Whenever a key NASCAR decision is about to be handed down, I find myself filled with a small sense of dread.
It’s not because of the nature of the penalties themselves, of course. They have no bearing on me and my personal life.
I’m just sick and tired of not knowing which direction the sanctioning body is going to go in until the moment the penalty is handed out.
The latest example came Tuesday (Oct. 18), when myself and countless others waited until 5 p.m. ET for NASCAR to announce its penalty decision for Bubba Wallace after he appeared to intentionally right-hook Kyle Larson toward the outside wall during Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
There were numerous questions ahead of the decision. When would the penalty be announced? What would it be? Would the sanctioning body focus on precedent or the severity of the accident itself?
In the end, NASCAR went with one of its harshest options, suspending Wallace one race. He’s the first driver to be suspended for any NASCAR national series event since Johnny Sauter for an intentional crash of Austin Hill under caution at Iowa Speedway in 2019, and the first Cup driver to be forced out for a race since Matt Kenseth after his infamous 2015 crashing of Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway.
Make no mistake, the powers that be at NASCAR had little choice but to suspend Wallace. The act was too egregious and came at a time when safety concerns from Cup drivers are as significant as they’ve been in decades. Two drivers are currently out with concussions, including the original driver of the No. 45 Toyota that Wallace used for his accident, Kurt Busch.
The only real issue with the decision is that it stands in contrast to others in recent weeks.
Just three months ago, Noah Gragson intentionally crashed Sage Karam in an Xfinity Series race at Road America, setting off a massive accident that ultimately had playoff repercussions for Landon Cassill and left Brandon Brown rattled and upset. Gragson was fined $35,000 and docked 30 points for the incident, but was allowed to continue competing.
Not even a month later, Carson Hocevar appeared to intentionally hook Colby Howard into the outside wall in the Camping World Truck Series’ return to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. His penalty? Nothing. Nothing at all.
While not as severe, Ryan Blaney intentionally turned Daniel Suarez after the conclusion of July’s Cup Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, a retaliatory move for earlier contract between the pair. Two months later, William Byron ran into the back of Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas Motor Speedway, sending the three-time Daytona 500 winner spinning through the infield.
Even Larson himself isn’t entirely innocent. Remember when he shoved rookie Justin Haley into the inside wall at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum?
Blaney wasn’t penalized at all for his accident. Larson either. Byron was initially penalized 25 points and fined $50,000, though an appeal removed the points penalty and changed the fine to $100,000.
Should any of those accidents have resulted in suspensions?
It’s difficult to say. An argument could clearly be made for the wrecks involving Gragson and Hocevar. Both involved intentional crashes in dangerous ways that could have resulted in injury.
Were they at the same speeds as Las Vegas? No. Are those vehicles seemingly safer than the current Cup car? Sure.
But dangerous accidents can occur anywhere and rising contenders in lower series should be held to the same standard as the sport’s top stars. After all, the goal of the sport’s lower levels is to serve as a ladder to Cup itself. Unlike in other sports, Cup competitors also dip down and run in those series themselves on occasion. The standards should be no different.
But suspensions and post-race penalties aren’t the only source of confusion when it comes to decisions from the sanctioning body.
Far from it.
There’s the indefinite argument over what should or shouldn’t constitute a caution. The fear over who (if anyone) will be penalized for yellow line infractions at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Whether a driver should or shouldn’t be black-flagged/disqualified for various things – most recently potential team orders from Stewart-Haas Racing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and Ross Chastain’s sneaky shortcut at the IMS road course. How to handle rain. Whatever happened at the end of the All-Star Race in May.
The collective source of potential confusion for fans and competitors in NASCAR is staggering. There are so many situations and processes without clear, obvious rulings that the sanctioning body is finding itself constantly chasing its tail in the midst of what should be a celebratory 2022 campaign. A strong regular season has been completely overshadowed by a playoff where the weekly focus has rested more in off-track politicking than on-track action.
In its defense, NASCAR has a large number of variables to deal with that some other sports don’t. Each driver and team offers another potential source of variability, leaving hundreds of potential snags in what I’m sure the sanctioning body hopes will be simple, enjoyable race weekends.
NASCAR also isn’t alone. Nearly every sport is currently going through pains of identifying and standardizing processes. What constitutes pass interference or roughing the passer in football? How does one determine what is or isn’t a foul in soccer? Is it even possible to travel in the NBA anymore?
But few sporting entities find themselves so frequently debated on the merit of their processes and decisions compared to the quality of their product itself. It’s creating a frustrating viewing experience for fans and a confusing environment for competitors.
The running joke for years has been the only thing consistent in NASCAR is inconsistency. Whether fair or not, it’s going to take some serious effort and streamlining of processes to make that perception fade in the years to come.
Using Wallace’s penalty to set firm precedent for future accidents would be a nice start.