NASCAR made the announcement Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 18) that Wallace will be sidelined for the upcoming race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. Surprisingly, no points deductions or fines were issued for the incident. 23XI Racing announced shortly afterward John Hunter Nemechek will fill in for Wallace in the No. 45 Toyota.
NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell appeared on SIRIUS XM NASCAR Radio to further explain the penalty. I thought the key lines for him came right at the start of his talk with host Dave Moody.
“Our actions are really specific to what took place on the racetrack,” O’Donnell said. “And when we look at how that incident occurred, you know, in our minds, really a dangerous act … in this case, we just felt it crossed the line, and we really had to react, because it’s an action that we don’t want to see going forward.”
In this case. It’s a moment in which a new precedent was set, for better or for worse, because Wallace’s actions backed NASCAR into a corner.
Here’s three important reasons why.
1. It failed the eye test.
Let’s take a look at the Wallace wreck again. What I want you to rewatch is how intentionally it appears Wallace turned hard left, hooking Larson right into the outside wall at speed once Larson’s No. 5 pushed Wallace’s No. 45 into the wall first. Whatever way you slice it, it’s a bad look for the sport.
Bubba Wallace has been suspended by #NASCAR for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson under green.
Here’s another look at the incident. pic.twitter.com/ap7tiTa0Tr
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 18, 2022
The cameras were focused directly on Wallace’s move, both in the moment and subsequent replays. It’s followed up by Wallace exiting his car, walking over to Larson, yelling and then shoving him in an act of physical retaliation.
Let’s stop here to note NASCAR has suspended Cup drivers for on-track incidents toward another driver four other times since 2000: Kevin Harvick (2002, based on an incident in a Camping World Truck Series race), Jimmy Spencer (2003), Kyle Busch (2011, also based on a Truck Series crash) and Matt Kenseth (2015). There are two running themes in all these suspensions: the brazenness of the contact, regardless of whether the driver admitted it, combined with buildup of bad behavior over a period of time.
Harvick (2002): A wreck of Coy Gibbs (4:00 mark in this clip) came with NASCAR evidence Harvick claimed on the radio he was going after him. The retaliation came three weeks after Harvick was put on probation for fighting Greg Biffle after a NASCAR Busch Series wreck between them at Bristol Motor Speedway. Harvick said, “I’ll be waiting when he comes in here,” and then backed up his threat with violence. What happens when you violate your probation? NASCAR felt they had no choice but to suspend.
Spencer (2003): A feud between Spencer and Kurt Busch had been building for years; it peaked during an August 2002 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval where Spencer spun Busch hard into the outside wall in retaliation for contact earlier that year. The bad blood carried over into 2003, where during a race at Michigan International Speedway, Busch admitted to trying to cut Spencer’s tire. After being informed of Busch’s radio chatter, Spencer’s response was to confront him, punching Busch after the race while he was still strapped in.
That run-in was the most damaging, causing Spencer’s one-race suspension as Busch complained of a chipped tooth and a bloody nose from the fight. It was the fourth documented problem between the two, although Busch was served with only probation after the last two incidents had only Spencer producing intentional contact that actually worked (first on the track at Indy, then off it at Michigan).
Kyle Busch (2011): Busch’s wreck of Ron Hornaday Jr. came under caution during the Truck Series race. Hornaday was a championship contender, and Busch’s wreck was in response to their on-track contact that caused the yellow; it was blatantly intentional. Cameras followed them for nearly half-a-lap as Busch kept his front bumper glued to Hornaday, then made sure he was turned hard right into the outside wall at nearly full speed. The crash came at the same Texas Motor Speedway that produced injuries to Alex Bowman and Cody Ware just last month.
Matt Kenseth (2015): This one is the clearest example of premeditation. After Joey Logano made contact with Matt Kenseth that fall, spinning him out while battling for the lead at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth failed to advance in the playoffs while Logano did. Kenseth made clear he felt Logano was “lying” about his explanation of the wreck and never fully apologized before taking matters into his own hands at Martinsville Speedway. Limping around after an early crash, Kenseth waited for Logano, who was leading, then intentionally wrecked him hard into the outside wall entering turn 1.
For that, Kenseth earned the only two-race suspension within this group.
How does Wallace’s incident with Larson compare? What’s missing is clear; a previous buildup of bad behavior. In reality, the wreck was a split-second decision by Wallace to retaliate against a driver he hadn’t been involved in drama with, at least in public. But the contact, at those speeds, in the right-rear quarter panel was designed to intentionally hook Larson. That left Larson defenseless, at speeds over 150 miles an hour, with other cars coming right at him.
Here’s where recent news events appeared to hurt Wallace’s case and provide NASCAR with the additional ammo they needed to make up the difference.
2. The calls around driver safety justify an escalation of penalties.
NASCAR has now had two meetings with drivers surrounding the safety of the Next Gen car, with everyone from Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott to 20+ year veteran Kevin Harvick openly criticizing its construction. The first was compared to a “Seinfeld” episode on the airing of grievances, as so many drivers complained NASCAR didn’t even build in enough time in 75 minutes for them to fully react.
Three full-time drivers missed the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL event two weeks ago, the highest number of injuries we’ve seen in the sport in 20 years. And as the garage had a chance to fully digest what Wallace did Sunday, some, like Joey Logano, began speaking out.
“Right-rear hooking someone in the dogleg is not OK,” Logano said Tuesday. “I don’t know if everyone realizes how bad that could have been. That could have been the end of Kyle Larson’s career. That, to me, was what was on the line. Or, his life.”
Those are strong words from a NASCAR Cup Series champion, overshadowing Larson’s more conservative view of the incident. Yes, Larson said the move was “over the line,” but also made clear Wallace had a reason to be mad, admitting to being aggressive with his initial inside move that pushed Wallace into the outside wall.
Logano statement reminds us the drivers can’t have it both ways, right? As he said, you can’t be gung-ho about safety, then say it’s OK to have that type of intentional wreck at one of the faster tracks on the NASCAR circuit. Larson also hit the wall driver’s side first, along with absorbing rear end impact at a portion of the car literally getting redesigned for 2023 due to safety concerns.
Here’s where I go back to O’Donnell’s “really a dangerous act.” He added later: “So when we look at this incident, you’re not only endangering one but there’s a lot of cars out there at speed. It’s a high rate of speed. It’s on an intermediate track. All those things factor in.”
Not only was Larson in danger, but the drivers were racing near the front, meaning the No. 5 could have been hit by multiple cars before the caution came out. And, although O’Donnell adamantly denied it factored into the decision …
3. A driver may have been eliminated from the Championship 4 as a result of intentional contact.
Here’s where Christopher Bell served as collateral damage. His No. 20 Toyota was unable to continue after the wreck, leading to a DNF that puts him 23 points below the cut line. Who knows what would have happened if Bell completed the race, but the team was flashing top-five speed and earned a top-five finish in stage one.
Barring a win elsewhere, in all likelihood this incident will be what keeps Bell from the Championship 4. And it comes just days after another big controversy, NASCAR’s 50-point deduction for Cole Custer, along with an indefinite suspension of crew chief Mike Shiplett and a $100,000 fine for what officials say was intentional race manipulation on their part during the final lap.
As I wrote about last week, and then at CBS this week, NASCAR seems to be going through a cycle where they feel the need to reassert their power over the sport. The timing of this incident provided that opportunity, a reminder that hey, at the end of the day it’s our sandbox and certain rules need to be followed in order to play.
“As we look at the sport and where we are today,” O’Donnell said, “And where we want to draw that line going forward, we thought that definitely crossed the line, and that’s what we focused on in terms of making this call.”
I feel those three reasons combined produced the suspension we see now, regardless of Wallace’s apology. 23XI Racing appears to understand the gravity of the situation, their own statement making clear, “Bubba’s actions are not in keeping with the values of our team and partners.”
23XI’s official statement on the NASCAR Las Vegas Penalty. pic.twitter.com/Pdopqtae1e
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) October 18, 2022
Now. Here’s where the sport starts to lose me in terms of a compelling counterargument against the suspension. As our own Daniel McFadin so artfully lays out, in just the last nine months alone, we’ve seen a half-dozen incidents of retaliation across the sport’s top three series. There’s been various levels of immediate retaliation and a number of “Boys, have at it” moments, reminiscent of the sport’s aggressive past they often look to market instead of mitigate.
None of them resulted in a suspension. The two biggest that just don’t fit are Noah Gragson’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Road America crash, wiping out 13 other competitors with intentional contact, and William Byron’s intentional spin of Denny Hamlin at Texas. The irony is not lost on me it’s Hamlin’s own team at 23XI paying the price when NASCAR finally decided to step up and set a new precedent over on-track retaliation.
It doesn’t change the $100,000 fine, no suspension and no points deduction (after an appeal was overturned) which gives Byron a realistic shot to win this year’s championship. But it’s also a comparison you won’t get O’Donnell to focus on.
“I know fans and people like to compare,” he said, “Well, the what ifs or what happened in the past, and for us, this was a reaction based on what took place Sunday. … What we don’t want to see going forward in races that take place from the competitors … want to draw that line and be as clear as we can for our competitors on where we stand.”
OK. So if that’s the line NASCAR is drawing in the sand, that needs to turn into cement.
It appears intentional contact, on a high-speed track, followed by a physical altercation after the race without an immediate apology is enough to get you benched. It wasn’t before. But it is now.
And if it changes again? The consequences are clear: “Lack of consistency can bring on a lack of interest.”
Bubba Wallace Suspension Coverage
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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