.

Jamie McMurray predicted the nasty, violent crashes that occurred during the Daytona 500, in part, because the handling problems during testing would be exposed during side-by-side racing on the 2 12-mile tri-oval.

Kyle Busch complains so often that almost everyone dismissed his criticisms that the cars would be strung out one behind the other, creating the conveyor belt-like racing that sometimes occurred at Phoenix where a frustrated Hamlin said passing was nearly impossible.

So, why take some of the weight off Hamlin's wallet?

It's simple, really. NASCAR officials had to send a resounding message that it will not tolerate the ramblings of disgruntled drivers, who might be displeased with the performance of the car. They can complain privately all they want, but don't publicly ridicule a car that now resembles the production model — a marketing feature the manufacturers prefer a loose cannon not overshadow.

This, of course, is akin to NBA and NFL players criticizing the officials. It doesn't matter that the facts and film support the players. It's as much an affront to free speech as Hamlin being denied the privilege of criticizing NASCAR's product or its brand.

Generally, the drivers were in locked step in professing the splendor of the Gen-6 – a Sprint Cup car designed to foster aggressive, fearless racing after several years of sometimes-predictable racing in which Chase qualifiers won 95 percent of the time. Supposedly, it will narrow the competitive gap between the top 12 and the rest of the 43-car field.

So far, the Gen-6 doesn't appear to have given any one manufacturer a decisive advantage. The three manufacturers — Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota — each have a victory heading into Sunday's fourth Cup event, the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

If nothing else, NASCAR's seemingly zero-tolerance policy of criticizing the Gen-6 has again opened the debate over whether professional athletes are protected by their rights to free speech.

Stenhouse welcomes NRA sponsorship

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won last year's Nationwide race in Atlanta sponsored by the NRA. So, the Sprint Cup rookie welcomes the association's involvement at Texas.

“The NRA is our core fan base,” he said. “We all have guns, and us racers love to go out and shoot. It's part of who we are.

“Any time you have a sponsor that embraces their market and who their core customers are, it's great for us. I was able to win the NRA race in Atlanta, and those guys were great to work with.”

Allmendinger back where he belongs

AJ Allmendinger was never a good fit in NASCAR. He was born to be an open-wheel driver, so he's returning to his roots. The oft-troubled Allmendinger will again drive for Team Penske in the Indianapolis 500.

Allmendinger, 31, will drive the No. 2 IZOD Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet at the Brickyard.

He had success on the Champ Car World Series from 2004-06, when he earned five wins, two poles and 14 podium finishes over a three-year period.

“It is exciting to welcome AJ back to Penske Racing,” owner Roger Penske said. “He obviously went through a tough time last year, but he has done everything he needed to in order to get back to racing at the top level of the sport. We have always believed in AJ and his ability, and he deserves this opportunity.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or on Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk on TribLive Radio every Friday from 9 to 10 a.m.

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