What’s the solution?
“The solution, I think, starts with repercussions,” Kyle Busch said this past weekend at Circuit of the Americas when asked about overaggressive racing.
Racing etiquette has been one of the names of the game in NASCAR for the past couple of years. With the emergence of the youth movement has also come an apparent new approach to racing.
In today’s racing, aggression has increased in different ways, impatience seems to have grown, and survival has become the nature of multiple races. That racecraft has soured many veterans and even some of the more polished, younger drivers.
But in order to emerge victorious, sometimes that means playing with the ball you have been given, even though it is not in some driver’s code. To be successful, you cannot roll over.
“I race everyone the way they race me,” Daniel Suarez said at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Some drivers, they show more respect than others, and some drivers are smarter than others. I’m the kind of guy that’s going to race the way I get raced.”
Racing etiquette has become an emerging storyline of 2023, but those talks started a while ago. While the topic has risen at most track types, road courses have become the prime example over the past year.
COTA, Watkins Glen International, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL have seen some questionable racing recently, with a lot of that action occurring in turn 1 at each track. Fairly respectable racing for 80%-90% of the races has turned into a complete circus in late-race scenarios.
Overtime restarts have led to drivers using each other as braking points, going six-wide in a tight turn, or causing pile-up wrecks. The typical response is usually anticipated: hot tempers and hurt feelings.
Flash back to 15 years ago. I was just seven years old, and while I have watched NASCAR as far back as I can remember, it was the 2007-2009 period that made me fall in love with the sport.
Road course racing was scarce in the NASCAR Cup Series at that time, with the routine stops at Sonoma Raceway and at the Glen being the only events in the series.
It was a fun time to watch road course racing, with ringers being brought in like Boris Said and Ron Fellows to full-time drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose. Then you had the series regulars who had a knack for road racing, such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Busch.
Racing wasn’t 100% contactless, nor was etiquette completely pure, but they certainly put on good shows without turning it into a demolition derby.
Turn 11 at Sonoma and turns 1 and 7 at Watkins Glen have always been frequent sites for spins or spectacular crashes. There was the infamous fight between Kevin Harvick and Montoya after a turn 1 spill in 2007, a massive crash in turn 7 in 2008 and constant tangles in turn 11 at Sonoma that still exist.
However, there were differences between then and now. Drivers did not use each other as the breaking pedal on late-race restarts. Just look at some classic battles we had at road courses in the mid-2000s. Montoya vs. Jamie McMurray at Sonoma in 2007, Gordon vs. Stewart that same year at The Glen, Kasey Kahne vs. Stewart at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose unable to re-fire his car at Sonoma in 2010 that gave Jimmie Johnson the win and the amazing finish between Busch, Brad Keselowski and Ambrose at The Glen in 2012.
Late-race restarts were not uncommon, drivers were not immune to overshooting corners and tempers still flared. But you did not see drivers in 30th trying to get to first in one lap, bulldozing their way through the field if that is what it was going to take.
Why was that?
There are several explanations. The Car of Tomorrow was not near as durable as the Next Gen car, so hard contact could end your race. Drivers also did not have the win-and-you’re-in playoff scenario, rather having to make the most of points to get into the Chase. They couldn’t just look at it and assume that there was always next week to win a race, so go for it now.
But maybe, just maybe, could another big factor be that drivers raced with respect? Guys like Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kahne, McMurray and a host of others raced clean for the most part. Simply put, no matter the tempers, there was respect in the garage.
Now, jump back to the present. Several drivers expressed frustration with the racing following a tumultuous event at COTA.
Kyle Larson got turned by Denny Hamlin, then Larson drove right through Ryan Blaney a few laps later. Ty Gibbs turned Ryan Preece, setting off a multi-car crash and unleashing an angry Preece. Suarez showed post-race frustration with Alex Bowman and his own teammate, Ross Chastain, who has rubbed a few drivers the wrong way recently. And that is just a short list of incidents that included several others.
It left drivers such as Hamlin, Suarez and Preece frustrated after the race.
Again, the lack of respect has not been noticed on road courses only, but it sure has been the loudest. It seems every time we leave a road course, drivers and fans are frustrated because they had rollercoaster days that ended up in smoke.
Is it the situation or the drivers? Both can be blamed.
“We completely lost any sense of respect in the garage area between drivers, at all.” Busch said last weekend at Atlanta. “There was an etiquette that once did live here. Mark [Martin] started it, I think Tony [Stewart] really lived by it, I think Jeff [Gordon] lived by it, Bobby Labonte, Rusty [Wallace] for the most part… It did exist; it’s gone.”
Busch’s past aside, he is right about many things, including drivers not taking accountability for their actions. And why should they? There are no consequences for it.
On the other hand, the situation plays a part.
Drivers have been put in a position where winning is everything, or you miss the playoffs. So when you can go six-wide in turn 1 on an overtime restart and take out a few cars in the process without much if any repercussion, why not?
NASCAR has pleased many sides by refreshing the schedule the past couple of seasons, including adding more road courses. But in a car where making sharp turns is difficult and the demolition has been prevalent late in the race, how far can you go before these races consistently prepare cars for the dumpster?
One thing is for certain: drivers are not happy and even outsiders were not impressed. Chase Elliott’s substitute Jordan Taylor called it “survival” and said drivers moved each other for a top 30. Just listen to what Hamlin had to say on his podcast.
Raise your hand if your driver was taken out.
So whether it is going to take NASCAR stepping in, drivers holding a meeting and each one following the example Ernie Irvan set in 1991, or going to limited, single-file overtimes, etiquette has changed from 15-20 years ago, and it is time to bring it back.
Respect is earned, not given.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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Hamlin has zero room to talk about respect. I think his huge ego and not the brightest person in any group of two, should make anyone take anything he says with skepticism. Heck, Hamlin goes on the internet and admits to taking a guy out on purpose and thousands hear him , but poor Denny thinks he can take it back and walk away unpunished. Don’t use Denny as a good example I would suggest.
The newer drivers have to prove themselves in a short period of time, or the next driver with money and or sponsorship dollars is there to take their place.
Aggression has become a survival tool. Respect and etiquette won’t get you longevity.
NASCAR is still trying to fix what they broke with an unworkable playoff system they forced down everyone’s throats in 2004. Add to that winning being the only thing that matters to have a shot at a championship and there’s no point in racing respectfully and conservatively. You wreck your car? Oh well, if you don’t win it doesn’t matter anyway, so come back next week and do what it takes to win again.
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. were two of the best drivers on the track last year when you add up the points, which was what measured consistency. They got little to no reward for their solid and top notch racing. No wins equals no chance. Better to just tear up equipment if you have to.
NASCAR will never do it now, but one of the necessary things to fix what has ailed this sport for 20 years is a 36-race schedule and the guy with the most points is the champ…because he saves his stuff and finishes strong every week, and not because he is fortunate enough to survive the endless pileups that happen at half of the races these days.