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By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - What a great NASCAR race that was at Las Vegas! The new Gen-6 car sure put on an amazing show, one for the ages, for sure.
That's the kind of effusive praise we should expect to hear from drivers the rest of the year, right?
Anything short of that could lead to another shut-up-and-drive fine like the one levied last week against Denny Hamlin, who was popped for $25,000 for having the audacity to give an honest answer when asked to assess NASCAR's new car after its second race.
Hamlin is digging in his heels for this fight, though, saying he'll be suspended before he'll pay the fine. In reality, he'll first go through an appeals process, and if NASCAR is smart, it will quietly make this whole mess go away.
NASCAR claims Hamlin committed one of those heinous "actions detrimental to stock car racing" when he politely summed up the afternoon at Phoenix with this scathing assessment: "I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning."
Many fans remember what the generation five - known as the "Car of Tomorrow" - was at the beginning because Kyle Busch notoriously trashed it in Victory Lane after winning its debut race. Not wanting this new car to gain the same reputation, NASCAR apparently took a strong stand against Hamlin because it will not permit its drivers to "denigrate the racing product."
Only Hamlin wasn't trashing the racing, or the new car. He was asked for his opinion about the performance of the car after two races - and he told the truth.
Now he's been punished by a hypersensitive NASCAR that likely did more harm than good with the fine.
Why? Because in overpolicing the brand, NASCAR offended its fan base. People who never rooted for Hamlin before now firmly back the driver and his right to speak his mind. Hamlin was, after all, only saying what they were all thinking.
Everyone can understand that NASCAR is trying to avoid a repeat of the disastrous CoT. It never had a chance after Busch's tongue-lashing, and NASCAR spent all of last season developing the Gen-6 car to put the CoT out to pasture once and for all.
Only Busch didn't ruin the CoT for fans. They didn't need a driver to tell them the car was ugly or drove like a milk truck. They had eyes. They could see for themselves they hated everything about the car, including the on-track racing.
Now there's a new car this season, with a finely tuned marketing strategy and a serious messaging plan.
Straying from the script, as Hamlin learned, won't be tolerated by NASCAR.
Nor will taking the fans for idiots.
The backlash against NASCAR over Hamlin's fine included signs of "Free Denny" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the hashtag (hash)StandWithDenny formed on Twitter as a riff on the (hash)StandWithRand from Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster a day earlier.
This is because fans watched the same two races Hamlin did to start the season. They saw the Daytona 500 was mostly a single-file parade until the late push to the checkered flag, and the race at Phoenix a week later had 445 fewer green-flag passes than last November's race there with the old car.
And the fans remembered that NASCAR chairman Brian France was asked in January how success will be measured with the Gen-6 car.
"I think we'll measure it by lead changes, we'll measure it by how it races, we'll measure it by how the drivers feel about it," France said.
We know how Hamlin felt about it, and he got his hand slapped. So how in the world will anyone believe anything the drivers say going forward? Why would they dare say anything even borderline critical?
Hamlin's comment was fairly mild. All he said was the car in its present form needs more work, that after two races it's not as good as where the old car was after six years.
Well, no kidding. The Gen-6 has been overhyped from the beginning, and NASCAR has backed itself into a corner by essentially guaranteeing the racing will be better this year. Eventually, it might. But to believe anyone at NASCAR was going to snap their fingers and roll out a magical new car capable of producing the most exciting races ever seen is ludicrous.
It's all a work in progress and it should be noted that the third race for the new car was better than the first two. According to NASCAR statistics that began in 2005, Sunday's race at Las Vegas had a record 31 green flag passes for the lead, and the 2,342 passes on the track under green was more than 1,000 over last year's race.
Maybe that makes for a better race, maybe not. That's for the fans to decide, based on what they see on the track and what they hear from the drivers. They don't need the drivers to tell them things are great if they aren't, and, as NASCAR learned, they'll quickly resent being force-fed anything but the cold, hard truth.
Follow Jenna Fryer at https://twitter.com/JennaFryer and http://racing.ap.org