By gambling the public would never learn about the secret fines it issued to drivers for speaking out, NASCAR miscalculated and now looks worse than if it been up front about what officials viewed as damaging comments.
Associated Press reporter Jenna Fryer broke the bombshell story Monday evening that at least two star drivers had been fined as much as $50,000 for making comments disparaging NASCAR.
That was significant in that from chairman Brian France to president Mike Helton to spokesman Ramsey Poston, NASCAR has repeatedly said it wants the drivers to be themselves, show personality and give their opinions.
Right along with the "Have at it, boys" policy, this "Be yourselves" idea was sold to the public as part of the "new" NASCAR that listens to fans and loosens the reins on its drivers.
And everyone bought it. Until the last seven days, that is.
A week ago, "Have at it, boys" turned out to be "Have at it, boys...but only so much" when NASCAR issued Carl Edwards a 60-point penalty along with a fine for intentionally wrecking Brad Keselowski.
Suddenly, all the talk from NASCAR that it wanted drivers to police themselves rang a bit hollow.
Now, it's even worse.
Fryer's story that NASCAR is secretly fining drivers who dare to criticize the sport – while at the same time publicly asking drivers to give opinions and display personality – reeks of hypocrisy.
In NASCAR's view, it cannot allow drivers to make comments that might damage the sport's credibility when attendance and television ratings are already slumping.
And I can understand why spokesman Poston told Fryer in a statement confirming the fines that NASCAR wanted to "protect the sport's brand."
But the statement also said:
Any action taken by NASCAR has nothing to do with the drivers expressing an opinion – it's focused on actions or comments that materially damage the sport.
Therein lies the problem: Poston said the fines had nothing to do with the drivers giving their opinions, but that's simply incorrect.
After all, the drivers' opinions were the same "comments" NASCAR took to be ones that "materially damage the sport."
Fryer's story didn't reveal who was fined; undoubtedly, every star driver at Pocono this weekend will be asked by reporters if they were the ones who got penalized.
I don't know who NASCAR fined, but let's hypothetically use Denny Hamlin's comments about phantom debris cautions as an example.
Hamlin said yellow flags were used by NASCAR to tighten the field unnecessarily for the purpose of putting on a better show. That was his opinion, and many people agreed with him.
Now let's say (again, hypothetically) NASCAR viewed those comments as damaging to the sport and issued fines.
Will Hamlin speak out against NASCAR on that issue again (if he was indeed one of those who was fined)? No, because he would have gotten the message.
Will other drivers speak out against NASCAR if similar issues arise? No, because they saw what happened to the drivers who expressed those opinions.
So NASCAR, in effect, has quashed negative driver comments to the media and therefore prevented them from reaching the fans.
That wouldn't be dramatically different from some of the other major sports (see: NBA and Mark Cuban), except for this: All along, NASCAR has been filling those fans' ears with pledges that it wants drivers to be themselves and express how they feel.
But this means NASCAR is saying one thing and doing another. It means NASCAR wants drivers to give opinions, just as long as they don't say anything bad about NASCAR.
NASCAR can spin it how it wants and try to separate driver "opinions" from "comments that materially damage the sport." But the reality is, those opinions and damaging comments can be one and the same.
I understand NASCAR's position that having its drivers running around telling fans the sport is rigged is bad for business. If the sanctioning body chooses to take action and show its disagreement with those comments through a fine, I wouldn't completely agree, but that's NASCAR's prerogative.
Either way, the smart thing would have been to make the penalties public. Because when fines are issued behind closed doors, it has a cover-up feel: Shhh! You weren't supposed to tell them our secret!
NASCAR's biggest mistake in this situation was trying to pull a fast one on fans and media by penalizing drivers behind the public's back.
Because even if there was justification to protect the brand with a fine, NASCAR appears to have gone from "police yourselves" to "police state" in less than a week.