Aside from Denny Hamlin suffering an injury that likely will keep him out of competition for six weeks, Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway is just what NASCAR chairman Brian France wants the sport to look like.
“What I know is when the racing is tighter and there’s more passing, there’s just more excitement and more contact and more things that happen,” France told ESPN.com Tuesday as the Sprint Cup Series heads into its first off weekend. “That’s kind of what NASCAR is all about.
“Kind of what happened on Sunday was a prototype event for how we would look what a good event ought to look like.”
Hamlin suffered a compression fracture to a vertebra in his lower back when he crashed hard into a concrete barrier while battling former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano for the lead on the last lap. He is expected to miss six weeks.
It was the second time in two weeks the drivers were involved in an on-track incident. Hamlin spun Logano out while Logano raced Jeff Gordon for the lead a week earlier at Bristol.
But France said he has no plans to talk to them about settling their feud.
“No, because what they did, notwithstanding that Denny got injured, what they did in the last 20 laps is exactly what we would have expected them to do,” France said. “This is a contact sport. It’s always been a contact sport, especially late in the race.
“They were going at it. It probably didn’t hurt the competitiveness that both drivers didn’t want the other one to win. They also did want to win themselves. That’s how NASCAR racing goes. We won’t be having any conversation with them.”
But Hamlin’s crash raised the question of why there weren’t SAFER barriers on the inside retaining wall where his car hit, and why tracks aren’t required to have SAFER barriers everywhere.
France said NASCAR is studying Hamlin’s crash carefully, and that if experts recommend SAFER barriers are needed where it occurred, the governing body will make that recommendation to the track.
But France said the solution is not as simple as putting barriers everywhere.
“The reason, there’s not a one-solution-fits-all-problem with the wall,” he said. “Some walls, it might sling the car back into the racing groove at the wrong time. They’ll never put SAFER barriers up everywhere because that’s not the best approach.
“If the current approach can be improved, we’re certainly going to do that. We’re looking at the accident that Denny had very carefully.”
France has been busier than usual to start the season. He met with reigning champion Brad Keselowski in late February to discuss questionable comments the Penske Racing driver made in a newspaper article.
Then came a suspension of Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements for using a racial slur in front of an MTV reporter, followed by a $25,000 fine to Hamlin for criticizing the new Gen-6 car and the quality of racing at Phoenix.
France acknowledged it was primarily his decision to penalize Hamlin, and he stood by that decision.
“There’s always going to be, when we make decisions that are not black and white per se, we’re always going to have people all over the organization that may not have made that call,” France said. “But I did. I’m crystal clear with everybody about where the line is, what we can accept, and about how the sport is going today.
“And that is we give more latitude than any professional sport to criticize, speak their mind and say whatever they want. We encourage it, actually, including criticism that gets directed at us. But when the driver . . . begins to call out the quality of the racing or the rules packages, we have to make that call or opinions will shape what may not be reality.”
France met with Hamlin, who dropped his right to appeal the fine, and believes they are on the same page now.
France also believes the quality of racing is better than ever with the new car. He didn’t rule out tweaks in the future or a change in the package for restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, but overall he is pleased.
“It’s hard to argue with five different winners and all the manufacturers seem to have a fair opportunity and they’re all in the winner’s circle,” he said. “And there’s a lot more passing.
“But I think it’s too early to say we’ve got the perfect package. That’s always going to be a work in progress.”
There have been 147 green-flag passes for the lead in 2013, up from 122 after five races a year ago and down from 203 in 2011 and 298 in 2010.
France also noted that television ratings in general are up, another sign the sport is headed in the right direction.
“We have some momentum,” he said. “Some really good things have happened to us. We all know ratings are still driven by storylines and matchups in a given weekend. You saw that last weekend where basketball ratings were up because they had better matchups than they’ve had or Tiger Woods was on the leaderboard [in golf].
“We’ll just keep working on what we can do. If we have close, great racing like we have, then the ratings will take care of themselves. For all the things that could have gone wrong with the new car and a new season, a lot of good things went really well and we’re pleased with that.”