HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Put 40 NASCAR drivers in a room and chances are the topics they fully agree on are few and far between.
So it’s notable, then, that there appears to be near-unanimous consent to actions taken by the sanctioning body over the past few weeks in handing out harsh penalties stemming from on-track incidents.
NASCAR earlier this week suspended 23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace for one race after he intentionally crashed Kyle Larson then proceeded to shove Larson after each exited their vehicle in last Sunday’s Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,
This came a week after NASCAR also penalized driver Cole Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team for their actions in attempting to “artificially alter” the race’s finishing positions in the Round of 12 finale at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s round course. Custer and No. 41 crew chief Michael Shiplett were each fined $100,000, and Shiplett was suspended indefinitely. Competition officials also issued 50-point deductions to Custer and the team in their respective driver and owner standings.
NASCAR’s chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell told Sirius XM NASCAR Radio after the Wallace decision was announced that “it’s been very rare, if ever, that we suspend drivers, so we don’t take that action lightly.”
The message has been sent. And it’s been received, loud and clear.
“Yeah, I would say (NASCAR has sent a message). Yeah, I would,” Joey Logano said Saturday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio). “I think there’s, I mean, there’s a few things that kind of go to all that stuff, right? What’s acceptable to NASCAR; what’s acceptable to you, as an individual? … I always say sports test your morals and test your character a lot of times, and it’s sometimes tough to balance all that in the heat of the moment. It’s hard, right? It’s hard to imagine yourself inside of a race car if you haven’t done it before. And you sometimes make decisions that you’re not proud of later on. But you learn lessons every time. I’ve made mistakes and made dumb decisions inside race cars, and I regret them, but I learned from every one of them. And I feel like I really know where my line is now. Fifteen years later, but (I’ve found) where my line is and what I feel is acceptable or not on the race track.”
For some other drivers who don’t have the 15 years of Cup experience that the veteran - and only driver currently locked into the Championship 4 – has, perhaps they haven’t quite found that “line” yet. And perhaps NASCAR just provided it.
“It’s NASCAR’s decision; whatever they thought was the right thing to do and that kind of case, that’s all NASCAR’s kind of judgment call. And they did what they thought was fit for it,” said Logano’s Team Penske teammate and fellow Round of 8 contender Ryan Blaney. “I personally think it’s good that NASCAR’s putting the law down, right? Like, (laying) the hammer down on things that they think (are) wrong. … I mean, that’s the only way you can kind of police it, right? You have to do those things. And at the end of the day, it’s their call. They see something that they don’t like, I expect them to act on it, and they have the last couple of weeks.”
The interesting twist to all of this – with just three races remaining to settle this year’s championship and the intensity only ratcheting up on a weekly basis – is that drivers could be presented with similar situations before the year is over, and the precedent has been set.
How will teammates out of the playoffs help their teammates in the playoffs? How will drivers choose to issue any retaliation before the year is out, especially with the short-track mayhem of Martinsville Speedway looming next week?
Certainly not in the ways we’ve seen recently, both because NASCAR has laid out its heavy hand of repercussion cards but also, it turns out because the consensus seems to be that those weren’t the correct methods to handle these situations, anyway.
“Honestly, it hasn’t changed anything in the way I think or the way I do things because, in my opinion, all those moves were extremely, extremely dumb. Both of them,” said No. 99 Trackhouse Racing driver Daniel Suárez, who was eliminated after the Round of 12 but whose teammate Ross Chastain is still racing for a title.
“And I was going to be extremely surprised if there were not penalties. Like, before even those situations happened, I would never do something like that. I mean, not that clear. You have to be smarter. I don’t know what those guys were thinking. I’m glad NASCAR reacted to this because, you know, when is too much? When is it too much, helping a teammate like that? And people know I’m gonna race. I race everyone very hard. But yeah, in the next few weeks, I’m gonna race Ross not super hard, because he’s my teammate. … I will never give up a win to help him, you know? But definitely, my level of aggression to my teammate right now is gonna be a little bit lower. I will never brake to give up a position. I know the consequences of that. That’s not professional. The same thing, wrecking somebody in the way that happened last week, it’s just not smart, especially with everything that is happening right now. So, honestly, I’m glad that NASCAR stepped in and they were able to put everyone in their places because it was too much.”
The preferred course of action for all parties is typically to let things play out organically, within reason, with NASCAR only stepping in to take action when necessary. The drivers are ultimately the ones that need to deal with each other out on the race track and find that “line” amongst themselves. Race a certain way, and there are 39 other competitors out there to help you know when you’ve crossed the threshold. But there are certain situations where authority needs to step in, and drivers appear to agree that these circumstances warranted it.
“I mean, there’s a line between ‘boys have at it’ and ‘we’ve gone way too far,’ right?” said Logano, no stranger himself to on-and-off-track disputes. “Like, it’s one thing that, you know, someone knocks you out of the way, you knock them back out of the way. Okay, that’s one thing. It’s different if someone, you know, pushes you up a little bit, and then you right rear hook them into the wall at 180 miles an hour. … That’s a different story. So there’s a line.
“NASCAR’s like your parents a lot of times, right? … You gotta let the boys figure it out sometimes, and they’ll figure it out together and move on. Or mom and dad have to step in a little bit and control the situation because it’s gotten out of hand. So I believe NASCAR kind of decided that it was a little getting out of hand. And I would agree with them.”