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‘Dark Knight’ Not Afraid to Buck NASCAR

Denny Hamlin has emerged as NASCAR’s Dark Knight.

He is picking fights at every turn — with the NASCAR establishment and with former teammates. He is not afraid to buck the system, even though the system seems intent on breaking him.

I’ll be cheering for him despite the odds.

In a silly season of contradictions for NASCAR — it supports victims of gun violence and the NRA, for instance — Hamlin has emerged as a classic anti-hero.

He is 100 percent on point protesting a $25,000 fine for remarks critical of the brand — namely, the new Gen-6 car — after making some rather innocuous comments a few weeks ago in Phoenix.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement for this car,” Hamlin said in a Speed interview that echoed several of his Phoenix post-race comments. “It’s going to take a little while to get these cars driving as good as we had in Generation 5.”

NASCAR (aka The Kremlin) docked Hamlin $25,000. Hamlin has refused to pay the fine, but also decided against an appeal, meaning that the money will be garnished from his purse money or points-fund bonuses, as per NASCAR rules.

NASCAR has said it “considered this matter closed,” although it really isn’t because it’s a public relations bloodbath. Here’s a sport that says it wants to encourage “personalities” yet stifles any kind of free thinking.

And of course there is the obvious “huh?” question that begs to be asked: How can Dale Earnhardt Jr. call the racing at Talladega “ridiculous” and only appeals to “bloodthirsty” fans and not get fined last season, yet Hamlin gets slapped in the face over his comments?

“If I was Jeff Gordon, Tony (Stewart), Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. or any Hendrick (Motorsports) driver — let’s just say that — they would have had a conversation with me before,” Hamlin said. “Just to slap the fine on me and not tell me anything is what really, really bugged me a lot. That felt like I had not earned my place in this sport and I’ve grinded it out here for eight years and I really feel like I’ve done what it takes to earn the respect of both my peers and NASCAR and I felt like if I had been somebody else the outcome may have been different.”

Which leads us to another fight Hamlin is waging. And this one isn’t going away any time soon.

Hamlin has sparred with former teammate Joey Logano twice this season. The first pot shot was via Twitter after the Daytona 500. The next exchange was more heated, following the race at Bristol this past weekend.

Hamlin spun out Logano with about 150 laps remaining, leading Logano to lean into Hamlin’s car post-race for an animated chat. The crews from both teams exchanged shoves as well.

“He said he was coming for me,” said Hamlin, who finished 23rd. “I usually don’t see him, so it’s usually not a factor.”

“We’ve got a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11,” said Logano, who wound up 17th. “Probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now. He chose to run into the back of me. Whatever. I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that.”

Translation: The battles involving the Dark Knight will continue.

So who’s the biggest cash cow in NASCAR?

That would be the artist formerly known as Little E, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Forbes magazine ranks Earnhardt Jr. as the highest-paid driver in NASCAR at $25.9 million. The number is based on a $12.9 million salary and earnings, plus another $13 million in endorsements. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is second at $23 million, with $16.3 million in winnings.

Tony Stewart ($18.7 million), Jeff Gordon ($18.1 million) and Carl Edwards ($13.7 million) round out the Top 5. Cup rookie Danica Patrick ranked No. 7 with an estimated worth of $12.9 million.

Forbes notes that while Earnhardt’s licensing income is down, he still generated the most licensing dollars in the sport last year.

“His endorsement income is tops as well, thanks to personal deals with Chevy, Goody’s, Nationwide, Wrangler and more,” Forbes reported.

“His latest deal is a partnership with Minnesota snack company KLN Family Brands to form Dale Jr. Foods. Last month, they introduced four Dale Jr. flavors of potato chips: Crispy Original, Carolina Barbecue, Creole & Green Onion and Zesty Jalapeno.”

Say what you will about Danica Patrick, the polarizing queen of NASCAR moves the needle when it comes to interest in NASCAR.

Danica notched 971 million impressions on Twitter during an eight-day span highlighted by her historic run at the pole position in the Daytona 500. Repucom, a global company with an office in Charlotte, tracked Patrick’s social-media prowess during that time.

“It’s staggering,” Repucom vice president Peter Laatz told USA Today Sports. “That’s a really good thing for the sport, and it’s great for her and great for her sponsors. We thought last year was a big deal until we looked at the numbers from this year.”

By contrast, Carl Edwards had 15 million impressions during the same time frame last year. Repucom also estimated that Patrick’s primary sponsor, GoDaddy, received 1,203 seconds of on-screen branding during the race. That was the equivalent to $2.9 million in media value.

Despite her sonic boom in cyberspace, Patrick has struggled considerably since finishing eighth at Daytona, including a 28th-place finish at Bristol.

“There are a lot of things that I have to work on at this point in time,” Patrick said after the race in Bristol. “For us, the most important thing is to find a decent balance to start off the race so that we don’t drop back.”