I did not see that one coming.
After the Oct. 2 race at Talladega Superspeedway, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion was just 18 points above the cut line.
Entering last Sunday’s (Oct. 9) round at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, William Byron jumped back into the green after winning his appeal. Byron reclaimed the 25 points he was initially penalized for spinning (not wrecking) Denny Hamlin under caution.
At first, it didn’t matter. Kyle Larson did as Kyle Larson does, especially on road courses as a Hendrick Motorsports driver. He ran consistently toward the front, finishing the stages in sixth and third, respectively.
— No. 5 Team (@Hendrick5Team) October 9, 2022
And then he slid into the wall and went five laps down as the crew replaced a toe link. Larson finished 35th while Chase Briscoe advanced on the strength of a ninth-place result and some tail-gunner help from his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer.
Kyle Larson comes to pit road with the right rear toe link needing to be replaced. This is going to be a long, slow stop for the No. 5 team #BofAROVAL
— PRN (@PRNlive) October 9, 2022
Despite Larson at least doubling Briscoe’s totals in wins, top fives and top 10s, the margin between them was just two points.
In favor of Briscoe.
That’s just how the playoffs go, especially in this ultra-competitive season where nobody (save perhaps Chase Elliott) has the kind of massive playoff points buffer that effectively prevents elimination. Austin Cindric, 10th in the playoff standings after the ROVAL, had just 30 fewer points than leader Elliott when the checkered flag fell.
If you’re a Larson fan, I understand your disappointment (and I’m guessing KFB_FAN1818 understands too). Your guy is out of the championship hunt in a year his chances were as good as anyone’s. Same as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick, all eliminated in the Round of 16.
Heck, even Daniel Suarez, in his first playoff appearance, looked like a solid pick to make it to the Round of 8 until a power-steering failure inside of 50 laps to go at the ROVAL dropped him five laps down. Given Trackhouse Racing Team’s strength at mile-and-a-halfs, which make up two of the three races in the final elimination round, the Championship 4 wouldn’t have been an impossible ask.
It feels somewhat foolish to say this, but despite the elimination, that was one of the most hardcore drives I've seen. Don't know how the hell you finished, but that's a testament to what a bad-ass Daniel Suarez is. I'd like to shake your hand once you can lift your arms again.
— nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) October 10, 2022
But is this a problem that needs a solution? I say no. At least not a targeted one. Addressing the reliability problems with the Next Gen car and its Goodyear tires will go a long way toward reducing the unfairness in these eliminations. But ultimately this is NASCAR, not a fourth-grade science fair. In order for someone to win, everyone else has to lose, and it doesn’t matter if they’re not happy about it.
It would be just like NASCAR to see fans reacting to big names’ early eliminations and change the rules again. Maybe they’ll offer more playoff points for regular-season finishing position or double the playoff points earned for race wins, or stage wins, or maybe there’ll be some contrived way to win your way back in after elimination.
To that I say: NASCAR, this offseason, just focus on reengineering the rear clip of the Next Gen cars and coming to a new agreement with the RTA. Sure, fans are upset about a million different things, but they’re NASCAR fans, that’s what they do. It sucks for Larson and his fans, but hey, that’s what next year is for.
Because we’ve seen 19 different winners this year, points totals are going to be closer. Because non-playoff drivers have won races, there’s going to be fewer championship chasers locked in. Because of random mechanical failures, some top drivers are going to be at risk.
After a couple of years in the playoff points era where dominant drivers were all but locked into the Championship 4 with 10 races to go, I, for one, am happy to see a season where it seems like anything can happen.
Why doesn’t NASCAR review all contact on the track during the race? Give them something to do. Just a separate department to do the reviews. Why can’t drivers race clean? -Willow Spicewood, YouTube
I’ll answer these in reverse order.
NASCAR drivers are the best stock-car racers in the world. They can absolutely race clean, they just choose not to.
Last week, I wrote about how pleased I was that Talladega was an exciting race that didn’t see a ton of massive crashes. In fact, there were more lead changes than any of the other crash-filled superspeedway events this season. All the drivers were racing smarter. It is possible for them to do that. So why don’t they?
Well, in Formula 1, the sanctioning body can determine that teams violated the “spirit of the regulations,” that a certain design or tactic may not be technically illegal, but it’s a bit unfair to the other teams. There are many things I think F1 does better than NASCAR. This is not one of them. There is no “spirit of the regulations” in stock car racing, nor should there be.
My personal racing hero is Smokey Yunick, an engineer who thought that if there wasn’t a rule against it yet, that meant it was perfectly legal. His mastery of loopholes represents all that is great about the culture of American motorsports. Think of racers like a gas, and the regulations like a container. They will expand to fill the space permitted by the regulations, every crack and crevice, even if the sanctioning body politely asks them not to.
It’s up to the sanctioning body to write clear regulations with as few cracks and crevices as possible. For example, NASCAR failed to define “wrecking” somebody as including “spinning” them, the loophole by which Byron’s Texas penalty was appealed.
While the phrase itself has fallen out of fashion, NASCAR’s party line still remains, “Boys, have at it,” former VP of Competition Robin Pemberton’s call for drivers to self-police intentional contact. But through the Gen 6 era and into the Gen 7, driving standards have continued to erode. As any student of international politics will tell you (perhaps Frontstretch‘s own Alex Gintz), escalation of conflict rarely leads to satisfactory resolution.
The old axiom that NASCAR is America’s most popular form of motorsport because of intentional contact doesn’t quite hold up in a world where Formula 1 regularly pulls in more viewers in the key 18-49 demographic.
So yes, NASCAR should start penalizing reckless driving again. Certainly wrecking (or spinning) another driver under the yellow should result in being immediately parked for the rest of the event.
But there’s a fine line to be sure: how do you penalize the egregious contact while allowing enough beating and banging to keep NASCAR’s soul? Rubbin’ is racing, after all.
The answer is not that exciting: case by case. Certainly I would penalize Hamlin for dumping Elliott at Martinsville Speedway in fall 2017, but how should I rule Ross Chastain’s cue-ball bump-and-run on AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman at Circuit of the Americas? Maybe they’re a little more lenient when a win is on the line? Or in low-speed corners with plenty of run-off?
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 27, 2022
I guarantee you it would result in controversy, at least at first, but if the sanctioning body were to start handing out occasional penalties for dangerous driving, the drivers would pull back a little. The shape of the container would have changed just slightly. After they realize they can’t get away with as much, they will toe the new line. Winning is everything, and you can’t win if you’ve been penalized.
Ultimately, that’s what we want, just a little change. NASCAR isn’t, and never will be, Formula 1. But NASCAR, as of late, has been embarrassing itself.
I’ll end on a positive note: what I feel to be the most precisely-executed retaliation in recent NASCAR memory: Hamlin paying back Chastain at Pocono Raceway. As Jeff Burton says, he gave him just enough room to wreck himself.
CHASTAIN INTO THE WALL! pic.twitter.com/WWZmlpQYGi
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 24, 2022
Some drivers have overreacted in their pursuit of payback this season. But this? Perfection.
About the author
Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.
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