Chase Elliott stood NASCAR nation on its ear last week when it was revealed that he fractured his left leg in a snowboarding accident.
While accidents obviously do happen, it did ignite the age-old debate of what is expected of drivers during the season, and ultimately should NASCAR be in the business of issuing waivers for the playoffs when these types of incidents occur?
In this week’s installment of 2 Headed Monster, Vito Pugliese and Joy Tomlinson tackle the topic.
Hard Pass on the Hall Pass
With the Playoff/Chase formats of the past decade, missing races the first half of the season has a work around that simply wasn’t available in years prior.
With “win-and-you’re-in” being the name of the game, it permitted Kyle Busch the luxury of recovering for four months prior to his return in 2015. Granted, Busch was blessed with a waiver for suffering an injury during a NASCAR race – albeit a race in a lower-tier series.
Busch was also able to reel off four wins in the first five races once he returned, and despite missing the first 15 races, he found himself tied for the championship lead to start the 2015 playoffs.
Does any of this sound at all incongruent to be a crowned a season champion?
Before any KFB fans say GFY, that wasn’t an indictment of Kyle; he was simply playing by the rules and waivers issued by the sanctioning body. Chase Elliott ultimately will be as well. But is there a reason why we need to have a waiver in the first place?
Yeah, sometimes things happen, people get hurt, and you don’t win a title.
Can’t that be good enough?
I always bristle at comparisons to other sports, but that’s the path we chose when we went down the road of having a playoff to begin with. Let’s take a look at the NFL this past season.
Consider the case of Matthew Stafford, coming off a Super Bowl win a year prior, the Rams were naturally a solid pick to contend for back to back titles. Unfortunately, Stafford suffered season ending injuries, including a concussion and spinal cord contusion. Should the Rams have gotten a pass for a few games since they were essentially down their star driver?
Of course not, that’s ludicrous. So is also missing 25% of the season but still champion for 100% of it.
Before everyone gets all up in arms and readies a half-hearted retort in the comments section, this isn’t saying he should just bail on the season and not race the remainder of the year, or even suggest he won’t win any races.
I’d be shocked if Elliott didn’t win at least four races this season considering how much faster the Hendrick Chevrolets have been the first two downforce tracks the series has visited. I’m just saying getting a free pass to still contend for a championship is just watering down what championships represent.
Sure, you can make the argument that the playoff format allows anyone with a pulse and a lone win eligible does the same thing – but you have to snap the line somewhere.
Moreover, the nature of the injury also needs to be taken into account. Busch, as I mentioned, while not in a Cup race was at least in a NASCAR race the day before his accident resulted in a broken leg back in 2015.
If it was a case of negligence – say, allowing the field to race into turn 1 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the middle of rain shower – then, sure that driver may get a pass from NASCAR to continue if they were in danger of elimination or missing the playoffs due to that incident.
Bad luck, be it a concussion from hitting a wall, or tripping over the cat by the stairs, shouldn’t be the asterisk next to a championship or mentioned in parentheses in subsequent years.
Yes, this is a star-driven sport, but it’s also one that languishes far longer than even MLB does, lasting from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving. Drivers have to maintain their physical as well as mechanical well being during this time period.
And pump the brakes on the “but they’re human, they need to live their lives!” hysterics.
Absolutely, they do. That’s what the off season is for.
If Dale Earnhardt fell out of a tree stand while deer hunting the week before the season finale at Atlanta back in 1990, would Bill France, Jr. have looked the other way, delayed the race a week so he coul…okay, bad example. If Kyle Larson sails one of his 800 hp garden tractors out of some dirt track in Kansas and tweaks his shoulder, why should he get to take a couple months off while every other driver has been mitigating the risk in the series they’re supposed to be focused on? – Vito Pugliese
Injuries Can Happen Anywhere, at Any Time
Why shouldn’t NASCAR grant playoff waivers for injuries occurred off the racetrack?
I mean really, it’s granted waivers for almost anything over the years, from injuries occurred on the track to drivers getting sick and missing a race. The sanctioning body even gave one to Matt Kenseth in 2020 when he wasn’t originally scheduled to run all the races.
Chip Ganassi Racing tagged him for Larson’s former ride after Larson got suspended from NASCAR competition during the COVID-19 break.
As my colleague mentioned above, Kyle Busch won the 2015 Cup championship after he missed several races due to a broken leg and ankle.
Plus, some drivers aren’t old enough to compete on the bigger racetracks and receive waivers when they turn 18 (especially in the Craftsman Truck Series).
Already this year, Taylor Gray was granted a waiver for this reason, as he doesn’t turn 18 until March 25 and will miss the first three races of the season. There’s only 16 Truck events in the regular season, so missing three is actually a fairly large chunk of the year.
“But those instances aren’t like Elliott’s case,” you may respond. You’re right, Elliott’s injury happened outside the racetrack.
However, there is precedent to this; Tony Stewart had an all-terrain accident before the start of 2016 where he fractured his back and NASCAR awarded him a playoff waiver.
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, Elton Sawyer, mentioned this instance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this week.
He also stated: “I wouldn’t see any reason that he wouldn’t be granted a waiver, but we’ll go through that process and make sure we’re checking all the boxes.”
While it is a case-by-case basis, I don’t see why Elliott’s situation would be different from Stewart’s.
Even Kyle Petty commented on the topic on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “We praise Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson and all these guys who go out and race six nights a week in winged sprint cars and go-karts and midgets, but God forbid you can’t go snowboarding and get hurt,” Petty said. “He should get a waiver. I don’t care how you get hurt. That’s what the medical waiver is for.”
And furthermore, several Cup drivers shared their thoughts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week, including Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace. Harvick and Blaney both emphasized that you can get hurt at any time, whether it be falling over your cat or something else.
Besides, it’s not like Elliott was doing something crazy or was inexperienced; he grew up snowboarding. He once went on the slopes with Olympic Gold medalist Red Gerard in 2016.
I doubt NASCAR would want its most popular driver to not contend for another championship should he win his way into the playoffs. —Joy Tomlinson
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